Most Overrated Books (in My World)

findingtimetowrite

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on…

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Lies at Midnight – CT Wilding

Lies at Midnight

Publication Date: June 12, 2015

Source: Can be bought from Smashwords.

Format: E-book

Length: 5790 words

Summary: One week before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Edward sits by his wife as midnight approaches. This will be her last night before the cancer takes her, and there are things Edward needs to say if he wants to be the person he so needs to be…For the first time he reveals his true self to his wife…or does he?  (Source: Smashwords product description).

Short Version: Interesting but uneven foray into the psyche of a disturbed and disturbing man.

Longer Version: Oh, one of those stories that are almost impossible to describe without spoiling key plot elements 🙂 Anything I can reveal about the plot of this short story is in the summary. It’s a dark (in places, VERY dark) look at a man who suddenly loses inhibitions that have kept him a decent, dull, law-abiding citizen for years.

Wilding makes some excellent observations in the beginning part of this story in particular, about the nature of living life as a “reliable, boring old wanker.” The title is derived from a beautiful, striking line: “What he felt was the excitement of midnight” – and the substitution of “excitement” for “lies” is a subtlety I saw and appreciated a lot.

On spelling, punctuation, and grammar: Wilding often omits commas from dialogue, resulting in lines like “Do you want to come over Helen?” There are quite a few other minor flubs, such as comma splices. Individually no big deal, but the absent commas in particular started to distract me before long. There are a few factual/logical inconsistencies present, too, such as Edward’s assertion he started cheating on his wife “after she turned forty” – when the narrative previously states that they didn’t marry until she turned forty-one. (Yes, he could have cheated on her previous to marriage, but the timeline doesn’t seem to match up.)

The one question I was unfortunately left with when I reached the last page was why? Why would someone inflict such harm on others, purely to “see how bad he can be”? This may or may not be psychologically true (I’m not a forensic psychiatrist, though I’m interested in the field) but as character motivation, it fell flat for me. I immediately thought of Ed Chatterton’s peerless Road Kill which, like Lies at Midnight, has a completely unlikeable male protagonist. But Road Kill’s Pete Skennar has motivations that make sense to the sane, law-abiding reader in essence if not in degree. Who hasn’t done something they didn’t quite intend, in a fit of rage, and had to clean up the consequences? And how often do we actually make things worse in trying? While we’re horrified at Skennar’s disregard for decency and law and order, we understand why he’s doing it.

Edward, by contrast, seems motivated by nothing more than the desire to be as bad as possible. He gains nothing from it except sick satisfaction at the pain of others. It makes for difficult reading in places. If this was a longer work instead of a short story, Wilding may well have been able to make Edward a more sympathetic character, or at least characterised his wife and stepdaughter in enough detail for his actions to make sense to himself. But I was left baffled as to what Edward could have thought he was gaining from his actions, beyond a mid-life-crisis feeling of not wanting to be “just the same as everyone else.” There are ways to catch that high that don’t involve abruptly switching gears from decent citizen to absolute amorality.

A story not without its merits, but the basic premise was fatally flawed for me.

Books – Short or Long?

Nigel Edwards

I heard on the radio today that there’s a move a-foot for authors to be paid by the number of pages that readers actually read, rather than by the book – I didn’t catch the whole article but I suspect a certain South American river may be the source of the story.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. In theory it would root out all those writers who (and I’m prepared for someone to say I ought to be included in this) really and truly shouldn’t be writing in the first place. I’m sure we’ve all picked up books that have a great cover, an intriguing title, excellent blurb on the back and so forth, but when we actually turn the pages (physical or electronic) and begin to absorb the content we find that the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. Even ignoring the punctuation and spelling and…

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Quick Update

The good news is – I am still alive. The bad news is that I haven’t got a review written yet 🙂

I’ve been reading outside of my blog interests, just for fun; two books you absolutely must read are Tana French’s The Secret Place and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

French is a genius at characterisation. I have a massive girlcrush on her female detective, Antoinette Conway (and I’m otherwise straight!) Finally, finally, a female character who less kicks against male characters as much as gives exactly no fucks what they think of her in the first place. French’s dialogue is easily some of the best I’ve ever read – she absolutely nails how teenage girls talk, complete with the upward inflection on phrases that aren’t actually questions, and overuse of words like “literally.”

A friend recommended French’s work to me ages ago, but it was only recently that opportunity struck. I now want to read ALL THE TANA FRENCH BOOKS.

All the Light We Cannot See is one I picked up from the library on a whim because it won a Pulitzer and I’m a name-dropper like that. I was expecting something set in Occupied France to be unbearably depressing, but I was inspired. Doerr is, essentially, a poet. His prose is eye-wateringly beautiful. So much so that I at one point threw the book at the wall (try doing that on a Kindle!) because how can I ever presume to write when that man is churning out such perfection? I’m embarrassed to even be in the same business.

I’ve seen a few criticisms of All the Light We Cannot See, snobbishly dismissing it as “genre fiction”. I’m not precisely down with all the literary definitions being thrown around these days so I’m not sure what’s meant by “genre fiction”, but if it IS genre fiction that can hardly be a bad thing.

Oh, yes, and I’ve been reading some real literary junk food recently too – a lot of True Crime and ghost stories. My Goodreads followers must think I’m a psychopath.

Actual reviews are forthcoming. I promise 🙂

Mental Illness as a Plot Device and Other Bad Ideas

Drew Chial

IMG_8316 copy Photo by Keane Amdahl follow him on Twitter @FoodStoned

My forehead throbbed. It felt like it had taken on weight, like I’d played a Klingon on an episode of Star Trek and fell asleep with the prosthetics on. My teeth had gone out of alignment. My bite was crooked. My jaw had shift to the left. It wouldn’t go back. It had locked itself into place.

My eyes wouldn’t focus. The lenses refused to align. The depth of field shift from the railings in the foreground to the light in the background. The bulb was too bright, especially when my vision split it into two. The room spun.

I tried to look down, but my head refused to take the command. My neck had gone stiff. I was in a robot’s stranglehold. Its metal fingers ran from my chin to my collar. Its claws dug deep into my deltoids. It…

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Burnt-Out Ends of Smoky Days

It’s possible that it’s actually, really happened – I am currently burned out on reading.

In my defence, I’ve been ill this last week (I will be interested to see how bad my sinuses look when my CT scans come back) and I’ve so far read 105 books this year alone. And I haven’t stopped reading, per se – I’m just taking a short break from reading books that I’m intending to review and focusing on “reading for pleasure” – a phrase that sounds downright weird because if a book’s a chore, I won’t read it anyway. I’ve been reading some True Crime junk food and I’ve just started on Stephen King’s Revival. I already want to marry the book and then savagely throw it out a window.

So I may not have any more reviews for a week or two, is what I’m saying.

That said, I’m still gathering my thoughts on seeing The Water Diviner with my parents last night – a good film with a ridiculously trite and rushed ending, but more’s the point, one that really made me realise that art can and does change people.

More thoughts on that at a later date 🙂

Critical Response Process

Some very interesting thoughts on meaningful critique that builds up, rather than damages, creative types 🙂

Live to Write - Write to Live

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

I’m hopeful that a new generation of writing workshops will offer the kind of meaningful and useful feedback that’s possible with Critical Response Process, the kind of feedback that fosters creativity and the desire to resume work, and not the kind that is so demoralizing the writer gives up in despair.

Critical Response Process is a dynamic method for both giving and receiving feedback on creative endeavors. Initially developed within the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, CRP is a process that can provide “useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.”

Last week it was my great good fortune to attend a two-day workshop in Critical Response Process with Liz Lerman, at Marlboro College.

I was there to learn the process, so I can use it in the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop I’m scheduled to lead at the Marlboro Graduate…

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Bottomland – Trey Holt

Bottomland

Publication Date: May 12, 2015

Source: Can be bought from Amazon’s US and UK sites.

Format: E-book

Pages: 409 pages

Summary: Based on actual events, Bottomland is the story of the murder of a young woman in Franklin, Tennessee, in the 1950s. With meticulous accuracy to time and place, it explores the social mores of the town itself and the personalities of all involved, from the townspeople, to the police, to the killers.

Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old high school senior who has just fallen in love for the first time, Bottomland reflects Franklin’s evolution from the Civil War through World War II and segregation, while chronicling the narrator’s family history and coming of age. The story unfolds over the four day period during which the the body and the perpetrators remain unidentified.

Bottomland unearths the mystery of a murder and subsequent sentencing that–while sensational in its time–is largely unknown today. (Source: Amazon product description).

Short Version: Vivid, atmospheric and highly readable.

Longer Version: Believe me, by the end of this novel I don’t think you’ll really care who killed Rosa Mary Dean.

It’s not that author Holt’s treatment of the murder and the investigative aftermath is done badly – though the roaming timeline of this piece does make the details of exactly what happened to whom and when difficult to puzzle out in places. It’s only that the murder provides a backdrop for the events of the book, not a centrepiece for it.

Our protagonist is, as explained in the synopsis, 17-year-old Henry Hall, the son of the Chief of Police involved in the case. Henry is a perfect specimen of an unreliable narrator. At face value, we see the other characters through his eyes (the pedestal on which he places his mother, his resentment of his father, whom he calls ‘Lucky’ after the cigarettes he chain smokes, and his hatred of sister Jean). But the discongruity between what these characters say and do and how he feels about them provides some wonderful moments of character development for both sides. Told at a distance of several decades, Henry’s narration grapples with his feelings about his father, Lucky, in particular. It also delves into the relationship Lucky and Henry both have with Percy, Lucky’s brother, afflicted with schizophrenia in a time period where the mentally ill seldom received more help than a padded room and a cocktail of sedatives. It’s Henry’s shifting beliefs and perceptions about the world around him that are the major drawcard for this novel, not the murder of Rosa Mary Dean.

Holt’s character-work is first-class, and his clever, authentic-sounding Southern dialogue is full of life and character. As a reader, this is paramount for me. With great characters and great dialogue, I would probably read a 400-page book about two people sitting on a sofa having a conversation about groceries. But that’s not to say Holt’s prose is in any way lacking. Beautiful, evocative descriptive passages drift through the narrative. He also has a great talent for quick, memorable character sketches, such as this description of a teenage boy on a manic bender:

He looked like a grizzly bear on a tricycle.

And this description of an undertaker who takes his job very, very seriously:

Death didn’t look near as much like itself by the time George Preston got through with it.

The book is not without its faults, though they’re relatively minor. There are a few rogue typos here and there. The lengthy afterword that traces the main characters’ lives for several decades beyond the book which, for me, didn’t really work – I would have preferred to imagine the fate of Henry and his family and friends, without having it spelled out. That’s very much a personal preference, though. There are readers who will appreciate – no, love – the care with which Trey Holt follows up on the lives of the memorable characters he created.

As a true-crime buff, I’d never heard of the real-life case this is based on before. I looked it up, and recommend anyone interested in that kind of thing do the same. Even on the WWW of 2015, there is surprisingly little on it beyond Holt’s splendid book, but what’s there makes for fascinating reading.

A very affordable and enjoyable book. I hope you enjoy.

Bad reviews and unprofessional behavior

So I know I’m horribly behind in reading and reviewing, but I’ll be onto that in the next few days. In the meantime, I found this post really interesting: “The truth is, writing reviews is not obligatory for readers. It’s not their job to review a book even if they LOVED it, even if they know it might help the author sell more books. As professionals, it’s important to ask for reviews but not to coerce them from readers. Some people may choose not to write reviews, for whatever reason.”

A friend lent me a book recently called The War of Art – Break Through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield, whose debut novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was adapted for screen. A film based on his book was released in 2000, directed by Robert Redford.

The War of Art is for writers, artists, and anyone who hopes to breathe life into their creative works.

I don’t read many “self-help” books, but this was a quick read and contained a few gems. One section that resonated with me referred to how “professionals” behave. I’d like to expound on this in relationship to book reviews.

If you earn a living by writing, or are trying to make a living this way, this post is for you.

star-reviews

A review can be a double-edged sword.

A good review can help sell a book. A bad review…

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And Now For Something Completely Different

Don’t worry, I promise I won’t use this blog to just flog my favourite artworks all the time 😉 But I just came across this, and it struck a chord that resonates into my reading and writing life, too.

At high school, I was drafted into a “Gifted and Talented” class (for my writing, I think. It sure as hell wasn’t for my mathematical abilities, of which I have zero.) If I’m ever a famous author (or even a published author!) I will cheerfully out the teacher of this class as the monomaniacal bully she was. She made no bones about the fact that she thought I was an idiot who was wasting her time and everyone else’s.

I was fairly opinionated as a teen.

I am very opinionated now.

Anyway, despite Teacher from Hell, I remember her actual classroom fondly – mainly because I learned so many wonderful things in it, which opened up a whole new mental world for me. I had no idea, before, that there was so much in the world to learn and be fascinated by.

This was one of the paintings on the wall of the classroom. Painted by Henri Rousseau in 1907, it’s known as The Snake Charmer. Creepy, yes, but as a girl of fourteen, there was a sensuality about it that I didn’t recognise at the time and which captivated me [insert your own snake/penis metaphors here] [insert your own childish joke about inserting things here].

The Snake Charmer, Rousseau