Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reviewing Bad Books

Shoshanna Evers once told me that writing reviews for books was fine, as long as they were five stars in support of the work; I turned around and reviewed a 99¢ erotic short story of hers as 4 stars. It makes sense for an author not to criticize books and other authors, but as a reader, not being honest feels truly fraudulent. I know I still have a lot to learn.

That being said, one feel's as though one can't review all books read this year equally as one had originally planned. Short stories are one problem, but many book bloggers suggest delving into author insight and synopsis as means to fill out a sparse review. But what is a reviewer to do when they read a bad book? One means when one is not in the mood for a bashing, of course.

Emlyn Chand, president of Novel Publicity, blogs that when unable to write a positive review, when unable to renege on the review, you must maintain balance. You can opt for an interview of the author, or a synopsis, or merely focus on the good points of the book. You can read the entire blog post on Novel Publicity: 10 ways to write a book review and what to do if the book sucks.

Not too long ago, I downloaded and listened to a free audiobook which was a holiday promotion item. If you have been around long enough, you probably know that free is often all they could get for this type of thing.

To keep it short, and relatively polite, Love in the Afternoon by Alison Packard, narrated by the seductively enthusiastic Gia St. Claire, is overwritten, but enticingly set backstage at a Soap Opera. It's slightly open-ended, and the sex is not too gratuitous. The relationships between characters, other than the main couple, are easy to understand, and relatable. The main couple falls into insta-lust, and well, end up Happy-For-Now. All that said, I got about 2 hours in, and listened to the rest of the book on the highest speed setting available. Regular drug-store romance readers may find this book much better than I did, however, and Carina should rightly be proud of the promotion this item received from the audiobook-supplier's Valentine's Day-freebie offer. From the reviews available on their site, it seems the book was really popular. I must concede as well, that I love the cover. The font doesn't do much for it, but the layout and photo, even the faint reflection of a house in the water, is better than most romance covers that I've seen. Covers are an easy way to win readers, and it was this cover that convinced me to download the free book.

I understand and agree with Emlyn on this topic, one must be neither too enthusiastic or too critical, after all, the audience will often ask themselves what the reviewer might gain from such a review, or if the reviewer went in with stubborn convictions. I did not, and I find myself unable to say much positive about this fluffy publication. Well, as previously said, it's a learning experience.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: Escape Velocity - Anah Crow & Dianne Fox

First published as Runaway Star and recently revised by it's authors, Escape Velocity was an impulse its-on-sale! purchase. Concerning a colony on the cusp of breaking the strange musical language of the Pandorans. Elios is a top governmental linguist and is hard at work trying to figure out what is up with those ships that are just on the horizon of their sensor scans. On this almost-Utopian colony, there isn't very much budgeted for defense, yeah, I know, and this is causing unrest as long as the Pandorans and their undecipherable plea remain an unknown. Sender is a Harpy (fighter jet) pilot, and squad-team leader. Through fortuitous events, these two meet, hook up and fall in love in a usual sort of way.

Through minimal fault of the narrator, I didn't think I would take this seriously until the plot suddenly kicked in, just after the half-way point. Having read some really good* Gay Romance in the past, I was quickly geared up not to like this one.

Not one to go out for gratuitous sex in romance novels, this was full of them in the beginning. But, as stated, after some densely packed sex scenes, we were in action: romantic leads are forced asunder, the lovers are star-crossed!--will it ever work? Considering that Harlequin, like many romance labels, has a strict 'happily for now' policy, of course it will. But one shouldn't hesitate to admit hunger for one of the scientists to steal credit for Elios's work, or Katie and Sender to end up in a family arrangement with Vochi and Shakira, leading Elios to next see and date Sender when he was fully healed on the Arega. I would have loved for that kind of a cute but subtle ending, hands held across the table in the cafe, full of hope, but here we have lots of repetitive sex scenes and a clear happy ending.

The fact that this is a two author work, really impressed me. Even if they went with the safe route of 'you write that perspective, I'll write this one,' this was a great example of author collaboration. The club scene early on is also worth noting, because I find that kind of thing hard to convey.

The world building was a mouth-watering tease. But a quick scan of other reviews clues me into the fact that this is first in a series, and was expanded from a shorter work. One looks forward to more Roman-religion world building and sex of the character building sort**. (Especially that scene in the temple where Elios talks to the Vestal... I have hopes.)

Since this is a review of the audio book, here is a further note: The sex scenes were so quick in succession to one another that I began giggling through mundane tasks at work, wondering how often Charles Carr said the word 'cock' in a paragraph. One's mind easily wandered.

In conclusion, dear review readers, this is sweet romance with wobbly legs. Yes, there is a hospital scene, yes, there is some angst of the my-parents-and-religion-hate-what-I-am sort, but its Sci-Fi zest make it forgivable. One is also so very chuffed with the resurgence of Roman Pagan religion that things are balancing in the book's favor.

* I'll be going into that very soon.
** For those interested, I highly recommend How to Write Hot Sex edited by Shoshanna Evers. While only one chapter address m/m, the whole tome is worth a quick read through.

6:46. Carina Press. Audiobook.
Narrated by Charles Carr.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: On Writing - Stephen King

Stephen King's Memoir of the Craft is everything he wanted it to be. I learned surprising things from it but almost became too self-conscious, writing-on-eggshells for the next few days. But it made me regret not taking English Language and Composition as seriously as I took English Literature and Composition. Despite my hatred of horror and thrillers that make your skin crawl, my collection of Stephen King books has increased from one translation left behind by a visiting aunt, to three different novels in original English. I am so impressed and entertained by Stephen's writing, by his voice and casual style, I'm planning on reading at least these few books of his this year.

Most of what I learned from Stephen rang familiar in my ears. Only a few days previously, Neil Gaiman had been standing on stage at Carnegie saying the same words: 'Read a lot. Write a lot.' (After all, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?) Stephen also spoke for a good length about mandatory simplification (don't overwrite) and clarity (always write 'he said', 'she said'), meanwhile making fun (with quotes) of critics that say you must omit the unnecessary, finally citing a satirical remark stating that one should simply share summaries with friends and not write at all.

The most striking images left with me, aside from a vivid recounting of the places he wrote (and the site of an accident), were those of the closed and open doors of your writing room, and the role of the author as a telepath, both largely simplified in this blog post. Envisioning myself as describing things to someone in the privacy of their mind,  not only jived well with the story John Green had just told at Carnegie, about books being companions in the abyss, but it works well with Stephen's notes to not over-describe. Finding balance is determined by the attention span of your audience. The role of the reader is likewise as important to Stephen as to John, who mentions it less when speaking of writing, while Stephen does tell us to whom he specifically writes: his wife. He talks of leaving the room of your writing room open when you are editing, after having kept it shut for the initial writing process. He does not go on about developing 'voice' which I had long thought far more important to writing efforts than a good understanding of style and grammar. I now have learned that voice is something that will eventually come without specifically searching for it.

Grouping all this together with culture's reliance on geniuses, on epiphanies and 'gifted folks', rebutted by Elizabeth Gilbert's TEDTalk: 'Your elusive creative genius', makes for a relaxed but still quite serious atmosphere for me to begin my writing oriented sabbatical. One should be serious and committed to the craft, without being pretentious, without procrastinating and without embarrassment. One can only rely on one's self, not expecting God or Muses to fill in the lacking je ne sais quois. It's simultaneously daunting and inspiring. Stephen King is the kind of man whom one imagines can tell a good story at a party (or, as proven, in a bestselling novel) and doesn't think this ability is divine. When one is grounded, with good knowledge and a decent head on one's shoulders, there isn't much one can't do. Determining the worth of one's best efforts, is someone else's job.

288 pp. Scribner. Paper.
ISBN: 978-1439156810

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

“I’m on a side of a road somewhere, stuck in the middle of a very deep hole, with no way of getting out. Never mind how I got in there, it’s not relevant to the story. I’ll invent a back-story… I was walking to get pizza and a chasm opened up in the earth and I fell in, and now I’m at the bottom of this hole, screaming for help. And along comes you. Now, maybe you just keep walking. You know, there’s a strange guy screaming from the center of the Earth. It’s perhaps best to just ignore him. But let’s say that you don’t. Let’s say that you stop. The sensible thing to do in this situation is to call down to me and say “I’m going to look for a ladder. I will be right back.” But you don’t do that. Instead you sit down at the edge of this abyss, and then you push yourself forward, and jump. And when you land at the bottom of the hole and dust yourself off, I’m like “What the hell are you doing?! Now there are two of us in this hole!” And you look at me and say, “Well yeah, but now I’m highly motivated to get you out.” This is what I love about novels, both reading them and writing them. They jump into the abyss to be with you where you are”
-- John Green, An Evening of Awesome
After reading Looking for Alaska I took a break before diving into John Green's latest, and loudly lauded as best novel yet. I didn't even crack it open until a year after it was published, sitting on the train into the city to see John Green at Carnegie Hall. I read little on the way in, but at one AM, on the way out again, I had to stop myself from flying through it, forcing myself to really slow down and enjoy it.

John Green is an entertainer, and is intelligent in his dealing with what I see as such an often exploited topic. His personal history made this novel a little inevitable, and while I found it missed the bulls-eye by mere millimeters it was an absolutely fantastic book none-the-less. I can only hope that John will try again.

The Fault in Our Stars has everything I wanted in such a book: humor despite all, implied but restrained self-pity, the book is neither a wishful re-imagining of Ester Earl's life nor a shadow of all the great kids who have died and should have lived. There is no happy ending, and yet I was happy I had read it, and will probably read it again. I would like to applaud the novel for exploring the possibility of a Sophie's World type of cancer novel, where it ends mid-sentence because the protagonist dies mid-sentence, or deteriorates or simply moves on, but itself ends with a funeral's eulogy without showing us the funeral or the death. It's clever, but not self-consciously so.

This book is about discovering meaning and loss. John Green has explicitly said it is about loss, but Hazel's quest for the further meaning in her favorite book, a novel about a young girl, Anna, who lives with cancer, predominates the pages. Her quest for things in a world preoccupied with itself, but one that she has been removed from for many years. Her unfulfilled wish, to learn what happens to Sisyphus the hamster, from the lips of the author himself, is a heart-wrenching attempt to play god. We do not know what happens after Anna's death, because Anna is dead and she herself will never know. Augustus's cigarettes--his personal metaphor flaunted in people's faces--has a deeper meaning beyond that given, which irks even the most superficial readers. His attachment to escapist visual media, movies and games, aligns well with his quest to become someone. We have joined Hazel on her quest for the meaning behind things she has been living adjacent to since her diagnosis. And like Hazel when she shares the Eulogy at the novel's close, we won't ever really know. We aren't god, and John Green doesn't pretend he knows anything, he is merely comforting us with a glimpse into Hazel's world, and we sympathize with her, wondering how she will go on.

The book was nothing short of magical, brimming with unexplored but fully developed personalities, a larger world which was alluded to without being purple. John Green is a great craftsman, and watching him weave texting and popular culture into what I venture to call a great american novel, is wonderful. He cares for his characters, and knows you will too. They're not perfect, but neither are we. He believes a lot of what they believe, however, and if you want to fault him for something you can say that he supports the precociousness and audacity of teenagers living in today's world. If Hazel whines, we know that she is like most teenagers and if all book characters were perfect would you really enjoy reading about them? But none of this makes Hazel annoying, it makes her human, dealing with something that too many people have to face. Short of quoting the final paragraphs for you, I can't impart how impactful and true this novel is without you reading it.

To read more about the deeper meaning of things, I recommend Ray Decker III's review of this novel.

318 pp. Dutton. Paper.
(Read/Skim/Miss) (Buy/Borrow) and lend it to all your friends...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Creatures is another entry into the rapidly expanding genre of Paranormal Romance for Young Adults.  I'm also wary of writer duos, because I can't fathom how one can maintain a cohesive voice and vision when in two separate heads. I probably would not have picked it up if not for the enticing trailer shown in theaters, and probably shown over and over on TVs all across America.

Despite these serious charges against Beautiful Creatures I was only occasionally aware of how heavy the book was. It was like reading an early Dianne Wynne Jones book set in a high school; the magical imagery, a cast of many, the well done atmosphere mixing the local roots (here: the deep south) with witches (here: casters), and the not-so-trite romance.

Having Ethan, the male lead, tell the story, and for so much of their physical intimacy be interrupted by his--well--being on the brink of death for being so close to her, it's a bit of a tell-tale sign that there is more to this 'mere mortal' than meets the eye. While a great deal was wrapped up in this volume--thank god!--I know we'll be looking into his mother's ties to the Caster community in the future. Things like that are as much a blessing as a curse, because we know he'll be important to the story eventually, otherwise, why bother telling his story? Although, he often is just an eye-piece for us to view Lena's world through, a much more passive male character, but far from stagnant--unlike Georgian swamp water. I look forward to reading the sequel which is already in my hands.

I could complain about how slowly the locket segments carried through, or how ridiculously the father behaves, but so much about this book was good that I can't help but thank Garcia and Stohl for making this work. I wish I had thought to mark down some of the wonderful quotations, and I wish I had been a little bit more forgiving about the few repetitive remarks that Ethan made which discussing Amma's Voodoo--which there definitely could have been more of. Also, I dislike all Veterinary shenanigans in Media. Ethan's knowledge of Animal Medicine is only rivaled by the unlikelihood of Scott McCall's splinting skills on Teen Wolf. Thankfully that chapter was only seven pages long. As a person who has spent their entire life in an Animal Hospital, this is my true pet peeve. So many people get it wrong, and I wonder if I will have to be the one to get it right.

That was a sour note to end on, but I want to be clear: despite all my complaining, Beautiful Creatures was a book worthy of being turned into a movie, not that that is going to end up anywhere as good as the series has potential to, I'm afraid. Nothing more can be done, unfortunately. Unless we start taking the mini-series and limited run TV shows more seriously.

One can dream, can't one?

563 pp. Little Brown. Paper.
ISBN: 978-0-306-23167-1

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie

In Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot plays the funny foreigner, impishly innocuous traveling back from Syria where he has solved a case vaguely described as very shocking and somewhat melodramatic. He's not at all perturbed when he over hears a conversation during their late-night stop in Konya, revealing more about his reserved English traveling companions.
The girl interrupted him.
"Not now. Not now. When it's all over. When it's behind us--then--"
The young woman travelling with him, an English governess, displays suspicious behavior that Poirot immediately picks up on, and this is why I, as a reader, fixated on her for the rest of the novel. Her behavior alone tips me off that something is going on. While I liked her immediately for the murder, and stuck by my suspicion of her for almost the entire book, anyone who is familiar with the famous little detective mystery knows my mistake, and I won't re-hash it here.

What I enjoyed so immensely about this short book is Agatha Christie's sense of humor. Her character of Hercule Poirot is intended to better satire the contrast between Continental Europeans and the average English mind. His unique ways and strange appearance seems to be on everyone's mind when they see him, and his amusement at English behavior works so effectively because he is an outsider. I don't believe Agatha Christie was regarded as a humorist, but it is her charm and the concise writing of this novel that kept me enthralled.
"I say, sir," said the young man quite suddenly. "If you'd rather have the lower berth--easier and all that--well, it's all right by me."
A likeable [sic] young fellow.
"No, no," protested Poirot. "I would not deprive you--"
"That's all right--"
"You are too amiable--"
Polite protests on both sides.
While description is curtailed to the stations, hotels and the Stamboul-Calais coach, and a seemingly disparate group of travelers, Christie succinctly builds a surprisingly lively book. If all her books are this enjoyable, I look forward to reading them. Writing less does work.

198 pp. Pocket Book. Sept, 1975. Paper.
SBN: 671-80018-3

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