Review of ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers. I stayed in bed this morning and finished reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ by Douglas Mitchell. I nearly didn’t finish it. It is a long book, parts are very boring and some of the characters are not worth the time it takes to get to know them. I think Mitchell is someone who likes to hear himself talk, and talk he does. Sometimes I think editors are afraid to tell famous writers they should condense or ‘edit’ their work, and I think Mitchell falls into this class. He has written 80 books. That’s a clue. Maybe slow down, write and rewrite a bit.
This is a plot-driven novel rather than character driven, and the plot jumps all over the place. It was hard to find a single character I empathized with. And none really grew or learned anything in the story. I didn’t ‘experience’ anything with the characters, but just watched them act out the plot.
There is a section in the middle of the book where the characters speak with what is supposed to be a dialect, but it comes across as an annoying affectation, speaking for pages and pages on end about goats. God, give me strength.
This would be the major knock on the book, the long passages of ‘Reader, look at me.’ Yes, you write beautiful prose. Your point? Prose that reads like writing needs to be re-written.
I wont read another book by him.
He finally wraps the book with some concise decency, railing for a better world, and it almost redeemed the 944 pages of side show. Almost.
Tom Hanks has a movie out based on the book. It takes less than three hours to watch. That would be my recommendation. On second thought no. The movie cost $100 Million to make, and flopped, bringing in less than $10M. I assume the movie had the same issues as the book.
I am torn between two stars and three. Two I think. I hate to give ones.

Review of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country

I finished ‘Yellow Bird:Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country’ by Sierra Crane Murdoch. It is a good book and very well written.
The exploration of Lissa Yellow Bird was wonderful. A complicated, passionate character, conflicted, damaged, and resilient. We root for her.
The book suffered from jumping back and forth in time a bit too much; the action seemed to lag in the late middle part, and the number of people to keep track of was daunting. I kept some notes, but gave up at the two-thirds mark. Notes at the back of the book tell us Murdoch worked on this book for 8 years. She would have known these characters by heart, but a reader coming to this book new doesn’t have that. I think the author could have used a trick of fiction writers to give each character something we can remember them by. Wide eyes, booming voice, twitchy movements. Cues to help readers differentiate and picture each person in this large cast.
I enjoyed the look at aboriginal societies, families and culture. The ideas of Lakota sociologist Marie Yellow Horse Brave Heart of ‘Historical Unresolved Grief’ are topics I will do some more reading on. This ‘Intergenerational Trauma’ rings true to me. Here in Canada, 50% of the women in prison are First Nations. Something is seriously wrong.
I liked that the book was honest about the drugs, alcohol and prostitution, and the effects of sudden wealth. The greed. I might have gone a little deeper on this, but not full-on Irvine Welsh. Although Lissa might not have consented to that.
I am starting a project, ‘Consenting to Learn in Public’ and this book club entry dove-tailed nicely with that. I want to better understand Aboriginal history, culture and issues. All of us in North America have a responsibility.

May 16, 2022
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Review of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country
ISBN 9780399589171

Review of As a Man Thinketh by James Allen

I had never heard of this book until Dr. Ben Hardy mentioned it in a podcast. I’m glad he did. Originally published over a hundred years ago, this feels like the original ‘Self-Help’ book. I have read dozens, from Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie and others. It is now a billion dollar industry, but this book felt like the precursor to all of them.
It is a short book, only 47 pages in my edition, but packed with great advice. The ‘Thought and Purpose’ chapter spoke to me. ‘Aimlessness is a vice, and such drifting must not continue for him who would steer clear of catastrophe and destruction.
This book can be read in just over an hour, so I highly recommend all readers take a look. And writers, I think this book may help focus and inspire you to get to work. It did me. Five Stars.

Review of As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
ISBN 978-1-62755-416-9
May 6, 2022
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A Writer’s Book review of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’.

I just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’. I was a little disappointed.
One of my favourite books is ‘1Q84’ by Murakami. It was the first of his books that I read and I think it is wonderful. Why have I had this experience before?
When I first read George Eliot’s ‘Middle March’ I was enthralled and astounded. This was real genius. How had I never read her before? But then I read ‘The Mill on the Floss’ and something negative simmered up.
So too with Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’. Outstanding. Then a letdown with ‘Sutree’.
And I see a pattern that may just be my values as a person and a writer. All three second read, weaker books, had stories that drifted, plots with fatalistic overtones, and characters who were acted upon rather than showing agency.
Young Kafka runs away at the beginning of the book, which is a gutsy thing to do. But it is like he jumps into the river and then just goes wherever the river takes him. Sleuthing out what he wants takes too long, and he never actively goes after it. Some magical forces conspire to bring him to the right places at the right time. Coincidences pile on coincidences, to the point where I had to do a quick lookup of “deus ex machina”, (Latin for: “god from the machine”). Was the fix in?
The writing is stellar. Descriptions, scenes, vistas and places are vivid. But it just goes on too long. It tempted me to jump sections to get the story moving along faster. I didn’t but they could have been edited out. Some physical descriptions, especially of women, felt odd at best. The iterations of describing musical passages felt a little self indulgent, even condescending. Murakami wants you to know he is smarter than you, which is never a good look for a writer.
But my biggest knock on the book was the distance I felt from the characters. Especially as the sections from Kafka were in First person, it was odd that a gap between what he felt, wanted and experienced to the reader develops. He is holding back and so we watch rather than experience the story.
What do these people want? What do they feel? Not what do they think, we get a bit too much of that. What do they feel? Empty is my answer. They lack heart, passion, love, or even hate. Hollow men without agency. Sad.
I didn’t get that in ‘1Q84’, and I didn’t expect it here. It may be harder to read a third book.

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Review of ‘The 1619 Project’ by Nikole Hannah-Jones

I want to do a review of ‘The 1619 Project’ but need to be careful. The Woke Folk jump on anything less than fawning praise of their work.
This book was a tough read. I put it down and then picked it up again three or four times over about three weeks. The material is brutal. The history of slavery in the US is long and ugly, and exposing that horror takes a toll on a reader. I wonder how many people start reading this book, with good intentions, and then just put it down in sheer exhaustion?
It is a history everyone should know. But the nature of the book, a series of individual essays by separate authors, while giving a pleasant change of voices throughout, allows for a lot of repetition. The Tulsa Race Massacre is mentioned a dozen times by different writers. It slowed down the pace, with this reader thinking I already read this.
The book is controversial for a few reasons, but controversy sells books, so that can’t be a fault. That it turns down the light on Reagan’s ‘Shining City on the hill’ is probably what some dislike the most. But I like truth over myth, so this book fills that requirement.
The final chapter on restitution had me shaking my head. In some ways, it mirrored Canada’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Report’ on Canada’s treatment of indigenous people. Suggestions that will probably never be considered by the vast majority of voters, but also a missed opportunity. All of the suggestions are aimed at others. The white people, the municipalities, the States or Provinces, the Federal government. The churches, the financial institutions, the law. If instead it included a call to action by Black or Indigenous people, it might have some real world effects. Hannah-Jones laments that for much of history Black people have been not actors but acted upon. A call to action would have been well placed.
I have a friend who says some people look out the window for solutions, and some people look in the mirror. These works need to look in both places.

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March 9, 2022

Review of ‘The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones
ISBN 9780593230589

Review of ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

Continuing my series of ‘Book reviews for Authors’, this month I read a North Vancouver City Library book club selection ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue. This is so well written I am surprised I never heard of her before, or any of her books. I will definitely put ‘Room’ on my to-read list.
The timing of this book was fortuitous, a book on the 1918 influenza pandemic that came out in time for the current Covid pandemic. It is historical fiction, but almost reads like a non-fiction work. The reader learns a ton about midwifery and nursing, and it only once or twice veers into a medical lecture by nurse Power.
There are three strong female characters here, all presented through the first person voice of Julia Power. I wished I could have gotten a little closer to Power, which is an odd criticism for a first person novel. I never felt I really knew what she wanted or what drove her, until the very end when she is so hurt and does something that felt rash. But in a good way. My other character complaint with Power was her naivety. I have a sister and two close friends who are nurses. By 30, they had seen everything, so when Julia was surprised by some of the abuse around her, it just didn’t ring true. But that is a minor quibble.
A good book is one you don’t want to end, and this book hit that mark. The sudden death of young Bridie Sweeny had me wishing it not to happen, so I was invested in the book and the characters by then. Which is what I want, a good emotional ride, an immersion into the fictional world. ‘The Pull of the Stars’ delivered that. Highly recommended.

February 9, 2022

Review of ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

ISBN 9781443461801

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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 ‘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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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