Friday, March 29, 2019

THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER


Review of THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER by MELINDA SALISBURY
(first in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

Twylla is her kingdom’s executioner as well as the future queen. Her bare skin has the power to kill anyone who touches her, with the exception of the royal family thanks to their superior blood. She she is betrothed to the crown prince and, in the meantime, utilized by a vicious queen for murdering traitors, not to mention scaring everyone else into submission. Then the queen assigns Twylla a new guard, a too friendly guard with a habit for asking questions he shouldn’t.

For me, this turned out to be a trust-the-author book. By that, I mean that all of my criticisms were eventually explained to my satisfaction. Everything fits together; everything has been considered. Even what doesn’t make sense now will fall into place at the right moment. I want to avoid spoilers, so I can’t be as specific as I want, but let me list some examples. The queen seemed at times over-the-top evil to me, but later her character made perfect sense to me. Also the magic system had weak points, but the questions I asked turned out to be extremely relevant to the plot.

I really connected with the characters emotionally and felt intensely affected by their excruciating circumstances and decisions. I’m a critical reader, but I can’t wait to rave about this book, primarily because it made me feel. When you read as much as I do (and write and study the craft of writing, including how to dissect a story into structural pieces) well, it becomes harder and harder to be surprised and, more importantly, to be moved. That’s all the more reason I’m impressed when a book really gets me.

THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER, first in a series, does end on a bit of a frustrating cliffhanger, but resolves the most important threads. I am thoroughly invested and can’t wait to see where this story takes us next.

Friday, March 22, 2019

DAVID AND GOLIATH


Review of DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This author has been recommended to me plenty of times over the years, but this is my first read by him. It definitely lived up to all the hype and made me eager to read the rest of his work. The premise of DAVID AND GOLIATH lies in the namesake story: how thinking outside the box can flip the game.

For his examples, Gladwell reaches far and wide, but in so doing emphasizes how applicable his theory is to all aspects of our society. Chapter 1 focuses on youth girls’ basketball. I do not know enough about basketball to be any kind of expert here and that will be clear in my paraphrasing. Gladwell follows a specific couch who volunteered to coach his daughter’s basketball team, but really didn’t know a thing about basketball himself. He realized that his team simply wasn’t good enough to win based on skill alone. However, in his research on the sport he also realized there are other ways to play the game that could give his girls an edge, such as focusing more on stamina than skill. Again, no basketball expert here, but my understanding is that this coach’s particular approach is completely legal by the rules of the game, but considered unsportsmanlike by some. Gladwell argues that it’s really a matter of opinion. As with David and Goliath where Goliath expected a hand to hand combat only to be taken out by a rock, the girls didn’t play the game like people expected. Subverting expectations gave them a much needed advantage, but those who feel tricked by flipped standards call out the strategy as cheating.

I especially loved Chapter 2, which discussed our misperception that many factors in life are a linear graph. Take money, for example. It’s a typical fallacy that the more money you have the happier you are. Realty (and logic, in my opinion) suggests that it’s actually a bell curve. Money increases happiness until a certain point at which more money only makes happiness decrease.

I strongly related to Chapter 3 and its analysis of organic chemistry, as I know several people who have struggled with that educational requirement. Gladwell posits that the emphasis of organic chemistry comes from a perhaps outdated mindset, and instead weeds out many students who would make spectacular doctors…who maybe aren’t brilliant at organic chemistry. This same chapter also brings up the old phrase big fish in a small pond and vice versa. In this case, Gladwell applies the adage to schools. Many students believe the obvious smart decision is to attend the most prestigious university into which they’re accepted. The truth is that this may have a little fish in a big pond effect and there are times when it’s wiser to choose the smaller pond, the place where you’ll thrive and stand out the most.

This book was written several years ago, but Chapter 6’s focus on racial tension will feel especially relevant today, in particular given Gladwell’s focus on media portrayal. Then Chapter 8 addresses our ever-confused perceptions of crime and how best to take preventative measures. He mentions common statistics and debunks possibly misguided interpretations of those numbers.  

I’m only scratching the surface here, but Gladwell offers many specific examples that successfully make his case for “thinking outside the box.”

Friday, March 15, 2019

NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD


Review of NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD: A WRITER ON WRITING by MARGARET ATWOOD

This book about writing by the famous Margaret Atwood is adapted from the series of six Empson Lectures that she gave at the University of Cambridge. I will admit that the book does read like a series of lectures, at times more long-winded than necessary as though to meet a certain time obligation rather than establish a point as concisely as possible.

I often argue that writing advice and discussions breaks down into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. This book is definitely about the philosophy of writing: what it means to be a writer, in a broad sense. Each chapter (lecture) is loosely thematically organized, but all tie together as a broad analysis of this societal role. In fact my favorite quote states, “Writing…is an ordinary enough activity…Being a writer, however, seems to be a socially acknowledged role.”

Writing can be a lonely profession, tucked off in a solitary room spending hours considering human nature. Writing books are invaluable reminders that we writers aren’t alone. Many say that we are telling the same stories over and over again, but it’s the specifics that make them unique. Well, each of us writers may have a unique, specific set of life experiences, but there’s plenty of familiar trends, too. You’re special, but you’re not alone.

Friday, March 8, 2019

WHAT ALICE FORGOT


Review of WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

Last that Alice remembers she was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital where they tell her she has amnesia. Oh, and she’s apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

First, my ranty disclaimer. I am not, broadly speaking, a fan of amnesia as a plot device. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that all made use of amnesia as a twist. However, I will say that of those three I liked the amnesia element the most in WHAT ALICE FORGOT, and I can articulate why. Usually I find fictional amnesia very frustrating, because – when it’s introduced midway into a story – the reader has to wait for the character to catch back up with everything the reader already knows…and the character knew only a few pages previously. More often than not the amnesia element feels like a pause button; the story doesn’t resume with new developments until the characters remember what they should. WHAT ALICE FORGOT avoids that tired trope, because we catch up with Alice. She has amnesia from the very start of this novel and we know as much about her current life as she does.

My typical quibble with Moriarty’s novels is that she always utilizes a juicy piece of mystery bait for suspense. In this case, there’s a woman people keep mentioning to Alice and then clearly wishing they hadn’t mentioned. Alice has no idea who this woman is or why she’s so important, but comments make clear her name is associated with tragedy and drama. My issue with mystery bait is that it’s usually unnecessary. In this case, I saw no reason Alice couldn’t ask someone for more information about this woman and save us pages of wondering and speculating with her.

However, my nitpicky comments asides, I found this a heart-wrenching, powerfully affecting novel. Moriarty manages to step away from the cliché, dramatic nature of amnesia as a plot device and really made me imagine what it would feel like waking up one day only to be told I am ten years older, now married, and have kids I can’t remember. I highly empathized with Alice’s terror at suddenly being responsible for children she cannot even remember having, not to mention the agony of having her devoted partner switch from besotted to bitter overnight.

And, of course, this story features what I always adore about Moriarty’s work: great characters and interesting relationships with crackling dialogue. It’s her unique, dynamic characters that make all of her work so addictive.

Friday, March 1, 2019

THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US


Review of THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Whenever I read a book, I stick tabs on the pages with quotes I especially like. Normally, this equals 0-5 tabs per book, leaning more often towards 0. However, this book had so many tabs by the time I finished reading it, I may as well have stuck one post it note on the front that said: “almost every page” and saved some paper. By the end, I filled five typed pages full of quotes. These are mostly writing advice, but such valuable, well-articulated writing advice that I want the reminders when I’m writing and re-writing my own stories.

Some of my favorites include “Don’t mistake drama for melodrama,” “Revision is the other half of writing,” “Fictional characters differ from us mere mortals,” and prepositions are the “carbohydrates of writing.” And those are simply quotes I selected for their brevity.

I believe all writing advice can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business explains the publishing industry. Craft focuses on the actual writing, the technical mechanics. And philosophy is closer to self-help or therapy for writers, dissecting the emotional turmoils and inner demons most every writer encounters. From my experience, most (well-known, popular) writing books focus on philosophy. This can be validating in a supportive way, but not necessarily helpful on the level of improving one’s writing. Morrell delivers one of the rarer specimens focused on craft. Then she further impresses with not a little but tons of actionable suggestions and insight. Much of what I read attempting to explain craft is too vague: write well. Morrell acknowledges that it is perhaps easier to pick apart what isn’t working than to provide a formula for what works, but I think she has that the right approach. By pinpointing and then addressing problems in a story, the writer can continue to improve its quality.

Morrell provides so much clear, actionable insight that I almost feel I owe her a consulting fee much greater than the cost of this one book. Every chapter ends with a section on what she calls “deal breakers.” In other words, the most common mistakes she sees in relation to whatever aspect of writing that chapter addressed. As if that weren’t enough, she also includes several immensely helpful lists of revision questions. By answering all these questions for your current story, it’s easy to narrow in on the weak points that could use more work. I also made note of her wimps versus heroes list for assessing your protagonist as well as her advice for book openings.

THANKS is easily the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. All of us readers are capable of discussing, in vague terms, what makes a good book, but Morrell actually breaks stories down into their specific components, shows how each works, and how they fit together. She not only provides invaluable advice for assessing your own work, but she’s not stingy with that advice either. A lot of craft writing books have mostly “filler” in my opinion and boiled down perhaps a page or two of actionable suggestions. Every page of THANKS is exceptionally helpful.