Book Reviews for Writers

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I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how?  Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.

Review of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I wanted to love this book. It came highly recommended by people I respect and was a number one New York Times bestseller. Alas, no.

The author uses omniscient narration which can devolve into head hopping, and there is some of that. Reading a scene with Kya and Tate, the reader is back and forth between what she is feeling and what he is thinking. It is jarring and pushed me out of the narrative. I read to experience what the characters experience, but that doesn’t work when the point of view changes constantly. Owens should have stuck to a POV for at least each chapter.
Using omni went too far when the reader learns what happened to Tate in a manner that Kya or nobody else could know. It also broke my suspension of disbelief in that I don’t think a man in love would think or act that way. It ruined that line for me and made me see the author plotting the book rather than characters living a story.
At that point I started looking for faults and found many. The dialog does not feel real; it has a stilted affectation. The sheriff and his deputy talking was to let the reader know about the gossip mill, not a conversation that felt real. How quickly Kya learned to read at age 14 or so didn’t feel true. Her knowledge gained without a library was unbelievable. And the final resolution took too much coincident luck to be credible.
But I spoke to other readers who said they had put aside these faults and had read the story as a fantasy. That might have worked. If the author had let me know not to take this story too literally, but to accept the stretches, I might have enjoyed it more. In magical realism, we accept these things and that might have worked here.
My final knock on the novel is the distance the reader feels to the characters in ‘Crawdads’. A novel is unique in the storytelling medium by being able to immerse the reader into the world, thoughts and feelings of the characters. Well done, the reader ‘experiences the story’ with the characters. We fall in love. We learn to read. We experience the abandonment. Feel the pain and the joys. But Owens doesn’t let us get that close to Kya or any characters. They are on a stage or a screen and we are watching. We can feel for them, but we can’t know them and we can’t feel with them. We empathize, but we don’t experience. And that is a sad miss.

January 22, 2021

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ISBN 9780735219090

Review of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The vast sweep of this book is amazing. Thousands of years of evolution, culture and civilization. It is breathtaking in its scope. The authoritative voice of the author carried me through three quarters of the book until I started questioning what was included and what was left out. I would love the opportunity to sit with Yuval and debate some points over a beer. I know it would be a bracing, sparkling conversation, as this book required a stretch of the reader to take in such a huge expanse. Highly recommended.
I read this book in spurts and recommend that approach. Read and then pause to think on the material. The material covered could probably be rolled into an entire PHD Program. (Maybe it is.)
I enjoyed the big picture narrative. Like standing atop Rockefeller Center and surveying Manhattan this book dazzles.
My one knock on the book would be the short shrift Harari gives to Democracy and self-governance, and the backhanded compliments to Capitalism. Capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in human history. The author debates whether we are better off today than early humans scavenging for nuts and berries millenniums ago. I sighed and rolled my eyes. And having governments that represent the people, as we have today, is not really mentioned. Because it is only a few hundred years old? Rome and Athens were Republics, two thousand years ago. But this is a minor quibble on a brilliant book. Read it and decide for yourself.
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Sapiens A brief History of HumanKind by Yuval Noah Harari
ISBN 978-0-7710-3850-1

Book Review of Vision by Gordon D’Angelo

I first read ‘Vision , Your pathway to Victory’ by Gordon D’Angelo in 2013 soon after it was first published. I did the exercises, developed a plan with 12 goals, documented the plan with initiatives, definable measurable and tangible deliverables and dates. I spent days on it and it looked great on paper. Then I put it away and forgot about. I thought. Until I stumbled on it two years later, found that old plan, and I was astounded. Eight of my twelve goals I had fully realized, and I had made great progress on two others. Just the process of following the book and putting pen to paper had moved me forward in a surprising fashion. It had been a true success.
So over Christmas this year I decided to reread the book and again put the ideas into a plan. The book is just as fresh as it was eight years ago.
So many self-help books have nebulous ideas and great platitudes and nice intellectual exercises to move yourself forward. This book, ‘Vision’ by D’Angelo has concrete steps that will definitely move you forward to your goals. It is a short book, 140 pages, so you can read it in an afternoon. But read it and then do the work. Build your wish list, work out a template for the next three to five years. Find interim deliverables, Bridge numbers, and work the plan. Develop the initiatives, develop a support network, tell the world about your plans. Find the people you can help and the people who can help you.
I am sold on this book and its approach because it worked for me once before. I am confident it will work again, and that it will work for you!
Well recommended.

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ISBN 978-1-61448-150-8

Book review for Writers : The Water Dancer

Continuing in my series of book reviews for writers, I completed reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Water Dancer’.
The opening of the book immediately reminded me of the Elmore Leonard quote ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ This flowery prose that calls attention to itself like a toddler, “Mummy, Mummy, look at me.” It doesn’t last but flares up again and again. Not an auspicious start.
I didn’t like the book and will include spoilers, so you are for-warned.
I had trouble engaging with this book. For good reason Writers are admonished to ‘Show, don’t tell’. This is a story told. It is so strange to have a book written in first person point of view, and to not connect with that principal character. We don’t learn his simplest thoughts and ideas, what are his lovable quirks. We don’t laugh with him, and we don’t love or fear with him. There is a point late in the novel where he again meets up with Sophia, who has a child. She tells him, ‘She’s not yours.’ Well of course I thought, Hiram and Sophia never had a romantic or sexual relationship. But I guess they did, and it was so unremarkable that this reader missed it. It was never described in any memorable way, which is the major flaw here. The emotional distance the reader feels. This author is so mistaken to neglect a scene of love. Sad. A huge missed opportunity.

I don’t feel an emotional connection, any connection, to Hiram, the principal character. He says he is in love with Sophia, but I don’t feel it. He is more defined by relationships he can’t remember with his mother. Weird.
It is an important subject, slavery, but this story feels disconnected. I am not clear when it is taking place. Before the civil war but I don’t know exactly when.
When people write books about a subject we all ‘should’ care about, it is harder to criticize the work. But the book is failing me as a good novel. I am disbelieving, and not just the magical realism, which I enjoy. This power of ‘Conduction’ almost makes the Underground railroad obsolete.
The great power of a well written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk such as being caught and returned to slavery. I heard Sophia moan ‘No, no, no’ when they were caught, and felt for her. Hiram, not so much. I don’t know if he is meant to be stoic or aloof, but the book doesn’t work because we don’t feel any of the horror he goes through. We watch it, like watching TV, with no emotional connection.
Again, we are not supposed to criticize the politically correct voices here. This is a novel that feels like an essay, too much head and not enough heart.
Then the lack of connection lead to the fatal flaw in any novel. I had to push myself to finish it. Reading, which should be a joy even when difficult, had become a chore.
Good writing is honest. But honesty should never be used to hide sadism. I want these ‘Reviews for Writers’ to look at writing honestly. We can learn how to be great writers by reading great fiction, but also by analyzing where attempts at great writing miss the mark. And here I think Coates misses the mark by not being emotionally honest. I think he is an intellectual of sorts and fears sharing that part of himself with the reader. He holds back and the result is a character, Hiram, who never connects. Good honest writing should go up to the point of almost embarrassing the writer. Coates gets nowhere near that line.
Why do we read great fiction? As compared to watching a movie. A good novel let’s the reader immerse into the author’s world, to feel and experience with the characters. Whether it is to feel the horror of slavery or the ecstasy of love, to endure the hardships of separation from family or share the joy of a common goal attained.
Reader want to experience everything without the real negative risks of beatings, torture or death.
A swing and a miss here.

Review of Emily Gunnis’ ‘The Girl in the Letter’

Nope. I was reading Emily Gunnis’ ‘The Girl in the Letter’ and it just doesn’t work.
A good novel creates a world that the reader immerses into, like a warm bath. It becomes all encompassing, and even when the world is on a different planet or a foreign country, the reader suspends disbelief and allows the author to lead them on a fantastic journey, all the way to the gates of Mordor. But when that suspension of disbelief is pushed too far, when the writer tries to get away with too much, the balloon pops and all the faults begin to rain down on a reader. ‘The Girl in the Letter’ is such a book.
The evil characters, the doctors, the priest and the nuns, are cardboard caricatures of evil. I rolled my eyes and pushed on, but it was the beginning of the end. For writers, a good way to prevent yourself from creating such types is to write a chapter or two from the evil character’s point of view. I could not imagine Mother Carlin sitting down for a social cup of tea with another character. Gunnis should have written such a chapter, even if she tossed it, as an exercise in humanizing the evil. In truth, humanized evil is much more frightening. Remembering that everyone is the hero of their own story and understanding what drove the nuns. I half expected the nuns to take off their habits to reveal sexy lingerie with Nazi swastikas and have the novel go full camp.
There are so many coincidences that make the story work as to compound the unbelievability. An empty mansion for twenty years and Samantha and Kitty just happen to be there the same night? Okay. Two characters connected to the mansion that both had the same boyfriend, who happens to die? Okay. Samantha looking for files and just happens to find the incriminating one in less than five minutes? Okay. Elvira and Kitty happen to meet on the same night their father dies in a traffic accident? Okay. Two twins switched as ten year olds and nobody noticed? Okay. A series of letters that lead like breadcrumbs, until you realize Annabel Rose had the whole loaf of bread she is feeding to Sam. And how did she get all of these letters that were not addressed to her? Okay.
As the whole contraption staggers along other minor faults become irritations. Too many characters with too many jumps of point of view. Similar names to remember like Emma and Elivira, Cannon and Connor. Characters becoming tired and staggering. Lost, again and again. An asshole ex-husband and an asshole boss. Cliche bickering that was painful to read. We are told, ie telegraphed that certain characters die, and then we see the actual scene where they die. We know what is going to happen already. What was the point?
Then a story line grafted on that an evil pharmaceutical company was involved. No explanation of what drugs they might be testing on children and why. Adding a corporate interest to crucify beside the Catholic church. (Which the cynic in me wonders why not the Anglican church? This is in England.)
With fifty pages to go the author reaches for the low hanging fruit of putting the child of the main character at risk and we know the melodramatic ending is about to be tacked on to the already Kafkaesque story of the wrong sister being imprisoned. That that story line is not explored betrays that the author knew they had gone over the top.
Disappointing. The factual information this story is based on is important and deserves a good airing. But this is too much of a polemic preaching rather than good literature.

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ISBN 9781472255099

Review of D. H. Larence’s Selected Stories

I picked this Penguin Classics ‘D. H. Lawrence Selected Stories’ off my shelf looking for something lighter during this time of Covid-19. On reading it I realized this was a University text I had read parts of twenty years ago. ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ I remember like yesterday. It is the closest I remember Lawrence coming to a supernatural subject.
I am working on my short story writing during this pandemic lock-down, so reading shorts is a marvelous way to learn from the masters. If Lawrence was not famous for his novels, his short stories alone would make him an important author.
I enjoyed these stories. Some are sad, like ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’. I have read quite a bit of Lawrence, but never had seen death of the miners addressed. It must have been too common.
The sudden falling in love of characters, as in ‘Love Among the Haystacks’, was troubling but I suppose common. I laughed at seeing multiple characters named ‘Lydia’, as in ‘The Rainbow’. Lawrence’s mother’s name was Lydia, and she had an enormous impact on him.
Lawrence has been in and out of fashion. I love the very close third person narrative. The thoughts and feelings of these characters are vivid and encompassing. The minds are not always perfectly reasonable, as none of our minds are. We can be petty or obstinate, romantic and ethereal, and sore between extremes. These characters intimately express these feelings in a way I find so incredible and strive to match in my writing. I am reminded of George Eliot, stripped of the decorum. It does not quite match the stream of consciousness from Virginia Woolf, but might be compared to Tolstoy if he didn’t have the Russian censor looking over his shoulder.
I betray myself. Lawrence is my favourite, and I am still thirty-some years after first reading his work, in awe of his talent. Highly recommended.
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ISBN 978-0-141-44165-8

Book Review of Miriam Toews’ ‘A Complicated Kindness’

I read Miram Toews’ ‘A Complicated Kindness’ after reading ‘Women Talking’. I was looking for something more accessible and frankly, something a little more fun to read. ‘A Complicated Kindness’ filled the bill well.
I see many comparisons of the principal character, Nomi Nickel, to Holden Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, but I empathized more with Nomi. Same teenage angst, but a more caring protagonist.
The voice is smart-alecky, world-weary at times, a little too precociously cliche, but the honest fear and confusion of this young woman is compelling. I found myself almost immersed into her world, but bumped out by the weird behaviour of so many of the characters. It rattled my suspension of disbelief a few too many times. And the ending was a bit of a Cinderella story, saved by the prince. In this way, the ending echoed ‘All My Puny Sorrows’.
Spoiler: The last five or ten pages through a bit of a curve ball. I like surprises, but the reader should be able to think “Yes! That is what I should have seen coming.” I didn’t see any clues to the weird wrap with Trudie. And I would have liked to have seen a more active agency taken by Ms Nickel, but that is a minor quibble.
But it is really well written. Dense prose that covers a lot of ground, but feels light to read. There is a lot going on here and it is worthwhile for a reader to take some breaks and digest it all. A really good novel.

Review of Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’

I saw this on a Social media post recently: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can give them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style’. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re still happy.” Dorothy Parker.
This provided the impetus to re-read this ‘little’ book. My copy of the 3rd edition is 88 pages, so we can read it in a couple of hours. It is time well spent for any writer.
Short prescriptive rules delivered by the grammar ‘Drill Sargent’ that is William Strunk Jr have passed the test of time. First published in 1918, the book still helps every student write clear, concise prose. Clear writing goes hand-in-glove with clear thinking and this book helps deliver both.
I had bookmarked favorite rules, like # 15, ‘Put statements in Positive Form’, or the rule on not using not. Rule # 14, ‘Use Active Voice’, a lesson every writer should learn. And my most quoted rule when critiquing work, #16, ‘Use definite, specific, concrete language’. ‘The surest way to arouse and hold attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete’. I have always believed the very best fiction is delivered by knowing what specific details to include.
Strunk shows he cares about the reader, how the message of prose is received and that a writer must always think of that reader when delivering a sentence, paragraph or longer work. I would take it further to say the writer must always empathize with a reader and understand how their prose is received and experienced.
This is a great little book that every writer should read. I am constantly amazed at how many budding writers share work full of spelling and grammatical errors. Reading is meant to be an immersing experience, where the reader lives the thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams of the fictional characters. In the words of John Gardner readers ‘Sink into the dream of the story’. But it jars them out of that dream by spelling and grammar errors. Done too often, they will put down the story and not return.
I highly recommend this book and that writers learn and follow these rules.

Review of Dallaire’s ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’

I tried to read Romeo Dallaire’s ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ The overwhelming arrogance of the author left me so cold, I had to abandon it about a third of the way through.
Reading a book involves a contract between the buyer/reader and the author. I will give you twenty dollars or so, plus ten or twelve hours of my time, and you will entertain/inform/enlighten me in some fashion. I am agreeing to spend twelve hours listening to and considering their thoughts and opinion.
It is an intimate commitment, a close one-on-one between reader and writer. If it is not enjoyable then there must be some over-riding gain for me, the reader. When that gain is insignificant, I don’t feel compelled to spend that time with a weak mind, an arrogant blow hard, or a self-righteous preacher. The twenty dollars I wont get back, the twelve hours I can better spend.
I have a quote by Theodore Sturgeon saved. ‘It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.’ Dallaire believes he could solve all the world’s problems if people would just do what he says.
So many people rated the book great. I guess they don’t read many really great books by wonderful talented writers. This isn’t one.

Review of ‘You think it, I’ll say it.

I initially enjoyed this collection of short stories, but if it wasn’t a required reading for the North Shore public library book club, I wouldn’t have finished it.
I suppose this is modern literature, imbued with the right amount of Gender Studies, updated roles, Trump supporters, and a vapidness at the capitalist society. But I am reminded of painting a room once, being in a hurry, and putting the paint on too thick. I came back to find it had run, streaks of excess marring the new surface. So too Sittenfeld has put the political correctness on too thick.
In ‘The Prairie Wife’ the character Kirsten considers destroying the reputation and fortune of a former lover, Lucy. She knows a secret, and her self righteousness gives her the okay to tear down that hypocrite. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would like to see Sittenfeld explore that holier-than-thou aspect, but I felt it was condoned.
There is a sameness to the characters and settings that becomes boring.
Smart characters that veer into cattiness. Such shallow people are everywhere, but I felt the author shared in the bitchiness. I was awed that these characters so easily thought about committing adultery without any thoughts on the pain and suffering it inflicts. That lack of empathy and introspection left me cold.
Sittenfeld has a character say “It’s not that you’re wrong. But when you say stuff like this, it makes life a lot less enjoyable.” She should listen to her better self.