Monday, April 22, 2013

My Soapbox

Many thanks to Sarah for this link:

30 Things to Tell a Book Snob

I had a great conversation with someone in the writing world recently about how literary writers talk about the demise of the reader, but a) it doesn't exactly exist, and b) to the extent that it does, that's because so many literary writers consider their audience to be other writers.  The reader is a different person than a writer, and when the writer forgets that--when s/he writes for him/herself and his/her MFA classmates--then yes, their audience does get smaller.  Go figure.

But this article goes way beyond my usual lit fic bashing and genre defense.  It's not just about types of writing--it's full of good tidbits.  And I don't know who Martin Amis is, but I hate him already!

(Brenda, don't let the Beatles and Shakespeare references defeat the point.  They are actually very good entertainers!)
Editing, because this is TOO good not to share, and thanks again to Sarah.  The Wikipedia entry on Martin Amis begins:

Amis's raw material is what he sees as the absurdity of the postmodern condition and the excesses of late-capitalist Western society with its grotesque caricatures. He has thus been portrayed as the undisputed master of what the New York Times called "the new unpleasantness".[4] Influenced by Saul BellowVladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce, as well as by his father, Kingsley Amis, he has inspired a generation of writers with his distinctive style, including Will Self and Zadie SmithThe Guardian writes that his critics have noted what Kingsley Amis called a "terrible compulsive vividness in his style...that constant demonstrating of his command of English," and that the "Amis-ness of Amis will be recognisable in any piece before he reaches his first full stop.
Right!?  I'm going to start a magazine called The New Unpleasantness.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Structural Integrity

Another book from Netgalley--One Step Too Far, by Tina Seskis.  If this book was a house, you would be sitting in your well-appointed living room enjoying a glass of white wine and listening to Mozart when you feel something weird and shaky happen, and you realize that the whole house has shifted a foot to the left.  You call the contractor and he's like, seriously, dude, you have to move out--the foundation is a COMPLETE MESS.

Because this book has some lovely writing and some incredibly cool scenes about how you leave your life and everything you've ever known behind, but there are some serious structural flaws that get worse and worse over the course of the book till it falls completely apart in the epilogue.  At the beginning, I was intrigued.  Emily Coleman is on a train, speeding away from her husband and her house and her life and everything she's ever known to start a new life, because of something horrible and unnamed.  The story proceeds in the presence as she finds herself in a new city with no plan, no friends, just a relatively small stash of money, while flashbacks in parallel tell about Emily's childhood, her marriage, her family, until the two stories converge at the end.

I suspected pretty early that I had guessed what the big reveal would be; I ended up being wrong.  That's good. But I think it wasn't actually as impressive as it needed to me--the tone was, I think, a bit of an issue here.  Or maybe tone isn't the right word, but intensity?  People's emotional reactions and the narrator's sense of intensity did not always match the objective circumstances as I perceived them.  In some places, there's clear "I just have a lot going on!" going on, and you can see it as being appropriately inappropriate, but in others, it just reads wrong.

I'm not sure if this is actually a Writing Error or more of my pet peeve, but if you aren't Virginia Woolf, don't change third person limited viewpoint characters in the middle of a paragraph.  If we know what Bill is thinking (he's so surprised he can't think of anything to say), don't tell me what Jane thinks of his reaction (she's surprised by his silence).  This is either a super-basic error or an attempt at super-advanced writing; if we can't tell, it didn't work out.

Also, if you're telling the current story in the first person present tense and then flashing back to the character's past in the third person, it's okay to interpose some chapters from the point of view of her family, sure.  You get a better picture of her life this way.  It is not okay to do very, very occasional flashbacks into the history of a secondary character.  This will imply that this character's past will tie together with your main character's past in some way, rather than just that you made up a really cool back story for the roommate and couldn't bear to cut it out of the book.

I feel so whiny, I'm going to stop.  The problem is that I liked the beginning so much, I'm kind of heartbroken that the end turned out to be not just a letdown but an actual mess.  (Also, what's up with Caroline?  How random is pretty much everything about her?)

God, I suck at ARCs.  I feel like I should apologize to Tina Seskis, who clearly had some great ideas and some great chunks of book but was trying to write something much more ambitious and ended up trimming it in a lot of awkward places.  Watching Emily turn herself into Cat--Emily, who is like me into Cat who is someone I'm kind of afraid of (and for)--is a really wonderful story.  It's the coming back to Emily that is messy.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's Love Got to Do with It?

I think I capitalized that right; I really hate the headline capitalization rules, since I find they frequently look wrong when they're right and vice versa.

I am not a frequent reader of romances, but I'm not in any way opposed to them.  As with any section of the bookstore, there's a lot of chaff in with the wheat, and I don't have the kind of context or network I need to find the good stuff easily.  Interesting characters, a compelling story, clever dialog--I have some favorite romances.  So when I see an interesting recommendation or a good premise outlined in a Netgalley blurb, I'll jump on it.

The Spinster's Secret, by Emily Larkin, had the latter going for it.  Mattie is a spinster living in her uncle's dreary house.  To earn money and her freedom, she writes salacious novels under the pen name Cherie.  When her uncle commissions her late cousin's friend to find out who's been writing the dirty books and run them out of town, Mattie is torn between her career and her heart.

Sort of.  I mean, that's not a very good description I'm giving there--she's not very torn at all.  No one is here--there's really nothing keeping the hero and heroine apart.  Which is fine, I think--the big strength of this book is that it's a very nice, pleasant story of two people meeting and becoming friends.  I like them both very much, and they're pitted against the cartoonishly miserly and uptight uncle, which makes them positively heroic.

Isn't that cover awful, by the way?  Okay, so a big point of the story is that they're neither of them very attractive people.  She's six feet tall and muscular--normal-pretty, but mocked for her proportions.  They spend a lot of time talking about her deep bosom and wide hips--and also how shapeless and ugly her clothes are (not that the descriptions are any more pleasing when she's out of them).  He's a huge man who has been terribly scarred in battle--scarred face, limp, lost part of a hand and an ear.  Does the cover above reflect this?  Aside from his being pale in an unhealthy way, I don't think those people fit the description.

So I really liked the first half of this book, in a meandering, story of a relationship kind of way.  Then you get to the love scenes, and ugh.  It's just dry.  I mean, I don't get worked up by romance sex at the best of times, but at least I like to get the impression that the characters are.  These people are dutiful and plodding to the end.  They enjoy having sex with each other--and that description right there is about as exciting as it gets.  The sex scenes in the book-within-the-book are almost better, and they're cleaned up.

I would have given this book four stars at the halfway point, but it comes in at three in the end.  I don't require hot-and-bothered, but warm-and-energetic, at least, please.

Monday, April 15, 2013


I was reading this post at Jenny's Books about a Netgalley themed anxiety dream and I felt that it encapsulated a problem I've had for a few weeks now, which is duty reading.  Specifically, I have no self control when it comes to browsing, especially when there's no money involved.  This is why I never come home from the library with fewer then five books (frequently more like 15), and why I have way too many advanced reader's copies to finish in any kind of reasonable amount of time.

And the worst part is, some of them are only mildly interesting to me.  I mean, there are so many books I want to be reading RIGHT NOW, and most of the ARCs I have from Netgalley look interesting, but are things I've never heard of, by authors I've never heard of. 

Can you believe I haven't read Black Powder War yet?  I mean, how did I not race through all the Temeraire books already?  Well, it's because I haven't come anywhere near reading all the Miles Vorkosigan books yet, either.  But I can't start those, because now I'm really excited to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I was so excited about when I got it for Christmas.

In the past couple of years, I've gotten really good at putting down a book that's not doing anything for me in the first few chapters.  Life is getting shorter, the list is getting longer, we've got to keep this thing moving.  But I have way more trouble doing that with Netgalley titles.  I need to get my reviewed percentage up, just so I don't feel like I'm stealing.  I think I need to shoot for 30%.  Right now I'm at something abysmal like 15%.  Maybe even worse.

I've been thinking I should post some Amazon reviews, too.  My blog posts don't translate very well to actual "reviews," so when I do a review on Goodreads it's usually completely separate from the blog.  But there's no reason not to put it on Amazon.  Though I'm not sure if I'm just heaping more work on my shoulders for no particular reason.  ARCs are great and all, but darn it, all this is cutting into my reading time.

In fact, what am I doing here?  Later, suckers--the heroine in this romance novel is about to get some action.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Don't Hate the Game, Hate the Player

I can't stand Hayden Christensen, and I've made no secret of this.  The only movie I ever liked him in was Shattered Glass, and even in that his performance was somewhere between wooden and melodramatic.  (You should totally see that movie, though.)

So I never watched the movie Jumper, even though the premise sounded great, because the movie looked horrible.  And by all accounts, it's a very, very bad movie.  So why, exactly, did I pick up the book?  Even more startling, why did I pay money for it?  I honestly can't remember--it was definitely a review somewhere, but I'm pretty sure not on one of the blogs I read regularly (though I apologize if I'm misremembering that).  It's the first book in a while that I was really sold on by the free Kindle sample from Amazon, so way to market, guys.

The novel Jumper is by Steven Gould, and you should ignore the cover you see over there.  None of the covers are actually very good.  The book, however, is so much better than you'd expect. 

First, ignore the blurb for the movie, because while the premise may be the same (17-year-old guy suddenly discovers he can teleport), the plot is totally different.  There's no ancient war between his people and their enemies, no secret cabal dedicated to his destruction.  There's no complicated underworld he enters.  That's the best part of the book, really--a large portion of it is just about what you do when you suddenly discover you have a superpower.  It's very much like the beginning of Spider-Man

Davy's father is beating the tar out of him for the millionth time when he suddenly finds himself at the library.  He assumes he had some sort of blackout, but soon he realizes that he has the ability to teleport, or jump, to anyplace he's ever been.  He learns to control the power, escapes from his father, and sets out to build himself a life.  Some things are easy (transportation), some things are morally tough for a kid on his own (he can't get a job without a Social Security card), and some things are just as hard for Davy as they would be for anyone else.

There's a lot of great how-to and worldbuilding here--where does Davy go when he can go anywhere?  If money doesn't matter, how do you live, and why?  The first half of the book is just this wonderful accretion of figuring out how this thing works and what to do with it.  In the second half of the book, (action hero voice) things get personal, and Davy takes on terrorism, the NSA, and ghosts from his own past.  But can he find his way to a future?

There are flaws here--there's a girl who's very much his strong, nurturing woman friend.  But really, this book is a bit of a thought experiment in the emotional and social effects of teleportation, and that is kind of my favorite kind of book.  I'm not going to say you should run right out and read it, but I do wish there were more books like this on my to-read list.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Behind the Book

I'm usually not a fan of author readings.  Really, I'm not a big fan of getting to know the people behind most works I enjoy--I don't want to know more about actors or directors or writers.  Statistically speaking, I'm going to dislike some of the people involved in my favorite books and movies.  Almost as bad, I'm going to be really fond of the author of something awful, and that will just be uncomfortable.  I'd much rather deal with the work than with the people behind it.

But I hereby make an exception for Mary Roach, who is welcome to be my new best friend or my honorary aunt or just to come to karaoke this weekend, because I really just want to hang out with her.

Roach is starting up a tour for her new book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  I've read a bunch of her previous books (Spook, Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars; here's my review of Spook, which I think is my favorite).  I love people who do in-depth research and then tell me about the fun bits; this is what I'm looking for in nonfiction, and Mary Roach is the Sarah Vowell of science (as Sarah Vowell is the Mary Roach of history).  Her books are fun and irreverent and interesting and thoughtful. 

And then I saw her speak, and she is ALL THOSE THINGS!  It was thrilling!  Interestingly, the format of the talk was a conversation between her and Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen.  I have no particular position on Christopher Kimball, because I find CI and ATK to be way too involved and complicated, and I'm just not up for doing 75% more cooking for a 10% better product.  But my good friend Kris, who sat next to me during the talk, hates him with a passion, and by the end of the discussion I was right there with her.

Mary Roach would be funny, and Christopher Kimball would try to be funnier, but end up being not funny.  In asking her to tell an anecdote, he would basically tell the anecdote, leaving her to come up with something else to talk about.  He kept bringing up quotes from her previous books--this is not a rock show.  I already read that book. 

But Mary, she was delightful.  She was sly and clever and smart and interested.  There's so much to be said for a childlike sense of wonder, and that irreverent wink she seems to be giving you in her books shines through when she talks.  She really does find all this stuff absolutely fascinating, and she's really happy to share it with you.  I highly recommend going to see her, if you can.  And I'm going to buy a copy of Gulp, just as soon as I finish three of the eight books I'm reading right now. 

Or maybe two. I'm not made of stone.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Midpoint Commentary

True to my quirky, offbeat, charming (I'm charming, right?  RIGHT?) format, I feel the need to write about a book I'm smack in the middle of.  I honestly don't quite understand waiting till you're done with a book to want to talk about it--I mean, now is when I'm chewing it over in my head, right?  So I seize the moment.

It's called One Step Too Far, by Tina SeskisI've never read or heard of the author before--I was drawn to the blurb, picked it up somewhat randomly, and the premise is quite intriguing.  It opens with Emily on a train, speeding away from her husband, child, home, and life with the contents of her duffel.  She's clearly in a bad place--they'll be better off without her, she needs to just get away and start over cleanly.  But there's no real information on what she's escaping from.

The story flips back and forth between the present--Emily calls herself Cat, finds a room, looks for a job--and flashbacks.  Childhood, meeting her husband, her relationship with her sister.  Good, compelling snippets that are fitting together to show a nice life and hint at the darkness that's coming.  I'm having a good time with the book.

But here's where the authorial trust thing comes in.  There are some slightly risky things going on here, and I don't know Tina Seskis at all.  I have no idea if these choices she's making--the frequent switches of viewpoint character in the flashbacks; the very broad showing-not-telling descriptions of Emily's early childhood--are fumbles or solid choices. 

I won't know till we get to the end.  Honestly, this is more of a nailbiter for me in a book than actual will-they-won't-they questions about spies getting caught or characters hooking up--is the author giving me a flashback to this secondary character's childhood for a reason?  Or just because they thought it was interesting character building?  Are we going to delve into everyone's past as we go on, or was that one non-Emily history a one-off?  The tension, it's killing me. 

So far, though, there's some great stuff going on here.  I love detailed how-tos, and there's some great "how to walk out of your life" stuff here (it helps that she has valid ID with her maiden name on it), and the vignettes from the past and the present are well-drawn, frequently touching, and sympathetic.

Of course, a lot of the success of this book is going to hinge on what I presume is the Big Reveal.  I'll let you know how that turns out.