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’.

Book reviews for Writers : Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
ISBN 0-380-97363-4

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, I had to confess to a writing buddy recently that I had never read a Neil Gaiman book. How was that possible? He is everywhere and acclaimed and, well, everywhere. I suppose I have just too many books to read, and nobody has ever said to me ‘You need to read this book!’ So, I did a quick Google search and came up with 5 or 6 suggestions. ‘Neverwhere’ jumped out as the novel that seems to have launched Gaiman, so I picked that and dove in.
It is fantasy, and I have read little fantasy since high school. I majored in English Literature at UBC and there wasn’t much on the syllabus. My taste still tends toward literary fiction or non-fiction, or books on the writing craft. I hope I don’t have any arrogance towards genre fiction. I don’t think so.
First impression was the ‘Neverwhere’ was a nice easy read. I didn’t have to take notes, like I did with Aislin Hunter’s ‘The World Before Us’, one of my favourites. It starts fresh, simple and down to earth. Slightly sad sack Richard Mayhew out for drinks before leaving Scotland for London. I have visited London a few times so I felt comfortable with the setting. And, at this point, I didn’t know it was a fantasy story. (I try not to read reviews before reading a book or writing a review myself. I like to capture my fresh opinion.)
Richard was a little milquetoast at first. What does he want and what does he need are questions that come to the reader much later. But fortunately we meet Jessica and Door who know exactly what they want. And we meet a couple of outstanding villains in Mr.Coup and Mr.Vandemar. That Door lands at Richard’s feet as a damsel in distress, and that he reacts in a wonderful manly fashion made me laugh. I recently read Jessica Brody’s ‘Save The Cat! Writes a Novel’, and Gaiman follows her advice to a tee by having Richard save Door. How can we not like him?
“Neverwhere’ is a rollicking tale, set in a weird netherworld underneath London Above. The suspension of disbelief works well, as there is enough actual location and English flavour to give it a grounding, much like the first Harry Potter book, published almost the same year.
The characters, beside Richard who is pretty weak for the first half of the book, are vivid, well presented, and invested in the quest. There is no doubt what Door wants and the stakes are high. Life or death, which is great. The story grabs the reader, pulls them forward, where we engage and want to see what will happen next. As David Maas would say, amp it up. Ask myself ‘So what?’ If they fail to work things out, what is lost?’ Here, everything.
Character, setting, story. At this point I am thinking Gaimann is batting a thousand. I immersed into the book and read it in three days. Fun, entertaining.
But. As I finished and set it down, some of the less significant flaws came out. Character names like Door, Hunter, Islington, Old Bailey, Serpentine, and Anaesthesia and labels for types. Almost cartoon names. There is a set-piece feel to the story. And any larger themes are thin. What happens to Door post action is a mystery, and any kind of personal growth comes only to Richard as an afterthought.
But. It is fantasy and if a reader comes to the story expecting that, I would call this book an enormous success. The basic elements of a great read are all here; Character, Setting, Story. Highly recommended.

May 24, 2021

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Book Reviews for Writers : The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen
ISBN 978-0-8021-2345-9

Sometimes a writer just doesn’t speak to you. ‘The Sympathizer’ is a best-selling, critically acclaimed book, that I had to force myself to continue. My rule of thumb is to read 50 pages of a novel before giving up, but my pride forced me to keep going. I kept hoping it would get better, but it never did.
A wonderful novel is an immersing experience. A reader becomes the main characters, sees, feels, smells and lives the life of those characters. This is what I expect from a great novel.
But ‘The Sympathizer’ has barriers to the reader immersing into the story. It has taken some time and thought to understand what those barriers are.
A writer is rightly guided to show, not tell. But ‘The Sympathizer’ is a story told. It is written as a confession by an unnamed protagonist to a superior called Man. The unknown name creates an instant distance, and then the format furthers it. I realized it was akin to sitting beside someone in a bar and having them tell me the story. The bar reference works as the principal character is a drunk.
A drunk, a murderer, a borderline pedophile. He forms no attachment to people, uses and discards people, considers himself above us mere mortals. Unreliable narrators can be fun, but there is no joy in this guy. I am not sure I laughed even once during the 400 some pages. Spending four or five hours with such a humorless person is a chore.
But then the fatal flaw appears. I have a quote on my blog page by Theodore Sturgeon, the science-fiction writer, ‘It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.’ And what this writer believes is that he is smarter than you, me, everyone. There is a talking down to the reader that is so off-putting.
What does the character want or need? This is a mental exercise. There is no heart, no emotion, and certainly no love. The writer is not honest enough, cannot get close enough to the character to show us, and so the reader cannot experience his pain. At first I thought, who knows what he wants. Then I thought, who cares. And to read a novel where you don’t care, misses the entire point of reading a novel. I would give it a miss.

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Reviews for Writers of ‘The Code Breaker’

‘The Code Breaker’ by Walter Isaacson
ISBN 978-1-9821-1585-2

I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ yesterday, a book about Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, gene editing and the life sciences revolution that is happening today. It is a good book, but it could have been a brilliant book.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are two of the most famous scientists in the world right now, and deservedly so. They shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2020 and are rock stars. That they are also women leading the science is revolutionary. That aspect is shown, if just.
This book is a tour de force and covers a vast swath of science and scientific history. It reaches back to Nobel prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on DNA, and the reprehensible treatment of Rosalin Franklin by Watson and Crick. And here Isaacson first injects poor writerly judgment by apologizing for the men.
The book covers the science well. The processes, the organizations and the mustering of resources, the competition between scientists and their teams. But it is weak on the human side.
I don’t know Doudna after reading this book. Her thoughts, feelings, motivations are not shared. Her quirks(and we all have them), her values, her sense of humour. I felt the author liked George Church more and let that feeling show through. Charpentier plays too small a role in the story, and I feel she is an interesting character who could have shone. But Isaacson is poor in presenting people.
I previously read Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. I started reading that book in awe of what Jobs did, but thinking he was not a nice person or a good man. I left that book with my impression unchanged.
I started reading this book in awe of Doudna, but not knowing much about her personality. I finished the same way.
Isaacson would be well served to read some good fiction with an eye to how the author creates closeness, intimacy even, to great characters. He doesn’t get close to Doudna, so the reader can’t, and it hurts the book.
But he goes further and injects himself into the story. He shows a predisposition to be the moderator, to try to settle contentious issues. He papers over the genuine conflict between Doudna and Feng Zhang, as between Watson, Crick and Franklin. When both Doudna and Zhang are in attendance at future events, do they speak? Is the relationship strained, awkward even? The author is uncomfortable going there, so he doesn’t.
Good writing needs honesty, and I think this author fails on that account. He didn’t want to upset anyone. That gentle vision works in actual life but makes for milquetoast literature. And the book closes by winning a Nobel prize. I expected elation and celebration. Nope. A sad, final missed opportunity.

March 28, 2021, 2021

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Book Review for Writers of ‘Medicine Walk’ by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

I finished reading Richard Wagamese’s ‘Medicine Walk’ yesterday. It is an excellent book, but I found things to criticize, and feel it is not kosher to critique a first nations writer, especially one who has passed away. So I may not post all of my thoughts. But then that might be considered a lie, a pandering, or a sycophantic approach to Canadian literature. I will consider it.
I liked the story. The violence was a little harsh, and this led to my first criticism. The character Eldon drinks, to excess. But the violence almost is set up to give him an excuse. He lost his father to the war. And then he killed his friend Jimmy on the battlefield of Korea. And so he drank. And then he couldn’t take the pressure of being a father, so he drank. And his wife died in childbirth, because he was drinking, so he drank some more. Excuses. Good excuses, but excuses none the less.
The lack of education and the glorifying of it. I wished that Frank had been a little more intelligent, a little more articulate, a little more relate-able. I had trouble empathizing with him. I am a fan of close third person narrative where the reader comes to experience the characters feelings. Frank is the ‘strong silent’ type and doesn’t let the reader close. He was a bit of a cold pill. Sad.
And the scenes where his father described meeting and falling in love with his mother, I felt, were off. The narrator in those parts is not Eldon, it is someone much more erudite, much more articulate and educated and well spoken. I think we should have seen the struggle of Eldon to put those scenes into words. But Wagamese gave Eldon a voice he did not have. It bumped me out of the narrative. As did the explicit sex, I couldn’t see a father talking to his son about sex with his mother that way. I think he should have taken more time to explore the love angle, and less on the sex.
Here I thought a reading of Tolstoy would help the author describe love, as Anna and Vronski’s love was described. But a comparison to ‘Anna Karenina’ might be an unfair one.
For some reason, the descriptions of fishing bothered me. He made it sound too easy to catch trout and lost the sense of authenticity. Putting a baited line in the water and coming back in the morning to fresh trout doesn’t match my experience with trout fishing. But that is a minor quibble.
It is a beautifully written book and the descriptions are wonderful. I could see the forests, the mountains and streams. I did laugh at one spot where Frank looks over the valley and sees a deer, and an eagle, and a bear at the same time. That was so improbable to make me laugh.
And the lack of laughter and fun. Some simple joy. I think the book could use some of that.
The lack of appreciation of education I felt. Why did the old man not encourage Frank in learning and reading? And how did one man run a farm and raise a baby? I found that hard to believe.
So, my review here is veering towards harsh. Should I tone it down? It would not be politically correct in Canada right now. To hell with it, honesty is best, especially for writers learning to write, and that is who I write these critiques for.
March 7, 2021, 2021

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

ISBN 978-0-7710-8921-3

Book Review for Writers of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A classic read that was chosen as a monthly book club read. If it had not been a book I am committed to being able to intelligently speak about I would not have finished it. It is very wordy. There are times it reminded me that Dickens published most work in monthly magazines and was probably paid by the word count. Not a nice thought and distracting. But by the end I was entertained but also reminded why Dickens is not one of my favourites.
My biggest knock is that I never immersed into the story and experience the action as one of the characters. I am not sure I even knew any of the characters that well. Darnay left me wondering what he really cared about, and why Lucie fell for him. Lucie was described as a pretty blonde, but we never know her mind or heart. The banker Lorry is a fit vehicle to move the story, and the lawyer Styvner certainly strives to advance himself. So the caricatures that Dickens often employs rear their heads. There are good people and bad, but little nuance. In this case there are good cities (London) and bad (Paris) and the reality of life for people in either city is never explored. Which is something I want from great literature.
I loved the dialog. When characters are speaking to each other, I had a sense of watching a battle of wits, and enjoyed the words, the cadence, and the push and pull, thrust and parry of the interactions. The language and the vocabulary are stellar, as are the often unstated motives.
There were a couple of coincidences used to make the story work, and some name changes to keep this reader guessing. When Sydney Carton, who so resembles Darnay to get him acquitted in the first trial appears, I knew that resemblance would be used later in the book.
My wish is that this book had been more real, the characters more human, the hopes and fears more felt and experienced by the reader. That would have made this a great novel. I think this is a good book, not a great one.

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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

ISBN 9781645171560

Review of Aislin Hunter’s ‘The Certainties’

‘The Certainties’ is a different read. There is a doomed, claustrophobic feel to the sections where the three travelers are stuck in Portbou Spain. The scene where they are interviewed in a restaurant reminded me of the kitchen scene early in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Christoph Waltz so well plays the terrifying SS officer Hans Landa. In ‘The Certainties’ the Spanish are not so cartoon character evil, but are just as smothering in their approach. They use food as a weapon to the starving travelers and have a sadistic enjoyment in the power they wield.
Hunter’s earlier book ‘The World Before Us’ is one of my favourites, so I came to this book with high hopes. As a reader, I expected to be challenged, but I did not expect to be left forlorn.
I believe one of the highest goals of a well-written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk. We will not be sent back to face the Nazis but we share the gut wrenching fear of that prospect with the three travelers. We don’t bear responsibility for leaving a girl to die in a field, but share the shame. Here Hunter is successful.
As a reader and a writer, I take an interest in themes. I love stories, and great characters, without them a novel cannot be great. But what the stories explore is my interest. Here we see that Hunter’s theme is to bear witness. To speak of the atrocities we have seen. But then? I was left feeling the need for something more. Not a happy ending, but a glimpse of some possibly better world. Here and now, as we teeter on the edge of a fascist state taking place in America, this book made me feel more bleak and resigned to that terrible possibility. The brutality. Are we resigned to it?
I enjoyed the short section exploring how a man like Herr Gabler might climb to a position of power in a fascist state, but found it a fiction as imagined by the narrator. What the true story is, we will never know. As we will never know whether Suzanne and Bernard go forward or back to France. I wanted to know. With Certainty.
Some times and places I had trouble with. Where exactly is this island Pia is on? And what was the narrators name?
But these are quibbles. I am going to rate this book 5 stars, but with a warning. It is not a light summer read.

February 21, 2021

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The Certainties by Aislin Hunter
ISBN 9780735276871

Book review of ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ by John Gardner

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
ISBN 0-06-014956-6

This book had me traveling a whole spectrum of feelings, from ecstatic recognition of a voice I had always wanted to hear to tedious boredom of the Publication and Faith chapters. There are four sections and the first two are great. I might come back to the second two if I ever suffer writer’s block, but I also might suggest just reading the first two.
If you want to be a novelist, read this book. Gardner talks about what a novelist must understand, and hearing him describe those attributes was an electrifying affirmation that I was on the right track. The positive message had me jumping out of the book constantly to actually write. That kind of motivation is hard to find and is to be celebrated.
Loving language, playing with words, and mental exercises of incorporating themes, metaphors and symbols are all important. But the brilliant language always serves character, setting and action.
Creating that ‘Vivid and continuous dream’ for the reader to immerse in must be the writer’s number one goal. And plot as defined by what the characters want and how they go about getting it must be forefront.
This is not a technical writing book but a more thoughtful discussion on what sort of temperament a writer must cultivate to be a good novelist. A splendid book to have beside you as you begin a re-write of that first draft.
Highly recommended.

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Review of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Reading Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the first time, the Nonsense and Silliness struck me. The joy of word play, absurd dialog, impossible characters and fantastic scenes.
This is a strange book. There is not really a plot. It is very imaginative, both the characters and the dialog. Witty and funny. I wouldn’t call it a novel. There is no growth in the characters, almost no agency, they just bounce along. I am struggling to understand what it is about. Is there a point?
There is a world of cultural touch stones here. Down the rabbit hole following the white rabbit wearing a coat and kid gloves, checking his pocket watch and fretting about being late. Alice growing larger than smaller after eating cakes and mushrooms. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter having tea. The Queen of Hearts, ‘Off with their heads’ and the croquet game with hedge hogs for balls and flamingos for mallets.
All curiouser and curiouser.
I read the second half ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and tried to better understand what Lewis Carroll was getting at. Is it a bit of showing off with language? It has some linguistic arrogance by the author. And the notes from the illustrator, Sir John Tenniel complain about ‘That conceited old Don’, ie Dodgson.
It was also sort of mental Chinese food; I wished for something of more substance soon after. But it is a children’s book. I can see how it would entertain and keep youngsters interested. Who or what will they run into next? Fun.
To think it has survived and thrived for over 150 years is a testament to Carroll. We all hope our work can stand such a test of time.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll , Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel
ISBN13: 978-0-307-29087-8

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