Winter Book Reviews

Ok ok, so technically we still have four more weeks of winter, technically I’m early with a “Winter Book Recap.” But! Since I’m currently reading my own book, and March is right around the corner, I figure now is the appropriate time to take a look back at the books that helped me slog through winter.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Androids This may sound odd, but I read this book not based on its own merit, but because of the other works it’s influenced. Blade Runner is the obvious correlation here, but Janelle Monáe has said in interviews that it’s a big influence on her work, too. I was curious about a book that could inspire so many, across so many genres.

And you know what? This was a really, really good book. Simple and straightforward prose, but a complex idea: what does it mean to be human? This is where science fiction really shines: creating an other-worldly scenario to tackle all-too-human questions. I’m laughing right now reading the quote on that cover — “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka” — because it’s totally true. This is pulp fiction in the best sense — a fun, action-packed read that still makes you think.

Did it have its issues? Sure. The pacing seemed a little off in parts, and the female characters aren’t the most well-developed. But all in all I’m definitely glad I read it, and definitely understand why it’s considered a classic in the genre.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

I have a confession to make: up until this book, I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, considering that I practically lived in my college’s English department. And confession time isn’t over yet: I’ve been somewhat avoiding Vonnegut. He seemed like another White Dude Writer whom you’re Supposed to Read. But then Slaughterhouse-Five was on sale for less than a latte, so I scooped it up. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading Vonnegut sooner, because my first thought upon finishing this book was, “I wish I were back in college so I could discuss this with fellow English nerds.”

This book, man. It was so good. SO GOOD. I don’t know what I expected from Vonnegut, but it wasn’t this — simplistic prose, a sci-fi angle, a keen eye for just-right details. (How did I not know Vonnegut is considered a science fiction writer? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?). But most of all, I love that this book doesn’t leave any answers. It is both fatalistic and hopeful, dismally sad and darkly comedic. And Billy Pilgrim — was he really abducted by aliens? Did the skull fracture break his brain? Is he suffering from horrible PTSD and these are his coping mechanisms? The answer to all these questions is “yes” — they can all be true, all at the same time, just as they can all not be true. As a writer, I’m definitely going to need to re-read this book to study how Vonnegut does it.

3. The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer

Nope, sorry. This book was a “not for me.” I heard about it on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and it sounded right up my alley:

Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…

Awesome! Sign me up! But somehow this book… bored me. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. But to me, it was slow and boring. I followed Nancy Pearl’s advice on this one and put it down after about 100 pages. It has a LOT of good reviews, though, so clearly others enjoyed it. Maybe you would, too? Let me know, I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing

I already talked about my adoration for this book — but it does bear repeating. This is an AMAZING book for all you writers out there. The chapters are short, easily digested in any time increment you may have. Goldberg is at once encouraging in a maternal sort of way, and matter-of-fact in a no-bullshit way. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

One part that struck me in particular — in the last chapter, she talks about how it feels to finish a book. The combined exhilaration and letdown. The joy and the loneliness. I had just finished my first draft, and the words struck home. This woman gets it, guys. Whatever “it” is. Seriously, if you write at all, check this book out.

5. The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

Cormorant

This book! And it’s ah-maz-ing cover. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I finished book two of the Miriam Black series. This one involves a road trip down to the Florida Keys. Which, I have to say — Wendig does a great job describing. You can practically taste the Keys. Now I want to go and snorkel and drink rum and eat fresh fish caught by a cormorant.

Without getting spoilery, I’ll just say — there were a lot of returning characters that I didn’t expect to show up, and I was pleased they did. One qualm, however — there were times when Wendig referenced characters or events from the previous book, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who they were or what they had done. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the overall book in any way, but a little more “catching the reader up” would have been nice.

I was surprised at the gut reaction I had to reading the last page — it was a (surprisingly) emotional ending with a character you’ve really come to care for. Miriam shows a LOT of personal growth in this book — more so than we’ve previously seen. She confronts difficult relationships and doesn’t find easy answers. All in all, it felt like a good direction for the character to go in. Also, the set up for the next book? SUPER intriguing. I’m in.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie

The members of my writing group were shocked — shocked! — when they learned I hadn’t read any Sherman Alexie. So seeing as he’s speaking at the upcoming AWP conference  (which I’m attending wheeee!), I figured now was a good time. The Absolutely True Diary is technically a young adults book, but I’m here to tell you that it is totally enjoyable as an adult. It’s a quick read, but it never feels like you’re being talked down to (as some poorly written YA books can do). The narrator, Junior, is a Native American kid who leaves his reservation to attend the adjacent “white” school. In many ways, this book seems to be a love song to the reservation that Junior knows he MUST leave for his own good — yet it still breaks his heart to do so.

It amused and saddened me to think that there are a lot of schools that ban this book. This is, on the whole, a pretty innocent book — it tackles some BIG complex issues, yes, but Junior is a good kid. He does well in school, he works hard, he loves his friends and family. He is actively trying to create a better life for himself. Those seem like good messages for young adults. But the fact that he *gasps* mentions masturbation makes the book unfit for young eyes. Come on, America. Let’s pull it together here, ok?

Winter always seems like such a cozy time for reading. What books did YOU pick up? Anything I should add to my own list?

On Editing

As mentioned earlier in the week, I’m starting the first-draft edit on Saturday. As also mentioned, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Yes, I can edit for spelling, grammar, consistencies — but this thing needs serious revisions. Where to begin? How to tackle what at the moment seems to be a massive undertaken?

I was always the type of student to do all my homework, and apparently I haven’t lost that trait. For the past week I dug into blogs and books and turned to the experts: authors whose advice I’ve found helpful in the past. And soon enough, some themes began to emerge.

Start Reading

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. — Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story

Stephen King advises the same thing in On Writing — sit down and re-read the first draft, preferably in one sitting. The idea is that you’ll see the book as a whole, without time lapses, and you’ll be able to see what works — and what doesn’t.

Find Your Theme

I’ve read On Writing numerous times (I noticed the other day how incredibly broken my book’s spine is), and I’m always finding new bits to love in there. Like this:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book — at least one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your is about. — Stephen King, On Writing

Yes. Definitely yes. That’s one thing I’m very aware of with my book — it needs a Unifying Factor. Or rather, the unifying factor lying beneath all the junk needs to be uncovered. (For more about uncovering theme and symbolism and all that big scary stuff, I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog post, “The Contextual Edit“.)

Cut Out the Crap

There’s one bit of On Writing that always stuck with me, from the very first time I read it:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High …. I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1 Draft – 10%. Good luck.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I love that — such a simple, easy formula. What I find most interesting is that King claims he follows it almost to the letter — for his second draft, he chops 10% of the word count from the first draft. No excuses, it just has to happen. I know my book needs some “de-puffying”, so 10% seems a good amount to aim for.

Margaret Atwood gives similar advice (PS, HOW EXCITED WAS I when I found Margaret Atwood had a blog post with editing advice??):

Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head — like practicing a dance or a military exercise — so that no actual tactical mistakes are made — the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope. — Margaret Atwood, “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Remove the “connect-the-dot” steps — this gives the reader credit. You’re trusting that the reader is intelligent, that you don’t need to fill in every tiny detail for her. It seems to me this would result in a sharper, leaner book (something I’m hoping to achieve).

Track It

I can’t believe I never thought of this one before:

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. — Chuck Wendig, “How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel

Track Changes in Word. Duh. Totally doing this.

It’s a Process — And That’s Ok

The most daunting thing about editing is… well, there’s not just one daunting thing, is the problem. It’s all the things. Grammar and continuity errors and gaping plot holes and oh God I forgot about that character what do I do with him?? At this point in time, it seems like a massive undertaking.

Well. It is. But that shouldn’t phase you:

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Wendig calls this the “Layer Cake” theory of editing. One of my writing-group buddies has a different analogy — varnishing a table. You can’t apply ten layers of varnish at once, the thing will turn out looking like a mess. You have to sand the table down, smooth it out, apply one layer. Then you repeat the process, one layer at a time, until you have the final result: a beautiful, smooth, gleaming table. Same thing with a novel and editing: you start one layer at a time — context, grammar, characters — until you have one damn fine table. Er, book.

I have to say, after this whole week of research and reading and expectation — I feel ready. I feel excitedI’m ready for Saturday to arrive, to sit down with my book — my book, which I wrote, which I finished — and start ripping it to shreds. Or, maybe politely pecking it to shreds. It’ll be a messy business — and that’s ok.

Fall Book Recap

Here it is, your seasonal recap — the books I read this past fall. I wish I was more excited about this list, you guys. But for the most part, my fall reading list consisted of books I was REALLY excited about… but made me feel like this:

The exception to that is, of course, MaddAddam, which I reviewed early early this fall. But the rest… well, you’ll see. NONE of them are bad books. But none of them really did it for me.

1. Fireside Magazine

Cover of Fireside Magazine

Well see, here we are, starting out with another exception. I read Issues 4 and 5 of Fireside Magazine, and both were actually really enjoyable. Each issue consists of a couple pieces of flash fiction, a few short stories, and then a section of a serial novella from Chuck Wendig. Not gonna lie — I originally signed up for Fireside because of that Wendig series, but there have been some other really good pieces in there, too. I’ve never really been one for flash fiction, but there are some in there which show me that genre’s potential (“The Filigreed Cage” by Krystal Claxton stands out). Each issue only takes about 20 minutes to read, so I’d definitely recommend it for fellow bus commuters.

2. Wool

Cover of Wool by Hugh Howey

I’d heard SO MUCH GOOD about Hugh Howey’s Wool. Plus, he’s a self-publishing success story! So, you know, that’s cool. But Wool failed to grab me. It’s a post-apocalyptic romp, which I’m normally down for… but for whatever reason, the premise of this one (humans living in an underground silo, unable to go outside) didn’t do it for me. Or maybe it was the characters? I realized after I finished that I didn’t really care about any of them. Which made it hard for me to want to read more.

Now, admittedly, I only read Wool Part #1, which was Howey’s original short story before he continued the series and compiled it into one book. But if Part 1 didn’t grab me… why should I go onto Part 2? Am I missing out? Anyone read the rest of these? I’d be curious to hear opinions.

3. In the Garden of Beasts

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Ugh, this one… this one had been on my reading list for a long time. I was pretty damn excited to read it. I loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and In the Garden of Beasts sounded like a total winner. It follows the story of William E. Dodd — the American ambassador to pre-war Nazi Germany — and his family as they navigate the political waters of 1933 Berlin. Sounds fascinating, right? RIGHT?

Well. This book was boring. The Dodds are duds. The narrative perspective switches between Dodd and his adult daughter, Martha. I didn’t find either one particular likable or interesting, and questioned why Larson chose them as the pivot for his book. Plus, Larson had this annoying habit of Foreshadowing. With a capital F. All throughout the book, he hinted at some MAJOR event to come. At the characters who would die horrific deaths, at the horrible turning point that would be a defining moment of Germany history. He hints at the climax SO MUCH that by the time you get there, you think… that’s it? THAT’s what you were going on and on about? And I mean, the climax of the book IS a Big Deal historical event… so the fact that it’s a letdown? That tells you something about this book.

4. A Fraction of the Whole

FractionoftheWhole

This is the one I almost abandoned. It came HIGHLY recommended from a friend, a friend who’s reading taste I very much trust… but again, it didn’t do it for me (are you catching a theme with these books?). A Fraction of the Whole is written by Steve Toltz (and I just realized…how can I not think of this?), and it follows the story of a father and son in Australia. Both of them are certifiably nuts — and for me, not in a good way. They’re over-the-top introspective, they ramble, they fancy themselves philosophers. The book’s plot itself was somewhat intriguing — but I just couldn’t get behind these characters. I found them eccentric at best, infuriating at worst.

After I finished the book, I looked at some Goodreads reviews, and a lot of people mentioned how funny the book was. Like, “laugh out loud” funny. Which… I didn’t get. At all. So I’m wondering what I’m missing? Is it just ME? Again, if you’ve read this one, I’d be curious to hear…

5. The Paris Wife

Cover of The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife was a confounding read. For the first half of the book, I couldn’t figure out if I liked it or not — and yet I kept turning pages. I didn’t dislike it. But there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that rubbed me the wrong way. And then it clicked: I didn’t really like the narrator, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. I found her annoying. Passive. She watched the action around her, rather than being the protagonist of her own novel. Which I’m not sure is a valid criticism of the book — after all, it’s possible that Hadley was submissive and passive in real life. But every time she said, “I felt it was my duty to support Hem, no matter what” or “As a mother, I finally felt fulfilled,” I wanted to smack her.

It was also an odd read because my sympathies alternated between the two main characters, Hadley and Ernest. Now, obviously, Ernest Hemingway did a lot of shitty things to this woman, numero uno definitely being cheating on her and then marrying his mistress. But there were times early in their marriage when I found myself sympathizing with him rather than her. When he needs to go off and write, she pouts. When he needs to travel to Istanbul to report on the conflict there, she throws a temper tantrum. As a writer, this behavior would drive me up a wallBut perhaps if you’re not a creative type, it’s easier to understand where Hadley was coming from.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Cover of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Ok, this one! This one I was SO EXCITED TO READ. It’s about running! It’s about writing! It’s about the intersection between running and writing! All things I find super interesting. But after I’d read the first 50 pages or so… meh, I dunno. I felt like it could have been shorter. Edited down a bit. And here’s the thing — it’s not a long book! Only 180 pages. But it just felt to me that Murakami was somewhat stretching the material. He’s obviously an excellent writer, and I’d be interested to read more of his books, but this one didn’t reach me quite the way I expected it to.

Still, there were some really good nuggets in there. Such as this:

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

And this:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.

What did you read this fall? What are you reading now? I’m currently on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — and man, am I excited to talk about that one in the next recap…

Summer Reading List

Ok first off — I KNOW. I know summer is not over yet and it seems like an odd time for a wrap-up list. But the past week in the mornings and evenings there’s been that certain twang in the air, and I feel like the next book I read will land on the Fall Reading List. So then, here it is — the books I read this summer.

1. The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes by Check Wendig

The Blue Blazes is pulp fiction in the best sense of the term. Fast-paced, fairly violent, with a cast of rough-and-tumble characters with names like Mookie Pearl and Skelly. Chuck Wendig excels at creating slightly fantastical alternate realities, and this book is no exception — it takes place in a (literally) hellish underground beneath New York City. I do think I preferred Wendig’s Miriam Black series to this one (probably because I love that character), but this was still a fun romp.

2. American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This was a re-read. I hadn’t read it in a loooong time and wanted to freshen up before the Neil Gaiman reading. I’d remembered the clever storyline — downtrodden gods, an epic road trip, dark twists — but I’d forgotten something important: Neil Gaiman is a great writer. His style seems very simple and straightforward, and yet it still manages to be entirely beautiful and evocative. This time around I studied the writing a lot more closely, trying to analyze how he does what he does.

My only qualm — I somehow ended up with the tenth anniversary edition, which contains the “original” text, before Gaiman’s editor got to it. It was still a great read, but I’m a strong believer that a good editor only improves a story.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Of course after the Neil Gaiman talk I immediately devoured his new book. It’s a quick read (Gaiman started it with the intention of writing a short story). When people ask me how I liked it, the only word I can come up with is, “Lovely.” Our narrator is a young boy, and this book just so perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a kid — both the everyday wonder of it, and the everyday pain of it. That combination actually makes it a bittersweet, almost melancholy read — but still, it leaves you happy. And the ending… mmm, it’s a really beautiful ending that made me think about the nature of memory.

4. Boneshaker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I had been really excited about this one. I’d heard great things from a lot of people. So imagine my disappointment when I just couldn’t really get into it. And the frustrating thing is, I can’t pinpoint why. It has a lot of elements I enjoy — alternate histories! Seattle! a cool female lead! — but somehow it just didn’t add up for me. I’ll probably give Cherie Priest another try, because the writing itself was good. But yeah. Sorry, Boneshaker. You and I weren’t meant to be.

5 and 6. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood

These two are so entwined, it seems futile to review them separately. In short — OMG I LOVED LOVED LOVED these books. They’re the first two in a trilogy (MaddAddam, the final installment, comes out September 3), set in a dystopian future where humans struggle for survival. First up: Oryx and Crake.

Snowman is our narrator, a despairing man once called Jimmy before mankind suffered a horrible, catastrophic disaster. The nature of the disaster is not fully revealed until the end of the book, and the hints along the way lend such a sense of foreboding — it looms over everything. The hints and descriptions also make the book somewhat terrifying — it has so many parallels to our current political and environmental realities (in fact, Atwood herself always insists on calling it “speculative fiction”, not science fiction).

So of course after finishing Oryx and Crake, I had to pick up the next. The Year of the Flood is set in the same dystopian future, with roughly the same timeline, but we have different narrators: Toby and Ren, who live in a hippy-like commune called God’s Gardeners. Switching the narration gives the reader a “big picture” view of the disaster in Oryx and Crake. You could definitely read these books on their own — but man, you get so much from reading them together. Of the two, I’d have to say my favorite was Oryx and Crake — I loved the slow reveal, and also found Snowman to be a fascinating narrator. Plus, Oryx and Crake contained this, the most delicious of sentences:

It’s the fate of these words to be eaten by beetles.

Mmmm. Pure perfection. Can not WAIT to get my greedy little hands on MaddAddam.

7. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

So technically — I have not finished this one yet. I’m about a third of the way through. But I figure it’s summer, I’m reading it, it’ll go on the list. I’d been meaning to read George Saunders for quite a while, because all my fellow English-major nerds talk about what a fantastic writer he is. And it’s true — the stories I’ve read so far are amazingly well crafted. But oh man, are they depressing. Every single story has focused on a hapless protagonist whose life spirals downwards into despair. And I mean, there’s some hope. In some of the stories. But for the most part, man. I’m sure I’ll keep reading it, because the stories are so well-written. But it does remind me why, for the most part, I’ve forsaken the path of Serious Literature.

What about you? What books did you devour in the sun this year?

The Proper Response to Rejection

Yesterday I found out that a story I worked really really hard on and was really quite pleased with was rejected from a magazine I was really really excited about.

I could say “not accepted”, but rejected is really the proper term. Rejection requires going outside of your comfort zone and taking a risk. I don’t really think it’s rejection without those two components. Which is probably why rejection sucks as much as it does — we feel like we’ve put ourselves out there. Shouldn’t there be some reward?

Now, of course, the immediate response to rejection is the sads. My immediate response involved eating a chocolate bar at 9am and then wallowing on the couch all evening watching Mad Men. And, you know, I was a pathetic creature, but it was ok — it’s ok to feel disappointed when efforts don’t pay off. It’s good to get it out of your system.

But rejection is — has always been — part and parcel to being a writer. So as I was wallowing and trying to force the cats to cuddle with me (“WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME??”), I told myself, “Today you get to be sad. Tomorrow you’re over it.”

Chuck Wendig has a saying…

This morning I got up early and went for a run. Soon I will be eating a fried egg and home fries. Today I go to work — and this evening I sit my ass back down and continue working on my book.

The only real response to rejection is to quit or to work harder. Since I’m too stubborn or stupid to quit, that only leaves one option…

Eff Excuses

Whatever happens, stop blaming other people for your failures. Stop complaining. Stop dicking around. Start doing that thing you want to do and do it with all the love you can fling into it. – Chuck Wendig, “It’s Half-Past ‘You Should Quit Writing’ O’Clock”

This quote has been rolling around my mind-grapes ever since I read it last week (side note: if you’re a writer, and not reading Chuck Wendig‘s Terrible Mind’s blog — get on it). There are all sorts of inspirational quotes in the world — ranging from the touchy-feely to a kick-in-the-pants — and usually? They don’t do much for me. But this one jumped out at me and hasn’t let go.

They say timing is everything, and I blame timing with this one. You guys, I realized the other day that I’ve been working on my current book for two years.

Let me repeat that.

Two years. And that’s not like, “Ooooh I’ve been working on this book for two years and am on my third rewrite now.” No, it’s “I’ve been working on this book for two years and arghdammit haven’t finished the first draft.” Which…yikes. That’s embarrassing. And before you say, “Well, this famous author took ten years to write her book!” — yes. It does happen. But there are also authors who finish first drafts in six months. So I think my excuses are thin.

Other excuses I could throw out into the universe? Well, I’ve been working full-time for those entire two years. I got married, bought a house, did freelance work… you know, been busy.

But you know what else? I am so tired of excuses. There are a million reasons NOT to do something. In fact, there are usually very few good reasons TO do something — especially write a book. It’s not really a get-rich-quick scheme (or you know, ANY scheme involving the words “get rich”). It’s easy to find reasons not to sit down and write.

And I am tired of those reasons. Yes, I’ve been pretty good about writing for half an hour on most days. But why isn’t it every day? Why is 30 minutes my meager limit? I need to up my game, I need to nut up and sit down and stop letting myself off the hook.

I’m challenging myself to finish the first draft by summer. Two years is too long. I’m finishing the damn thing.

What have you been putting off? Want to join me in ditching the excuses? Think of all the shit we can get done if we just shut up and do it.