Friday, June 29, 2018

The Art of Reading: Short vs. Long Books


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: short vs. long books. Do you have a preference?

Most of us will read and enjoy anything good, and I certainly believe the best story is told in exactly as many words as it needs, no more nor less. That disclaimer aside, we still have natural draws towards slim or thick books before we commit to reading it. Obviously, a huge tome is a bigger time investment, which makes you more wary about starting it if you’re not convinced it will be worth the effort. On the other hand, slim books can give the impression of less content = less value. Anyone who buys into the less is more philosophy knows that’s far from true, but still people balk at unexpectedly lean books.

Because I read so much, it probably makes even less difference to me whether I’m reading something short or long than it does to someone who reads a few books a year. I figure in terms of word and page count it all evens out in the end. However, I will confess that if I’m getting behind in reviews for my blog, I look at my to-read stacks and wonder if I should be plucking out a shorter and, therefore, faster reads rather than a 1,000+ page tome that will takes me weeks to months to finish.

Two short books I loved are I DON’T KNOW and BOY MEETS BOY. I DON’T KNOW is about our possibly harmful discomfort with simply admitting lack of knowledge or understanding. I DON’T KNOW may not be the best example for this post, though, as I do recall believing the short book felt more like an introduction to a topic begging for more pages. BOY MEETS BOY, on the other hand, is a beauty of a novel, a slim book told with exactly as few words needed to form a heartwarming tale about adolescent love.

Two long books I loved are INKHEART and SHOGUN. INKHEART is a middle grade, or possibly young adult depending on who you ask, fantasy. While fantasies tend to be longer than other fiction, INKHEART is still noticeably longer than other books on either the middle reader of YA shelves. The author created a complex world and follows several different characters with alternating POVs, making every page count, and with fairly short chapters the long book still reads faster than expected. As for SHOGUN, well, that classic makes INKHEART look short. Nevertheless, I remember eagerly racing my way through page after page of this gripping story about a fictional foreigner’s experience in feudal Japan.

Do you ever read books that you feel should be shorter or longer? I experience more of the former than the latter: when I read a great story but feel the author dragged it out and could have told the same, compelling story with a significantly reduced word count. An example is SHANTARAM. I enjoyed the book, but often felt it could be told in half or even a third as many pages.

I would also be particularly interested to hear from anyone who genuinely does prefer either short or long books. I feel there’s a stigma about admitting you don’t want to read a book because it looks long, but having worked in a bookstore for years I can tell you the sales prove it’s true!
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Friday, June 22, 2018

ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR


Review of ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by CLIVE BARKER
(second in the ABARAT series)

I again highly recommend that anyone interested in this series purchase the illustrated versions. While I appreciate the writing and the story elements on their own merits, too, having the prose and complex, bizarre illustrations paired together is, in my opinion, an entirely superior experience.

Speaking of bizarre, I will again make mention that this is a weird series. Weird can be good or bad and mostly depends on the individual’s taste, but for me this book represents the best kind of weird: a mysterious, complex, surprising, imaginary world that feels as much a dream as a story. I feel as though the Sea of Izabella wrapped around me, too, and pulled me into the magical world of Abarat along with Candy.

This is very much a middle book, though I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. There’s a lot of wandering and meandering and tangential adventures, sometimes with what feel like placeholder goals. I found every page engaging, but I knew we’re leading towards something bigger, a higher stakes conflict simmering beneath the lesser battles.

Barker wrote a “good” villain, by my standards, and by good I mean complex. I find “pure evil” villains boring. Carrion certainly has an evil streak, but there’s also interesting layers and backstory there that unfolds even more in this second book.

The short chapters switch between various points of view and with constant conflict of some variation or other, this chunky book reads faster than you may expect. The first two books were re-reads for me, so I look forward to reading the rest of the series fresh and finally learning how this dreamlike story concludes.

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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