Friday, February 28, 2014

Violence in Stories


Discussion Topic: Where’s the line between violence for realism versus violence for morbid, voyeuristic gratification?

The short answer is that this differentiation defies easy, simplistic measurements. As for how I decide, I use my gut. Sometimes I can put my reaction into words and other times a scene feels unnecessary, even if I can’t say why.

I usually only ever find fictional violence “necessary” when it upholds realism. Underplaying real life violence in a novel can sometimes do more harm than good, undermining the horror of real life victims. Then there’s the mentality that we shouldn’t sidestep around the grittier aspects of human nature, especially in more sweeping epics with large casts. Describing a violent scene in detail can also help bring a reader closer to the character(s). Said character is no longer an interchangeable Victim of Violence, but - if the author knows their craft - an individual whose emotions, thoughts, and actions we understand better since we utilized our empathy to imagine their traumatic experience (in other words, we get where they’re coming from as they make future decisions). Last, I admire the authors who insert violence into their work specifically not to glorify the brutality. Instead they peel away the adrenaline-pumping veil of skill and mystery and instead represent violence as something, well, not sexy in the least.

Moving on to when violence feels unnecessary to me, let’s start with glorifying bloodshed and merciless ferocity. I often find myself internally lecturing an author when killing or hurting people is represented as heroic, or rape as validation of a woman’s desirability. Violence also feels gratuitous when it’s described in excessive detail. In fact, violence and sex both emphasize how much skill writing takes. You could ask dozens of writers to portray the exact same murder or sex scene and each would version would feel utterly unique based on the author’s word choice and explicitness. Take cozy murder mysteries. While that label sounds like an oxymoron in itself, most of those books avoid vivid, gruesome descriptions of the murder and the victim. Sometimes detail can help serve the realism cause, but other times it feels unwarranted, like the author’s trying to titillate the reader with blood and guts and perversion. I also dislike when a violent scene feels too much like a plot twist. As I’ve mentioned time and again in my reviews, I believe that good writing makes you forget about the author. You don’t think about why the writer choose to make A or B happen, because the story seems to exist on its own. It feels like a disservice to real life victims when violence is used as an easy Increase Suspense Button. Last, fictional violence feels wrong when, well, it feels wrong. Though I’m perhaps an overly analytical person, I go with my gut reactions on this particular discussion topic and if a violent scene feels...icky (and I mean icky in how it represents violence not icky because violence is icky) then I trust that response even when an exact explanation alludes me. 

As for some examples, the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series by George R.R. Martin jumps to mind in any conversation about violence in fiction! Taste-wise, for me it’s too much. Focusing on serving a purpose, though, Martin himself has quoted realism. Wars are not pleasant affairs. (My mental Understatement Alarm is going off.) So many novels, especially in the fantasy genre, portray wars as some inspirational dash for glory, but Martin’s works showcase the more likely interpretation of each individual looking out for their own: themselves, their family and friends, their possessions and interests, etc.And have I mentioned that his works are set in medieval times? Far less accountability, for one thing, meaning wars become a kind of violence free-for-all.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, about a young spy captured by the Gestapo during World War II, depicts horrendous torture with minimal description. Wein has so carefully chosen her words that readers will likely paint scenes in accordance with their own understanding. (Think of kids’ movies with surprisingly dirty jokes. Adults catch the jokes due to their understanding of sex, but the insinuation slips past children with more innocent outlooks.) Also Wein keeps any violence rooted in emotion. If someone’s being tortured, I thought about the character’s torn desires: not betraying anyone and making the pain stop. If someone’s injured, I thought about all the family members and friends praying for that character to come home safely.

Holly Black’s book THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN still stands out in my mind as the first ever vampire book I enjoyed, due in large part to the fact that she doesn’t romanticize vampires’ bloodthirsty urges. Blood becomes a focal point of sexual arousal in numerous vampire stories, often described with sensual word selection that makes even murder seem like a kind of seduction. In fact, blood has sexy connotations in many contexts...but certainly not in Black’s description of a vampire tearing veins from someone’s wrist and arm.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Bishop, always writes worlds steeped in ghastly sadism. Dark isn’t a selling point for me, but her kind of dark I love. It’s a different kind of fantasy, because the villains always get theirs in the end. It’s almost therapeutic after reading stories in the newspaper about criminals going unpunished to settle in with a book where anyone who commits horrible acts will meet a horrible fate. Funny because I say I like violence for realism but this isn’t realistic; sometimes attackers face no repercussions for their actions. Also, while I might like it in a story, in real life I wouldn’t promote this kind of a hand for a hand punishment found in THE BLACK JEWELS series. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes comforting imagining a world like Bishop’s, where Karma is the ultimate vigilante who tracks down every single villain.

I don’t want to call out books that alienated me in their representation of violence. I review the ones I like and don’t mention the ones I don’t, because I would rather spend my energy promoting books I love than bashing books I hate. However, titles and character names omitted, I’ll mention some cases when violence in a book felt unnecessary to me. I have three fictional rape examples that always jump to the forefront of my mind when discussing this topic. First, I’ve never forgiven a book where the woman’s past rape felt thrown in to give her character more depth...but then left unaddressed. The woman appeared to have zero emotional scars from her rape; it was jut something that had happened to her. Second, I’ve read a handful of books in which the villain desperately wanting to rape the heroine serves of evidence of her beauty and desirability. There are entire blogs dedicated to discussing rape in more depth, but I’ll just say here: It’s not about attraction. It’s about power. Third, I recently read a book that I wanted to throw against a wall because the whole unfocused story built up to a random sickening rape scene that felt entirely needless. My best guess behind the author’s motivation is that she asked herself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen next?” If it had been a book “about” rape it might have worked. As I’ve mentioned, skilled writers prove that it’s not the subject matter but how you tell the story that counts. This rape felt like it nothing to do with the story but like the author pushed that Increase Suspense Button that spews out arbitrary atrocities. As for non-rape violence, I’ve read more books than I can count where the author describes vicious murders to highlight the pure evil nature of the villain. This feels like a shortcut. I prefer layered characters. The villain shouldn’t think he’s a villain. Describing grisly, twisted actions without considering the motivations behind those actions feels like a cheap way to encourage readers to side against the antagonist.

The fact remains that this isn't a measurable factor. I read violent books that impress me and violent books that repel me. Sometimes I can easily express why the violence felt pointless and other times I can only reference my gut. I’ll end on a reiteration that it’s not the subject matter but the way the writer tells the story.

Monday, February 24, 2014

ASTRID AMARA

 
Interview with ASTRID AMARA

Astrid Amara lives in Bellingham, Washington, and when she isn't writing, she's either riding horses, sleeping, or working as a civil servant. She is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for her novel THE ARCHER’S HEART, as well as the author of numerous other titles including HALF PASS, the HOLIDAYS WITH THE BELLSKI’S series and the shared world anthology IRREGULARS. Her newest novel, THE DEVIL LANCER, will be released this fall by Blind Eye Books. More information at www.astridamara.com.

What are you reading right now?

VICIOUS by Victoria Schwab - enemy superhero story. 

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I've always written since I was a kid. I had a story called "Tattle Tale Terry Always Tells Tales" published by the University of Washington back when I was in first grade or something, so I decided early on I wanted to spend my life writing.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love being inside the head of my characters, imagining their reactions to their situations, visualizing the scenes. I hate the agony of explanatory chapters - the "getting to know you" chapters or backstory, for the most part. I love writing the action scenes, sex scenes, melodrama, but writing the more subtle interactions of characters is much harder for me.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Generally I start mulling over an idea or theme I want to explore, like an illness, or a magical ability, or a setting. Right now I'm trying to come up with a story with a guy getting shanghaied onto a space vessel. Once I have the idea then I start working on developing two characters that are interesting and hopefully a little different than any of the other ones I've written. I like to also come up with an overarching theme of some sort: family acceptance, redemption, etc. And then I start to plot it out. I have a very supportive writer's group that helps me brainstorm the overall plot arc. Once that's done I make an outline - very detailed for some stories, just bullet points for others. I then write chronologically, but also occasionally skip around and write those scenes I can't wait to write first, especially when I'm dragging my feet.

What are your passions?

Horses! 
Dogs!
Goats!
Chocolate!
Dairy products!
Cute evil!
Languages!
Sleeping!

What inspires you?

Ooh that's a big one and hard to answer. Animals really are a big part of my life and always inspire me - that they can look past abuse and still come to love a person wholly, that they have so much forgiveness built within them, so much tolerance...I wish I could be half as noble as most of the dogs I know. 

Story-wise, I love plot lines that explore battles of conscience or unintentionally becoming a monster, demon, or bad guy (Yes, I couldn't wait to go see the new Robocop, because that's my favorite story arc...man destroyed, brought back as something terrible).

Why fantasy?

Fantasy allows you to tackle subtle human issues in big, explosive, melodramatic ways. Instead of saying, my heart is on fire because I'm so alone, you can have a person whose actual heart is on fire. I love that.

Why romance?

I never thought I was the romance type. But then I realized every story I read I was waiting for the two main characters to get together, or cherishing every moment they interacted, and that was really the highlight for me. Besides which, a good plot can make your mind whir and your pulse race, but a good romance also makes your heart clench and brings little *meep* tears out of you...

How was “No Life But This” born?

When Nicole Kimberling first brought the idea of doing a shared-world anthology at Blind Eye Books up with me, she explained that she would be writing a story as would Josh Lanyon and Ginn Hale, and I got really excited about it. I started thinking about what world I wanted to make up, and it seemed like the perfect time to follow up on an old interest in Aztec culture. A long time ago I wrote a short story about some Aztec gods and the culture was so unique and visual and visceral I fell in love with it. So I then set about spending the next few months reading everything I could on the Aztec and Maya religious worlds. I took copious notes of elements I thought were so cool they had to be incorporated into a story (calendars, magic pens, blood sacrifices, serpents with one head in this world, the other in another, little spy birds, etc).

Then as a theme I decided I wanted to explore the feelings of culture shock and how sometimes we yearn for things that are bad for us, just because they are what we know. Deven came out of this. Silas August was my attempt at a severely damaged individual who keeps it together through rudeness and efficiency, all hiding the fact that he has seen some messed up sh*t in his life and will never get over it.

What was it like writing a story for a shared world anthology?

SO FUN. As much as it seems strange to say it, I love limitations - I feel like my most creative moments are when restrictions are put on my writing, and the shared world requires we all play ball to the same rules. That said, we were given a lot of freedom at first - all basically starting our own stories individually and then working afterward to tie them all together.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I feel like so many people get hung up on the whole "being an author" thing and reading advice and promoting and designing their catch phrases and branding...but really what it all comes down to is: write a story you want to read. Forget everything else. If you could read the most epic, wonderful, heart-shattering, perfect tale for yourself right now, what would that look like? Start there, and forget everything else. And then force yourself to write to a schedule. The hardest part is just doing it. Even I, who's been working on a novel continuously since I was 23, will do practically anything to get out of writing. You know its bad when I decide to do laundry or clean the house instead!

Then, when you have written something, don't get hung up on every word. Know that if it goes to an editor, things are going to change, sometimes drastically. That's okay. It's usually for the better. If you go into the editing process resentful or believing every word you penned is golden, you will be upset by the process and end up with a worse story at the end. Editing is your friend because you are too close to your work to take a scalpel to it.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I feel bad that I suck so hard at self-promotion and all the social aspects of being an author, but it comes from good intentions - I love to write more than I love being a writer. When I'm not on Facebook, or blogging, or even participating in chats, it's because I'm truly working on the next novel./span>

And also I fell in a manhole once. That's worth something, isn't it?

Friday, February 21, 2014

WHEN PARENTS TEXT


Review of WHEN PARENTS TEXT by LAUREN KAELIN and SOPHIA FRAIOLI

Authors Kaelin and Fraioli originally established this project as a website after laughing over some humorous texts from their own parents. Then the book came about after the website took off (and it’s no surprise to my faithful readers that I discovered the book first).

The texts are divided into (somewhat arbitrary) categories and presented with a simple, unobtrusive layout. Since this isn’t a novel, I can mostly only say, “It’s funny. Read it.” but I do want to mention some of my favorites.

The first section, “The Origin Story” showcases some of the earliest texts from the website, including accidentally replacing the word “referral” with “reefer.” Next comes “nOObs” and the general misuse of quick texts probably entertains me the most there. “Master Class” involves a lot of parents creating their own inventive emoticons. Then there’s an entire section with parental texts about their other technological woes (mostly sharing their unusual passwords or demanding help with Facebook). There’s also an entire chapter on “Harry Potter.”

For some more specific examples:

DAD: Put a new light in the camel so your friends would stop making fun of the nativity set on the lawn.
- from “Occasions”

ME: Happy bday old man
DAD: This came to me by error. Sorry, no old men here
- from “Happy Birthday!”

ME: Whats for dinner
DAD: sandwiches
(five minutes later)
DAD: who is this?
- from “Mealtimes”

MOM: You will add the dog as your facebook friend RIGHT NOW!!
ME: mom he’s a dog...
MOM: He is FAMILY, add him or you are grounded!!!!
- from “Pets”

There’s also the dad texting his kid wondering where the iTunes store is located, one reminding his child that cool kids play water pong, and numerous moms with various incorrect interpretations of LOL.

WHEN PARENTS TEXT was one my earlier humor section reads, but still remains one of my favorites. I follow the website now, but nevertheless hope they publish another book.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Art of Reading: Music vs. Quiet


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: reading with music on in the background. Any preferences about what kind of music you want on while you’re reading? Or do you prefer quiet?

I prefer quiet. Part of the wonder of a good book for me, whether fiction or nonfiction, is how the real world fades away until there’s only me and these words. Reading is (no surprise) a favorite form of relaxation for me, but sometimes I think it even circles close to meditation. While in meditation the goal is usually to think of absolute nothing, reading still requires focused attention: think only of this book. As someone whose brain often runs the risk of overheating due to overthinking, I’m sure the mindfulness element of reading is a huge reason why I’m such a book addict.

If there is music on, I vote for no lyrics; otherwise I struggle focusing on reading sentences while listening to entirely different words at the same time. Talking about specific music genres, I always choose classical or Celtic songs, since I don’t find those too distracting...but I repeat: I prefer quiet!

How about you? Do you care one way or the other whether or not there’s music on while you’re reading? Does it depend what type of music?

Friday, February 14, 2014

TO FETCH A THIEF


Review of TO FETCH A THIEF by SPENCER QUINN
(third in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

This engaging mystery series starring a dog narrator wins me over a little more with each new book. Many of my comments in reviews of the first two books naturally apply for this third installment as well. For starters, these novels are even faster reads than their slim 300 pages look, due to formatting and lots of blunt dialogue exchanges (equally pages with many 1-3 word lines). Chet’s as lovable and appealing as ever with comical dog priorities and a short attention span that leads to both countless tangents and the focus frequently veering off from the actual case. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, I don’t recommend reading any farther in this review.

In TO FETCH A THIEF, Bernie takes his son Charlie to the circus, but the venue has closed due to a missing elephant and her trainer. Of course, it’s not long before private investigator Bernie (and his dog Chet) are on the case and dependably challenging everyone’s theories. That’s this book’s conflict, but Quinn has been spinning some overarching plot threads. Book one introduced the reporter Susie when she interviewed Bernie about his private detective agency. Throughout the past three books they’ve had a building romantic tension that never takes off from the ground. A little frustrating, because Susie seems like a perfect fit Bernie...except Bernie’s a typical, closed-off alpha male who does feel but can’t effectively communicate his feelings, which means he and Susie keep mixing up each other’s signals. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed that they find a mutual rhythm soon. In terms of predictions, for the first two books I felt 100% sure that Bernie and Susie will eventually wind up together, but TO FETCH A THIEF introduces a very, very mild - but nevertheless there - resurgence of affection between Bernie and his ex-wife Leda. Speaking of Leda, book two started an overarching conflict involving her. Bernie often finds himself taking “is my spouse cheating on me” cases to pay his bills and in THEREBY HANGS A TAIL he discovered one client’s wife was not only cheating on her husband...but cheating with Leda’s current boyfriend. Being the strong, silent type, it’s no big surprise that Bernie keeps this secret to himself, but now that information feels like a ticking bomb.

For the most part, I find the dog perspective wonderful. I always love seeing familiar elements from a fresh perspective. (It’s why I love reading retellings of the same fairy tales; I like discovering the new spin.) For example, Chet comments that humans always talk about night “falling,” but to him it seems like night rises from the ground with the sky last to go black. The only times the dog perspective works less well is when I catch glimpses of the human viewpoint “behind the curtain.” Let me present a few examples. First, all three books I’ve read so far contain a couple of remarks here and there about how men and women differ from a dog’s perspective...but I don’t agree with these supposedly factual, impartial observations that sound more like they’re coming from the male author than a dog. Second, Chet repeatedly mentions in each book that he loves the smell of cigarettes. I have no idea from personal experience how dogs experience smell, but I’ve never read anything in all my dog behavior research that suggests they would like cigarette smoke, so I’m at least curious where this character trait comes from: the author liking cigarettes, the author reading research that I haven’t, the author knowing a dog who reacts strongly to cigarette smoke, a purely invented fictional quirk - who knows. Third, Chet claims he can see the color red despite what humans think. The “despite” part suggests that Quinn knows research suggests differently. (Most recent findings say dogs do not see in only black and white as many think, but they do see a much more limited spectrum of color than humans that does not include red.) Again, this discrepancy mostly makes me curious behind Quinn’s choice to let Chet see red.

Quinn has, I’m sure based on his books as evidence, heard the writer advice: “leave out the boring bits.” The story jumps from one exciting event to another and maintains this fast pace with only Chet’s digressions serving as brief intermissions between verbal and physical confrontations of all types. I particularly love Chet’s digressions. He doesn’t pay that much attention and often misses important details or discovers an important detail and promptly forgets it. In some ways, this sounds silly and counterintuitive in a detective story but it works and, in fact, feels refreshing compared to more formulaic mystery plots.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Art of Reading: Inside vs. Outside


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: reading indoors versus reading outside. Do you prefer one over the other?

I’m primarily an indoor reader...but I’m living in Washington right now and (shocking reveal) weather plays a big role in this decision! Rain, snow, storms - they all increase the appeal of curling up in a warm home with a good book. Clear skies, moderate temperature - now reading in a park suddenly makes much more sense!

Of course, this question kind of becomes moot when we’re talking about truly addicted readers. I’ve read a book while walking across a street on the way to campus when ice coated the ground and the snow had begun to pick up again. The best books don’t wait for nitpicky atmosphere decisions; they must be read and they must be read now.

But if I can take a moment to be nitpicky, I usually avoid reading in any kind of wet weather that might damage pages or in wind strong enough that you have to keep fighting your book to stay on the right page. While sun is often a mark in favor of reading outside, my British-born pale, pale skin burns easily, so I won’t settle in to read in strong sunlight without scoping out some nearby shady spots first. And I always need to be comfortable. Reading on the grass works great...as long as said grass isn’t wet. Reading on benches, check...but there better not be a suspicious stain and I’ve come to hate artistically designed benches that feel unwelcoming as you shift around for a cozy position.

Aside from weather factors, though, there’s where you lie on the homebody scale as well as countless more circumstantial factors. I consider myself fairly introverted and a definite homebody who feels most comfortable in my own space. I’m far more likely to read outside when it’s in my own backyard or a park so nearby that feels like an extension of home. As for circumstantial factors, your schedule and where you live are two examples. If you work during the daytime, reading outside when you come home past sunset doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Or if you have only 15 minutes to spare for reading, you’ll most likely pull out your novel wherever you are rather than obsessing about where to go (or stay) first. As for where you live, if you don’t have a front or backyard and your neighborhood is lacking in parks and benches you probably find yourself reading inside more than people with convenient, favorite outdoor reading spots.

What about you? Where do you tend to read? Where do you prefer to read? Are your answers to those two questions different? Why?

Friday, February 7, 2014

EMPIRE OF IVORY


Review of EMPIRE OF IVORY by NAOMI NOVIK
(fourth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I enjoyed the very first book in this series and my opinion has only improved with each new installment, rising from like to love and now adoration.

Novik does an admirable job mixing up the conflicts in her alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars. While earlier books focused more on battles and action, EMPIRE OF IVORY’s major conflict revolves around a sudden, inexplicable dragon epidemic.  (Oh, there are still battles and action, too, don’t you worry.) There’s no known cure, the disease is both spreading and claiming dragon lives fast, and it’s vital Napolean not discover this handicap.

Temeraire may very well be the most lovable, endearing, and well-mannered dragon in literature history. I also adore, as I repeat in every review of a book in this series, the relationship between the dragon Temeraire and his human handler Laurence. In terms of loyalty, it rivals many marriages. They’re wholly committed to each other for life and will thoughtfully listen and consider each other’s differing opinions or even take on causes primarily for the sake of the other.

Novik’s been spinning a longer, overarching plot thread about dragon rights and that conversation continues in here…still without much concrete progress, I’m afraid. Though dragon treatment certainly isn’t as bad, Temeraire sympathizes with slaves for being perceived and treated as lesser beings. Needless to say, political themes emerge. I couldn’t help nodding along grimly when Laurence’s father, a resolved and active abolitionist, acknowledges that values won’t win people to their cause. Instead they need to flaunt titles of those on their side and throw more lavish parties than the people who support slavery. Wish I could call that political attitude unrealistic.

This book ends on a particular note of peril that has me especially eager for the fifth installment. Temeraire and Laurence now have prominent places in this reader’s heart!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Relative Hype


Have you ever read a book that didn’t live up to your expectations? Or exceeded them? Sure, you have. If you’ve read a book and especially if you read lots of books, you’ve read some that either fell short of or vastly outreached your predicted enjoyment.

While many factors contribute to expected investment (history of liking this particular author, impressions from the cover or description), today I’m focusing on word-of-mouth; in other words, what you’ve heard about the book from other people pre-reading; in other words, hype. Perhaps more than any other factor, what we hear about a book very much affects our own perception.

Obviously, many of our reading decisions rely on hype, but I’m not talking about how word-of-mouth (whether positive or negative) affects your decision to read a book but how it affects your interpretation of the book once you actually do read it. As a reviewer, it’s no surprise that I analyze why I feel the way I do about a story. If I think a character didn’t feel real, that reaction isn’t enough; I want to dig deeper for what felt off about them. So hype is one of many factors I keep in mind when a book rates either much better or much worse than I anticipated.

Most avid readers have encountered overhype: when someone tells you a book is absolutely positively the most incredibly amazing and life-changing story you will ever read in your entire lifetime. Huh, that’s a lot to live up to, unsuspecting book. In fact, I’m much less likely to enjoy a story that’s been sold to me with such inflated worship. I find myself on alert for signs of “what’s so great” and less able to simply read the story without my reviewer brain clicking away. For that matter, my reviewer brain already feels set to a higher criticism level. Everything I heard has raised the bar of my expectations for this book and it better reach that bar. So it’s no big surprise that most often when people gush over books to this extreme degree, I don’t enjoy them as much as I might have. The extremely popular A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series by George R.R. Martin jumps to mind. Don’t get me wrong: I love those books…but I wouldn’t say I adore those books and numerous people told me they are the best thing I will ever read. Of course, judgments like that come down to taste. That series has too much gore and rape than my stomach can handle and while they’re engrossing stories I never fully invest in the characters. (Probably in large part due to countless warnings that many of them die. This definitely falls in the hype affecting perception discussion. All those warnings might have discouraged me from letting any characters into my heart too much.) Another example of overhype in my experience would be SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman. On my scale of book enjoyment, I liked it, but it didn’t earn love or adoration labels despite all the claims of its brilliance. I found the story good, but not remarkable.

The reverse also happens, though less often: when someone tells you a book is the worst thing in the world, whether boring, offensive, predictable, or terribly written. Whenever I hear a lot of negative about a book…well, first of all I’m not likely to read it. However, if I do read that book I suspect I’m actually more forgiving; I’ve set my reviewer brain to a lower criticism level. I’m sure a great part of this tendency comes from being a writer myself. I understand that criticism is part of any process where you present your work for evaluation, but I also know how much work goes into a book. I try to be gentle and tactful in phrasing the negatives in my reviews (though still honest) and this is even more true when I see a book being, as I can’t help seeing it, picked on. It’s not common for books to be bashed to the extreme I’m describing, at least not without equal or heartier portions of praise attracting all that attention, but I do have milder examples of books being better than people made them sound. I’ve heard Eva Ibbotson’s young adult works trashed for their Mary Sue, perfect, and adored-by-all heroines. When I started reading her works, though, I wanted to defend them from such accusations. To a degree, said accusations are true, but seriously flawed heroines aren’t what make those books great and they are, in my opinion, great reads. They’re sweet and satisfying happily-ever-after historical romances starring smart, determined, considerate young women who always try to do the right thing and frequently put others before themselves. As with anything, these books aren’t for everyone, especially readers who specifically want notably flawed protagonists and grittier tales with more shades of grey regarding right and wrong, good and evil. I feel similarly about LIAR by Justine Larbalestier - wanting to put the major criticisms I hear down to taste. LIAR stars an unreliable narrator: the story continually changes as she admits lies…or tells us new ones depending on your interpretation. There’s no “and here’s the real story” at the end. It’s up to the reader to believe whatever they want. Needless to say, this drives some people crazy. I, too, closed the book with many lingering questions, but I think that’s the whole point of an unreliable narrator!

Of course, it’s always a pleasant discovery when books do live up to all the hype surrounding them. I didn’t think SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson could possibly be worthy of all the admiration I’ve heard, but it is. Same with A GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson. And honestly that one had me with the very first scene: because the story begins where most traditional tales end - marriage to a charming prince.

As I mentioned, the main reason I fixate on how hype affects my perception of a book is because I’m a reviewer. I always try to keep relative hype in mind when considering my reaction to a book and writing my final review. This is also why, both as a reviewer and a reader, I like to know as little about a book as possible before reading it. I love getting advance copies of books before they’re even published not so much for the exclusive “I have it and you don’t” brag factor but what that further implies: I have it and you can’t tell me anything about it yet. Once I decide I’m going to read a book I shut out as much feedback as possible: I don’t read reviews, I avoid conversations about it, and I even ignore any blurbs on the back or inside cover if I haven’t read them already. I know I want to read that book…and that’s all I need to know.