Book Reviews for Writers


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 Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’

I have just finished reading Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’. I love his vocabulary, the use of words, and the images he evokes. It is soaring languages in places, but it is also a dirty, squalid book, reveling in pornography and filth. I remember a university professor describing Ben Johnson as documenting a pub crawl across England. In ‘Tropic of Cancer’, Miller documents a slither through the whorehouses and the cheap side of the arrondissements of Paris. He likes to use the ‘C’ word, and the ‘N’ word, for their shock value. But it gets old, and soon I have an image of a three-year-old who realizes saying ‘Fuck’ will get him all kinds of attention. I would say there is some adolescent qualities to Cancer, but Miller was forty-three when it was published. But it is a version of a Peter Pan story, or at least an American Peter character, refusing to grow up.
At two-thirds through the book, I was still trying to discern a story or a character arc. I don’t think the main character, Miller, grows at all.
It is interesting to read Anais Nin’s ‘Henry and June’, to get a different perspective on some of the same time period. Nin clearly calls out the need for emotion connectivity.
Other reviewers have labeled Miller amoral. George Orwell said ‘and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses’.
And a modern reader will pause over his treatment of women. They are the C word to Miller, not much more. Or Madona’s to be worshipped. Mona and Tania, who I understand are his wife June and Anais Nin, are idolized, but not presented as full genuine characters.
Miller observes, but never connects. There are no relationships beyond drinking buddies. It is funny that I have read Miller critique DH Lawrence as too intellectual, but Miller’s prose is all in the head or the groin, there is no connection to the heart. They copulate, but they don’t know passion or love.

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December 6, 2021
Review of Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’
ISBN-10 0-8021-3178-6

Book Review of Noel Riley Fitch’s ‘Anais: The Erotic Life of Anais Nin’

Review of Noel Riley Fitch’s ‘Anais: The Erotic Life of Anais Nin’
ISBN 9780316284318

I don’t often abandon a book halfway through, but I just couldn’t finish this. It is basically a running tally of who Anais Nin had sex with. Her early childhood and the obvious sexual abuse by her father was informative, but I was hoping for more on her writing and growth as a writer. I read her ‘D.H.Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study’ , and was always a fan of her ‘Letter to the Collector’. Both are good work. I wanted to better understand this woman. This book didn’t do that for me.

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Book review of ‘Finding the Mother Tree’

‘Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest’, by Suzanne Simard
ISBN 9780735237759

This is a well-written book. I liked the opening, a simple declaration: ‘For generations, my family has made its living cutting down trees’. I can imagine Green Party environmentalists and tree huggers recoiling in horror. So Dr. Simard comes clean on her background and level sets. That gives the book a middle-of-the-road reasonableness that makes it accessible. I read this as a North Vancouver City library book club selection and feared it was another Naomi Klein Social Justice Warrior kook tome. It is not.
It is written as a mystery. Why are these young seedlings not growing and thriving? That mystery pulls the reader into the book.
I have a writing quote by Kurt Vonnegut I like: ‘Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring… which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.’ Dr. Simard cares.
I did a year of University science before lateraling to night school and an English major, so I do have a basic science background. Even so, I did struggle with this book at points. The biological terms for species, the Latin ‘mycorrhizas’ and ‘mycorrhiza’ , understanding how the different fungi look and functions boggled me a bit. I would have liked a short tutorial to come up to speed. I almost quit reading, but persevered, and am glad I did. I encourage all readers to do the same.
Simard shares personal history and experiences is a way that is gentle yet honest. Writers are admonished to be honest, as it results in the best writing.
So caring and honesty. Two home runs in one book. Highly recommended.

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Review of ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
ISBN 978-0-593-28610-4
Published 2020

This is a well-written book. I enjoy reading fiction that feels professional and polished. Well thought out, planned and executed. The hard work is nice to see and I admire good writing.
It covers some tough social issues; Family and siblings, Abandonment, Domestic violence, Racism and trauma, Gender and sexuality, poverty, mental illness. Which is good, and not so good. I felt the book was a vehicle to transport these subjects, rather than a novel exploring characters. But it was not preachy. I am still on the fence as to how well it works. This review is my way to work that out.
It covers a long sweep of history, from 1954 to 1986. And the narrative is not in chronological order, so a reader has to be on his toes. Even chapters had some jumps back and forth in time. And there are a number of characters to track as well, which required some effort. A few of times I wasn’t sure who’s POV I was in.
I think my only real knock on the book was ‘Who’s story is this?’ I started assuming Stella and Desiree, but we don’t get as close to either as I would like. Regular readers of my reviews know I love close third person. I want to experience with the characters, I want to know their thoughts and feelings and motivations. But they kept the reader a little distant from them, which is a flaw. And then they drop back and the stories of Jude and Kennedy come forward, bringing in Reese. But there continues to be a distance. I never felt like I really knew any of these characters. The author doesn’t let us get close enough.
There are a couple of coincidences to make the story work, but they didn’t totally jar me out. If anything, I saw the retirement cocktail party coming. But that was trivial.
A few things stretched my belief. Stella becoming a mathematics prof so late in life. How long Jude kept her knowledge from her mother didn’t seem realistic, and they did not explore any motivations for keeping it a secret. Again, this might have been a chance to get closer. A missed opportunity.
This was a good book, and I will probably seek out her earlier novel ‘The Mothers’.

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The Myth of the Solitary Hero

Superman. A solitary hero who saves the day. Spider man. Clint Eastwood in most movies. I would say Batman, but he had Alfred. Which veers towards the truth. Most genuine heroes work with teams.
The ability to recruit, organize and motivate. This is leadership. Coaches of elite teams, leaders of industry or politics, generals of armies, directors of movies and plays, scientists exploring vaccines or the cosmos. Mother Teresa feeding the poor.
Here is the West, and especially in North America, the myth of that solitary hero handicaps us and sets up unrealistic hopes and dreams. And often teaching the leadership skills to organize teams is an afterthought until well after they achieve a university education.
I have had the pleasure of working for some outstanding leaders, and the misfortune to work for some others.
In my career, I started as a sole performer, a techie doing my job. And I slowly advanced to managing other techies. And I learned to manage people in an ad hoc fashion. I like people and found I was good at it. They gave me more people to manage, bigger projects to manage, and I joked I was on the career path of getting bigger and harder projects until I would fail and be fired. Such was the career path of a project manager.
But joking aside, I didn’t really get much training in how to manage teams. I learned tools, scheduling, logistics, contracting, finance. Some sales and marketing. But how does a leader get the most out of his or her team? This ‘Royal Jelly’ is not really applied to most managers. It is through trial and error that we learn how to get the most out of people.
And trial and error minimizes the costs of those errors. I pushed some former teams to the breaking point, and beyond. A peer once told me I was too hard, that I was burning people out, and I honestly said I didn’t care as long as my project came in on time and on budget. In the IT industry, we call it a death march and many development leaders still do it.
If I could talk to that younger me, I would set him straight. As I suppose my peer was trying to do.
But I have learned, through reading, independent study, and some continuing trial and error, that outstanding performance can be conjured out of teams with a better approach than bullying.
People want to do a good job. They want to be a part of building something, achieving some goal, creating something new and good. And if it is hard to achieve that goal, if it takes thought and effort and new ways of thinking or doing, that energizes most people. Good people like a challenge. They rise to that challenge.
I am not a deeply religious man, but I admire the picture of Christ at the Last Supper. He knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he built a team of twelve.
In our communities, our businesses, our churches, families, societies, we need to recognize that nobody achieves much of importance without collaboration and teamwork. There are no heroes coming to save the day. That myth of rugged individualism handicaps us. We, collectively, together as teams, can be those heroes.

Review of ‘Aria’ by Nazanine Hozar

Aria by Nazanine Hozar c2019
ISBN 9780345811820

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, today I tackle someone who lives here in the same city, Vancouver.
As I write this, I am debating whether I should slant my reviews in the hopes that my book, when it is finished, will be more likely to get an excellent review in return. That is how I think so many reviews read, and it is wrong. At least for this series, which is supposed to inform both myself and others about the craft of writing, what a writer does well, and what doesn’t work so well is my honest goal. If anyone thinks, sees or senses that hunt for reciprocals in these reviews, please call it out. Because I know literary circles are not that big, I worry about running into someone whom I give a less than glowing review of their work. But as I always coach writers, Be Brave!
I liked this book, and wanted it to be better. I live in North Vancouver and we have a large Persian community . I have heard Tehran is a beautiful city, deep in history, and this book caught some of that.
Hozar may have been trying to do too much in this novel. The sweep of generations, family, loves, rivalries. The history of religion and Persian nationalism, political repression, Muslim misogyny. The meeting of world religions in the crucible of revolutionary Iran. My thought would be to either add material to do justice to all of these themes or to edit out some and have them become background setting. As is, none were fully fleshed out or well presented. I think a lack of confidence in her voice hobbled the author.
My knock on the book was the narrative distance with the characters. Regular readers of my reviews will know I am a huge fan of close third person. I want to immerse into a story and smell, taste, hear, feel and think like the main characters. I want to experience their world and understand their thoughts and actions. That is the attraction of the novel for me, and that is the bar I set for any novel I read and review.
I wasn’t always sure who’s story this was. I defaulted to Aria, but many actions and scenes had nothing to do with her. And the large cast of characters was hard to keep straight.
But reading the scenes with Aria, Hozar flirts more with a distant omniscient narration. This creates a distance that makes it hard to empathizes with her. I didn’t understand her reasoning at times, because I was watching her rather than experiencing with her. When she threw the boiling water on Mrs.Shirazi, I thought less of her. I never understood what she wanted or needed, and I felt a lack of agency on her part to move the story ahead. When her father died, there was nothing. If she was in love with Hamlet, I never felt that. If she was hurt at losing Mitra or understood how hurt Mitra was, the thought never seemed to cross her mind. And pet peeve, her career aspiration was to be an accountant?!
A good first novel. I think she needs an editor to tell her not to be afraid, not to couch or soften her approach. To show the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Be honest, be brave.

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June 27, 2021

Review of Norman Doidge’s ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing’

Norman Doidge ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’

I previously read Doidge’s ‘The Brain that changes itself’ and was impressed. I suffered a minor Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) in June 2019, and have a personal stake in understanding and using methods to treat mTBI. Understanding neuroplasticity and learning methods to relearn skills has been a primary goal over the last two years. So I came to this book with high hopes. I was disappointed.
I am writing a series of book reviews for writers, and my focus has been fiction and creative writing, but I see problems here that any writer should know.
The biggest fault with this second book is the length. It needs a good edit. Doidge gives long detailed descriptions of patients, their histories, their personal situations, personalities, lack of progress until they engage with him, and then a long narrative on their progress. The first one or two are informative, but there are too many of them. I skimmed these details, looking for the meat of the theory and treatment.
There are impressive gains happening in the fields of understanding the brain, injuries and illnesses, understanding neuroplasticity, and Doidge captures that well. It is a wonderful time to be a researcher or clinician in this field. And I am sure Dr. Doidge enjoys speaking about his work. But as in Hamlet, brevity is the soul of wit. The author needs to make his point and then move on. If he really thinks much of this narrative is needed, footnotes or an appendix would be a better approach. I ended up skimming the last third.
And my final knock on the book was related to a back cover comment, ‘Doidge uses stories to present innovative science with practical real-world applications, and principles that everyone can apply to improve their brain’s performance and health.’ But it wasn’t so. So much of the treatments involves lasers or a PoNS device that the patient puts on their tongue while doing exercises. I felt much of the book was an advertisement to enroll in paid clinical work, at tens of thousands of dollars. I had echoes of Tom Vu saying ‘Take My Seminar’.

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June 22, 2021
ISBN 9780670025503

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
ISBN 978-0-06-205988-8

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, today I tackle someone who is a favourite of many, Neil Gaiman, and his ‘American Gods’.
I wish I could write this well. The language is wonderful, the descriptions are full and satisfying. The word choices and the depth of research are astounding. History and hard work are on display here.
Reading his own comments on this tenth Anniversary edition of ‘American Gods’, I laughed to read that some people love it and some hate it. I don’t fit neatly into either camp, but can see some faults that bothered me.
Almost every writing course I have taken has spoken about character arcs, having the main character (MC) want something, need something, and finally learn something. I don’t get that in Gaiman’s books. The MC seems to just be along for the ride. Richard in ‘Neverwhere’, the boy/man in ‘The Ocean at the end of the Lane’ and Shadow in ‘American Gods’ are passive observers. We don’t know what they want, and they put no active agency into getting it. As a result I read without much involvement. If the characters don’t have much invested, why should the reader?
The second fault I had was with the story. Spoiler alert. Two groups of Gods are fixing to have an epic battle. The suspense builds. Why they are battling is not clear, and the stakes, beyond their lives, is less clear. These Gods don’t seem to have all that much real power over the society, America, they purportedly rule. And who exactly is prodding on the war is not clear. But then, the war doesn’t happen. Return to status quo. Whoa.
There may be too many characters to keep track of, and while I don’t like the cartoon character naming of people, it does help address the large cast.
I felt this book could of had a bit better editing, but famous authors seem to make editors gun shy. Pity. Shadow hung from a tree dying for nine days, during which thoughts and images and history went through his mind, until I was hoping he would just die. Enough.
And then the worst fault, the magic rebirth. If people cannot die, the stakes are reduced to ‘Who cares’. In ‘NeverWhere’ and ‘American Gods’ people die and then magic wand, come back to life. Because I expected Shadow to come back, I wasn’t worried about him dying. Again, a lack of investment by the reader in the character and the story, which weakens the whole thing.
I was looking for some sort of metaphor of this story to American life, but if it is here I missed it. New Gods versus old Gods I sort of got, but this is a mainly rural book, so the push and pull between city and rural is missing, as is the conflict between left and right, Red and Blue. So many issues like race, poverty, guns, religion, abortion, etc, are ripe for discussion if only metaphorically, and with a title like ‘American Gods’, I think that is what I was expecting. Sadly, no.

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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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