Book Review: Gilead

2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Growth

A Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award Winner

For this category, I chose Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

Gilead, set in Gilead, Iowa, begins as a letter by John Ames, an elderly pastor, tgileado his young son to provide his son with the legacy of a father that he will not have the opportunity to know well. The story continues as this letter throughout with only breaks between subjects or writing sessions. More than just a letter of wisdom handed down to this son, Gilead becomes a journey of a life well examined as Ames is confronted with reconciling his relationship with the adult son of his best friend in the present day as he recounts his memories of the past.

This epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of documents) forces the reader to slow down and let the words of the good pastor work their way into your heart. Without flash and fast-paced drama, it surprised me by becoming a book I couldn’t put down.

Ames does not shy away from revealing his struggles and flaws, giving the reader a fully developed (maybe even more than fully developed) character. Gilead felt more like the memoir of an actual person than fiction and that explains my liking it so much.

 

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Fun

A Book You’ve Read Before

handmaidIf you’d never heard of this book before, the odds are good that if you live in the US that you have now. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 has seen its sales soar and at this moment, sits at #3 on Amazon’s hourly updated best seller list.

I read this book most probably in the early 1990s and enjoyed it enough to search out other books by Atwood. But I enjoyed it then as a dystopian novel that was just fiction. Just Fiction.

Did she portend the future? With a group of men making decisions about women’s healthcare, her book about a theocratic military dictatorship taking away all rights of women seems more relevant today than it did when I first read it. I read it more carefully this second time around and found it more horrifying.

Written in first person by Offred (pronounced Of-Fred), she describes her situation and day to day activities assigned as a handmaid to The Commander. As a handmaid, her sole responsibility is to become pregnant by The Commander, carry the baby and then hand it over at birth to him and his wife, Serena Joy. What she can and cannot do is strictly regulated with her only freedom being daily shopping trips for the family’s provisions with a fellow (assigned) handmaid.

In between chapters describing her current life, Offred describes what life was like before government was overthrown, her life with her husband and daughter.

Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.

~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood considers this book speculative fiction vs science fiction because nothing is in the books that either hasn’t happened in society before or that is possible. And there is really nothing too science-y about it anyway. In fact, it seems that society has moved backward in scientific development. Sounds like something that could happen with climate change deniers, the removal of scientific information from government websites and the potential dissolution of some government agencies.

This week, a group of women in Texas donned red capes and white winged bonnets to protest proposed anti-abortion measures in the Texas senate. This really happened. I’m thankful that women and men are outraged enough about what is happening in regard to health care to take action and be seen, and if making a point about losing women’s rights by wearing costumes from the imagination of Margaret Atwood, then more power to them.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not the only dystopian speculative fiction novel to see an increase in sales. 1984 by George Orwell is currently #1 on Amazon’s Science Fiction best seller list and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley has also found some new readers.

Be careful what you wish for.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Fun

A Book You Chose for the Cover

2017-02-04_23-26-09_000Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. That’s a sentiment I’ve always tried to live by, so when the reading challenge has “read a book you chose for the cover”… Well, that’s a bit of a head scratcher. And so technically becomes like the free space on the bingo card.

Since I’m trying to get all 24 books read without repeating a category (not to say that I won’t repeat a category) some books may just have to fit into more than one. I have already read the juicy memoir, so I’m putting Amy Schumer’s book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo into the cover category. According to Amy, this book isn’t a memoir anyway because she is too young to have written a memoir. It is simply a book of stories about her life.

PotAto. PotAHto.

If you know anything about Amy Schumer’s stand up comedy, you know that she is unapologetically raunchy and will say almost anything about sex and her sex life. (She does not give out the names of her partners.) Her book is no different. In fact, if you catch her Leather Special on Netflix it is the equivalent of a musician going on tour with their new album. Many of the stories in her book are retold in shorter comedy-style bites on her special. The special on Netflix is a hour long.

It takes longer than an hour to read her book, and if you are sensitive to her preferred topics and language you may need a palate cleanser between chapters. If you are offended in any way by her topics and language, you’ll want to give this book a pass.

Her book is not all raunch. Amy was deeply upset by the Lafayette theater shooting during a showing of her movie, Trainwreck, leaving two young women dead and others injured. This has prompted her to become an advocate for gun control. She mentions it on her special and has promised to speak the names of the two women whenever she can. Promise delivered. In the book she goes into much more detail about her efforts and provides more information at the end of the book about how others can get involved.

Amy Schumer is a hard working comedian who has earned her moment in the sun and I respect her for that. I also admire her ability to say what she wants to say without censor. In a society where women especially are afraid to offend and afraid to speak their minds the ability to speak up and stand up for yourself and others is invaluable.

However, I’m not really the demographic she’s playing to. Her hour-long special was plenty for me, and it’s unlikely I’ll pay money to see her in person. And I while did enjoy her book I didn’t love it and I suspect she’s okay with that.

Oh, and the lower back tattoo? You’ll have to read the book to find out if it’s real or not.

Remedial Novel Writing – Lesson 4

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Ah, revising. My revising is really becoming more like rewriting. I have absolutely rewritten the beginning so I’m still really at the beginning. Since my revising is going along at a snail’s pace, I thought I’d address one of the things that can stump a remedial novel writer: what to say when someone asks what you’re writing. For example, you might say, “I’m writing science fiction novel about… “. Or “I’m writing a historical fiction novel that’s set in World War I.”

Or, you could be writing, as I am, a story that is not so easily categorized. Today’s lesson will cover:

Genres and Subgenres

The easy definition is that genres are just a way of categorizing your writing. Since this is about novel writing, I’m going to assume that you’re writing fiction. Other primary writing genres are non-fiction, drama, poetry and from one source I found, folklore (which, to me would be a sub-genre of fiction).

So. My novel is fiction. Almost entirely made up with a smattering of things that may or may not be true. For example, it’s set in Texas (a real place) in a small town called Grace (not a real place).

But then what? This is where it gets a little hairy, people. Some of the most basic kinds of subgenres you will find are historical fiction, science fiction, thrillers, horror, mysteries, women’s (huh? Did Hemingway write “men’s” fiction? I think not), fantasy and speculative. If you said, what the EF is speculative fiction, I was right there with ya!

The best definition I found (and most thorough explanation) was written by author Annie Neugebauer in her blog post What is Speculative Fiction? She writes that speculative fiction is “any fiction in which the ‘laws’ of that world (explicit or implied) are different than ours.” She also has an excellent Venn diagram explaining spec fic and the inherent problems in being too rigid in how that diagram works. In other words, the lines she draws can be “blurred” and you can have a novel that falls into more than one section of the diagram.

This is exactly the problem I have in describing a novel in any one or two subgenres. The problems is that publishers need/want that definition. Can you write a romantic forensic thriller where the hero has supernatural powers? Well, yeah.

None of this matters too much if you decide to self publish except that you want to at least know the best group or groups of people to aim a marketing campaign at and if you want to sell any copies, then marketing is a necessary evil. If you want to take a crack at traditional publishing, then you need to know the best place to pitch your manuscript to. If you pitch a speculative medical thriller to a publisher or agent with a primary interest in World War II erotic romances your manuscript is going to be flying right back at you faster than you can say Andromeda Strain.

Confused? I’m confessing that I am a bit because sometimes unexpected events in your novel happen that effect the category. Imagine my surprise when my heroine finds a dead body in the vault of the old bank building she bought and turned into an art gallery with living quarters upstairs.

That’s a mystery that I’m certainly going to have to deal with during this revising period!

By the way, this Writer’s Digest article has great explanations of the various (and many) subgenres.

Remedial Novel Reading Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3

 

 

 

 

Book Report: Not My Father’s Son

2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Fun

A juicy memoir

cummingMemoirs or biographies are possibly my favorite kind of nonfiction books to read. I lean toward the books written by people still alive and they don’t need to be famous. That said, I just finished reading Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Father’s Son.

How do you define “juicy memoir”? If you want a bunch of Hollywood inside stories, this is not the book for you. As far as celebrity gossip goes, this is not a tell all kind of memoir. It does, however, tell all you need to know about Alan Cumming.

It is, in short, brave and brilliant.

Told with alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters, Alan explores his upbringing in the home of an abusive father as he attempts to learn more about his mother’s father during the filming of a celebrity genealogy television program. The horrible mental and physical abuse meted out by Alex Cumming on both Alan (and his older brother, Tom) might leave you wondering how anyone could come through the things that they did and still be functioning adults, and yet they are.

Of course, neither grew up in an abusive household, left home, and then, boom, they were a-ok. During the “then” chapters we learn about specific details of Alan’s childhood and the “now” chapters follow a much more introspective path in an attempt to discover how all the events fit together in the man Alan Cumming is today.

If you enjoy memoirs and biographies that tell the story of a life and demonstrate personal growth and understanding, I recommend Not My Father’s Son, dark as it is.

Linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy

Remedial Novel Writing – Lesson 3

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

The time has come.

READY, SET, READ

Yes, print out your novel on cheap inexpensive recycled printer paper, put it in a pretty binder and crack it open. You have two options here. Read it like any other novel. OR… take notes as you read. Since this is a remedial course, you most likely do not already have an editor. We’re going to self-edit. I am loosely following the guidelines from well-storied.com for Editing your First Draft.

The goal here with your first read is to discover whether you have produced a diamond (check for typos and write your query letter, you don’t need me), a diamond in the rough or a fossilized dog turd that has escaped the pooper scooper too many times. If it’s the dog turd, go back and start over. (Lesson 1, Lesson 2)

For interest’s sake, I’m going to assume that we have a diamond in the rough here, though you truly won’t know until you reach the page that says “The End”.

On Taking Notes

I was incapable of “just” reading my fabulous work of art, but if that’s what you did with your first reading and you have that precious diamond in the rough, grab a spiral notebook and a bunch of different colored pins and take some notes.

Start with your brilliant first sentence. Did you angst over it like I did imagining that if you nailed the first sentence the rest would be gravy? Hell yeah! Or not. My first worried over sentence seemed to be a disconnect from the rest of the book. Actually my entire first chapter seemed to be a disconnect and that’s where the notes come in handy.

textifier_20170210155133Specifically, I was looking for:

  • the timeline. When did the action in this chapter take place and for how long? Was it less than a day, or did it cover several months? (noted with blue ink)
  • a general synopsis. The action. (orange ink)
  • characters in the chapter. (purple ink, along the right-hand side of the notes. If it was their first mention, they got a * by their name.)
  • location(s) of the action (green ink)
  • any BIG events (pink-ish ink)

And finally…

  • Problems (red ink).

Problems?

Yes. I found at least one problem in almost every single chapter and I’m not talking typos here. In fact, if you aren’t too OCD, ignore those typos as those are the least of your problems. The problems that need to be dealt with first:

PLOT HOLES. Like pot holes, these can throw your entire novel out of alignment. You should concentrate on finding all these “holes” in your story because any further editing and revising will be pointless if these aren’t repaired. Some are easier to fix than others.

The big plot holes are those that swallow your novel whole. These are the kinds of things that turn your diamond in the rough into the fossilized dog turd with the turn of the page.

Does your story make sense?

Oh, yeah, this may be the biggest. In the case of Grace Gallery, my WIP novel, I ended up with two main plotlines (A & B) and at least one subplot (C) that I meant to be a main plot. A & B competed for top spot and if they both stayed in the book you would be left scratching your head at the end wondering what genre you were reading. Was it a quirky love story or a murder mystery? I’m not saying that you won’t find those two genres co-existing in a novel, but it wasn’t working in mine. It left me, the author, saying, “Wait. What just happened?” too many times. Must be fixed.

Know your characters

Like a plot run amok, if you do not know your characters intimately they’ll surprise you during your first read and you, as author, should not be surprised that Tom has been the bad guy all along. Characters should change and grow, but they have to be doing things that make sense from chapter to chapter. Must be fixed.

Predictability

In a general sense as well as a plot sense, events should have some element of predictability. Even in science fiction or fantasy, events in the world you made up should be predictable. For example, if your world does not have gravity then the characters can’t simply be walking around like it does. Ask yourself, could this event really happen in my world.

The smaller plot holes are easier to fix, but they still must be fixed. Did you change the sheriff’s last name as you wrote? What about the names of some of the locations? Did the local bar go from being called “Sam’s” to the “Watering Hole”? If you said there would be food trucks in one scene and then they never materialize, you have to do something about that.

Are your timelines off or does the action occur in one place and the characters are unexpectedly beamed across town? This may turn out to be a big problem if it isn’t fixed.

Is your bad guy suddenly an accomplished ballroom dancer? What?!

Summary

If you can’t figure out what is happening, if you say “wait, what?!” every other page, if you have to flip back through the chapters to find out if Sheriff Jones is the same as Sheriff Smith or they are two different people…. you have some work to do.

The next few lessons will cover revising and a writing software review.

 

Remedial Novel Writing, Lesson 2

Or How to Write a Novel When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

pernnigmonu-thought-catalog
source

Lesson 2 covers what you should be doing while you are not reading the novel you just finished writing, also known as “the marinating stage.” If you need to go back to the beginning, you’ll find Lesson 1 here.

Step 3: Read

This lesson is not hard either. Just do not read your own novel. There are two parts to this step.

Part 1: Read about writing.

Forget that you aced every grammar test back in 6th grade. That was a long time ago. Brush up on your grammar. You know what gave you headaches when you were writing. Was it punctuating dialogue? Lay vs. lie? When to use a semi-colon?

For grammar help, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Grammar Girl are two of my favorites, but there is lots of help out there. This is the internet.

For other writing help, this list of the top 99 creative writing blogs can get you going. Don’t have time to sift through that many blogs to find the one that you can relate to, hop over to pinterest.

My “write” board is a great example of things you might find when you search for writing help. I haven’t looked at all of these pinned links yet, but I know where to find them when I’m ready and I often add new “pins” to be read later. In Lesson 3, I’ll share some of the sites that I’m using.

Much of this information you may just want to squirrel away in whatever folder, pinterest board, writing software thing you use for future reference.

If you find you still need more information, or prefer it in book form, Amazon offers 12,820 books that pop up in a search for writing skills, and that’s just in the kindle store. Prices range from 99 cents on up.

You can practically get a Master’s in Creative Writing* just by using the shared information on the internet, most of it free or practically free. Just remember that sometimes you get what you pay for.

Part 2: Read books like the one you wrote.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but just like those 6th grade grammar lessons you’ve forgotten, all things literary may also be a little rusty. Remember, before you wrote your best seller, you probably read a lot for fun, but didn’t pay any attention to character development, point of view, world building, etc.

I discovered after writing my novel, that reading other writers brought all of those elements into sharper focus, and I paid attention to little character quirks, foreshadowing, inciting events and moving the story forward like I never did in any literature class.

If there was a particular element that you struggled with, finding a book that has something similar can be very useful, a template of sorts.

Point of view was my bugbear (definition 2b), and I’m still not 100% settled on the one that I chose. I know that I don’t want to write in 1st person, and unfortunately for me, everything I chose to read in December was written that way. I’m onto the next phase of novel writing, let’s call it revising, but there is still plenty of time for more reading research.

That’s it for Lesson 2. Let me know if you have a favorite grammar/writing skill tool, and follow me for more lessons.

*(but not really)