Minor Characters

A Certain Smile - Françoise Sagan, Anne Green A simple story with evocative writing. While I certainly haven't been in the narrator's position, I think we're all familiar with the sense of loss and heartbreak that comes with unrequited love described in Part Three. A beautiful little book.
Thunder over the Prairie: The True Story of a Murder and a Manhunt by the Greatest Posse of All Time - Chris Enss, Chris Enss So this was basically shit. On the bright side, it's short.
The Vincent Brothers  - Abbi Glines Some things never change: Ashton is still an empty-headed twit and Beau is still a (sexy) caveman. But this is a different book, so some things are new. For instance:

Sawyer has an actual personality! With some depth! And while Lana is naive, she's also thoroughly likeable. And with that, The Vincent Brothers earns one star more than its predecessor.

Let's be honest, okay? Glines isn't kicking out classic (or even good) literature. But she is writing enjoyable stories, brain candy that will speak to your inner teenage girl. The Vincent Boys series isn't set to rock the teen fiction world or even remain memorable once you've put it aside, but both of these books are fun, which is the entire point.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't - Nate Silver A solid read on predictions, probability, and statistics, presented in such a way that even an inferior at math (such as myself) can understand. Silver beats the reader over the head with the Bayes's approach, especially in the second half, which gets repetitive and old after a while, but the book stands up well despite that. The Signal and the Noise fully deserves all the attention it has been garnering the past couple months; definitely recommended.
Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M. - Catherine Millet, Helen Stevenson Points granted for Millet's candor: jealousy, being on the nastier side of the emotional spectrum, is not something most people want to admit to or analyze in regards to their own situation.

Points deducted for attitude: holy hell, this woman is pretentious! Look, lady, you're giving in depth descriptions of how you crawled around on the floor, sniveling and searching your significant other's private stuff in order to find more proof with which to enlarge your wounds. You freely admit that this practice continued for years. Considering these pathetic facts, try not to be so freakin' smug about it.

Further points deducted for display of selected self-awareness: Millet admits to crisis-inducing jealousy, she admits to impossible expectations of her lover being so intuitive as to read her mind and behave in certain ways, and she admits to behavior like searching his things for more evidence after he's already admitted to his actions, but when it comes to acknowledging her own hypocrisy, there's a distinct lack. (If you've read The Sexual Life of Catherine M. you already know what I'm talking about. Even in Jealousy she makes mention of her own transgressions, although she does so as if hers are acceptable while his are not.) Lip service is paid late in the book, but it's only that, you can tell she's not really acknowledging any double standard.

Overall it was nice to read about someone delving into the muck of jealousy. Unfortunately, Millet thinks she's much more clever than she actually is, the writing is pretentious to the point of being ridiculous, and it's probably safe to skip this one unless you really enjoyed her previous work.
The Marquis de Sade: A Life - Neil Schaeffer A thorough study of the Marquis de Sade, both his life and work. Schaeffer draws heavily on letters, journals, and Sade's surviving novels, plays, and essays to profile the man and analyze the legend. A worthwhile read for those with an abiding interest in the Marquis, although probably best for any casual readers to skip this one. The only complaint I have is that in parts this biography drags, and there's no excuse for these boring sections when the subject is such an infamous figure.
The Vincent Boys  - Abbi Glines We're all aware that bad boys with a heart of gold only exist in fiction, right? Just so we're clear.

When I rate a book, I always keep in mind the genre. For instance, a YA book will not be held to the same standards as a nonfiction cultural study intended for adults, as that would be an unfair comparison. Two totally different animals. When it comes to books like The Vincent Boys and the rest of the genre, I almost always rate based solely on how much fun I had reading it.

And I had a lot of fun reading this. Unfortunately, there are some glaring problems that took away stars. Even the teen genre needs a certain amount of quality.

Books like this are brain candy. Fun, light reading that doesn't require you to think too much, you just sit back and enjoy the story. These are the type of novel that give my brain a break when I've been reading too much history or nonfiction, so I keep a handful lying around for when I just need some entertainment. I love them more than I should, seeing as how I'm far older than the intended age group. Oh well.

First: I really did enjoy reading this. It was fun, the plot wasn't overly complicated, and Abbi Glines included some nice, fun scenes. Surprisingly racy for a teen novel, which I think is a good thing, it adds some realism that's missing in a lot of other teen romances. Let's be honest, teenagers have sex, and it's a nice change to see a young adult author actually acknowledging this fact. Her characters act like teens, not like adults stuck in teen bodies. They have fun, they fuck up, they don't always think before they act, and they hurt other people.

As another reviewer said, this was an entertaining way to pass a couple hours. Forgettable, cliche, downright ridiculous at times, and written without much skill, but still entertaining.

The Vincent Boys has its problems. The characters are poorly developed, underwritten, and only Beau has any sort of complexity. (I can, however, totally see why he's got such a drooling fan base.) Ashton is too simplistic for a narrator, and Sawyer is a complete caricature, as if Glines put him on a pedestal in order to avoid having to make him seem human. The parents? Oh God, don't get me started on the utterly cliche, inconsistently written parents.

I don't mind a cliche story and when reading books like this, I actually expect it to be cliche, as that's just the downfall of the genre. But the ending had better be, at the very least, freakin' believable. Glines failed at this, and she failed hard. A love triangle that rips apart cousins, reveals a deep family secret, involves betrayal and disapproving, judgmental parents, and she wraps it up all nice and neat and clean with everyone loving and accepting everyone else? Come. The Fuck. On. I know of no one who would, after an initial period of anger, give his blessing to the two people who screwed him over and then ensure they remained together. The religious father having a sudden change of heart and condoning his daughter's reckless behavior? Bullshit. I call bullshit on this. I call bullshit from the rooftops of teen novel land and I do so with a passion.

The ending almost ruined the entire thing for me. Too perfect, too sappy, and so utterly unbelievable that I was actually laughing at loud because it was just that awful.

Oh dear. Abbi Glines made a mistake with her conclusion, that's for sure. Honestly, she should've cut out every other character, given Beau his very own story separate from that mess, and run with it. He's good enough for the genre, but the rest (characters, ending, and cliches alike) are not.

Read it if you're not expecting anything other than fluff. And turn your logical brain completely off, you'll thank me for it later.
The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling 200+ pages in and I gave up. It's rare that I leave a book unfinished and even more uncommon that I rate an unfinished book (see my review of A Clockwork Orange), but in this case I made more than enough progress to justify a rating.

To state my opinion bluntly: I just didn't like it.

J.K. Rowling's writing isn't solid enough to support the material she's handling or the visceral reactions she's playing with. A Casual Vacancy nurtures a growing sense of dread as one reads. Rowling presents a panoramic view of life and yes, life is gritty, dirty, hard, and sometimes horrible. People are self-absorbed, commit crimes, do terrible things to each other, and eventually die. That's life and that's Rowling's entire focus: the shit. I normally love the dark, the gritty, and the unrelenting, but as Rowling gives these characters no redeeming qualities and keeps piling on the shit, the dread intensifies without any break provided by the author. The reader suffocates under the fact that things are already bad and will only get worse.

(Looks like I bailed on this one just in time. Domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse, bullying, cutting and self-injury, adultery...all spread generously between several families and all before I quit reading. From what I've read in reviews and other spoilers, things do get much worse, right down to the unsatisfying and depressing ending. Could someone maybe explain to the author that, sometimes, less is more?)

When reading, I should feel a lot of things for the characters and the story. As things progress towards the climax, I should be feeling anxious or nervous for the characters, I should be as invested in each twist and turn as they are.

What I should not feel is a sense of foreboding when I pick up the book to continue reading. I should not have to talk myself into sitting down and reading more than I already have. There's something very wrong if I'm asking myself, "Which would be more enjoyable? Reading another chapter in this book? Or scrubbing my entire apartment with an old toothbrush?"

When I realized my answer was "scrub with the toothbrush," I knew there was something fatally wrong. A Casual Vacancy is not a story meant for me.

For the record, I'm not flailing about the use of profanity or explicit sexual references. Such things don't offend me, they don't affect my enjoyment of a book, and they never sway my ratings. I've read Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and even the Marquis de Sade without flinching, and in comparison Rowling's work is damn near virginal.

(Allow me to insert a rather catty aside here. Another reviewer compared this to Vonnegut. Really? In what universe? Vonnegut was a master of satire and black humor. To put it mildly, Rowling is not.)

A brief note: Rowling's handling of "subtlety" needs some work. She's no longer writing for the YA audience, so dropping the overblown explanations and hammer-to-the-head foreshadowing would be a wise move.

Other reviewers have already stated the characters are all unlikable, and I agree, I think this is something Rowling did on purpose. Unfortunately, she made a potentially brilliant decision that fell flat due to the sheer number of point-of-view characters and an inability to entirely flesh out the individuals behind the dozen different perspectives from which she tried to tell her story. Characters don't have to be likable, but if the story is presented from their viewpoints, every single one of them had damn well better be more than two-dimensional caricatures. A couple (notably the teenagers) are well-formed and fully developed, but many are downright interchangeable for the first 100 pages. The more points-of-view a writer chooses to use, the more complicated the storytelling becomes and the more talent is required from the writer. An ensemble cast with one main POV (like, yes, Harry Potter) and an ensemble cast with multiple main POVs are two very different things requiring different handling. Rowling's adept at the first but proves here that her skills don't support the second.

To put that in a slightly different context: the characters don't have to be likable but the writer still has to make me care. I don't necessarily have to care about them but I do need to care about the story. If I'd given a flying fuck about even one of the characters Rowling wrote about here, I probably would've finished reading the book.

So, to wrap things up, I give a rare (for me) one star rating, which specifically states "didn't like it."

Because I didn't like The Casual Vacancy.

In fact, I disliked the book so much that I wasn't willing to force myself to finish. After investing the time and effort to read more than 1/3 of it, I put it down and walked away. I'm leaving the bookmark so I can find my place later if I have a change of heart, but realistically that means I'll probably never see that bookmark again.
Women - Charles Bukowski I always forget how much I enjoy Bukowski's writing, and then I'll pick up another of his works, start reading, and am flabbergasted by how long I let it sit untouched on the shelf. Women was no exception, and despite my disbelief at having ignored the novel for so long, I loved it.

Then again, I'm not easily offended nor do I suffer from an overload of ultra-sensitive feminist bullshit. Literature is a product of the world we live in, and that world is not always pretty.

Perhaps as a woman I should have been offended to the point I got the vapors and was forced to toss the book aside. But as a reader who appreciates authenticity, acknowledgement of reality, and unyielding grit in a book, I was engaged and ultimately satisfied. It's true, Bukowski's presentation of women is (a lot) less than politically correct, but the portrait is a genuine representation of an equally less than stellar segment of the male population. He doesn't hold anything back, the writing is all in, balls out, totally unapologetic. No flinching.

Yes, the author was likely a jerk-off. So was Hemingway. Get over it.

The reader isn't expected to view any of this as glamorous. Women portrays life as a never-ending cycle of dirt, shit, fuck-ups, and the occasional piece of good luck. Alcoholism is presented as the living hell it is, and more than one passage nails the down and out desperation of gambling. Some sections of the novel are disgusting while others are profound. None of the relationships are illustrated as anything other than dysfunctional, destructive messes, a fact that Bukowski repeatedly states in these same pages. (I find this point of view a far better alternative to a certain series aimed at impressionable teenage girls that presents obsession, stalking, and submission to the point of zombie-hood as a "healthy" relationship. The fact that the male "love" interest is a sparkly vampire simply adds insult to freakin' injury.)

And let's be honest here: there's no shortage of real life women who act exactly like the women in Bukowski's writing. The delusions, the irrational behavior, the freak outs and mind games, their own jacked up double standard, the sheer insanity...I've dealt with a Lydia before. It isn't pretty, not in books and certainly not in real life. Preach it, Bukowski.

Bukowski's writing is deceptively simple; it's also effective. The situations are repetitive but the character's emotional response is not, just pay attention to the gradual changes over time. His behavior doesn't change, but at least there's self-awareness at play. (Yet another element sorely lacking in the aforementioned series.) At the end of the day, love it or hate it you're still thinking about it, and that's a sign the author did his job and did it well.

Like I said earlier, I loved this. If you dislike generous use of the f-bomb, the c-word, and explicit sex, it would be best to pass on this one. If you fall into the militant feminist category, you're going to hate it with a passion.

But if you're open-minded, pick this up and give it a shot. Women isn't a hard or time-consuming read, so you've got nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick Freakin' brilliant.

A difficult, devastating read that delivers a powerful punch to the gut, a blow that's only minimally softened by Philip K. Dick's black humor. A Scanner Darkly is deftly written, an incredible portrait of a gradual degeneration into drug-induced destruction, and one of those unsettling books that stay with a reader long after the back cover is closed.

Mother effin' genius. Go read it. Now.
The Little Horses of Tarquinia - Marguerite Duras, Peter DuBerg (Of note: this review applies only to the translation by Ann Lenore Derrickson.)

With multiple layers and strong themes, The Little Horses of Tarquinia is a beautiful story butchered by a terrible translation. Derrickson's inconsistent version lacks all of the delicacy of Duras's prose and is pockmarked by coarse, jarring choices. A copy editor before this went to press would've been useful, too. Very disappointing.

Hopefully I'll be able to find a different translation, because the story itself is breathtaking.
The Riddle of Gender - Deborah Rudacille Gender is an increasingly important and consistently under-researched aspect of the human experience, one that most people have a narrow understanding of. As Rudacille points out in The Riddle of Gender, gender and anatomical sex, while most often a matching pair, are two different things. Extensive scientific research is woefully lacking and what little has been conducted over the past one hundred years was piecemeal and undermined by personal bias and politics. Because of this it's little wonder we have only limited knowledge of what influences gender (everything from nature vs. nurture to the effect of hormones), and Rudacille makes an admirable attempt to present facts as well as theories from all sides of the issue.

Unfortunately her presentation is a mess. She starts okay, but as she brings in additional points of view and other aspects only loosely related to the subject, she loses sight of her theme and stumbles. She seems unable to decide between an examination of the science or a review of cultural history, and the result is a chaotic mix of the two that combines decades of study with personal opinions and bias. With much of the early research riddled with errors of assumption and many later studies crippled by methodological problems, Rudacille faced an uphill battle in terms of solid science and isn't skilled enough to weave a factual narrative free of assumptions, opinions, or tangents. Very disappointing.

I wanted to like this. A book examining gender was needed, but unfortunately, this isn't that book.
Bones of Faerie - Janni Lee Simner Light and fun, Bones of Faerie is a quick read that's the equivalent of candy. The story moves fast, coming out of the gate at a quick pace and maintaining momentum throughout, which means it won't take long for anyone to read. The story is gripping, and I love, love, love the idea of a fairy story set in a post-apocalyptic world, urban fantasy with an upped ante and a twist. (Did I mention that I love that set up?) Simner earns a star for that alone. So sit back, kick your feet up, and enjoy a story that doesn't require you to think too much.

...which is a good thing, because if you think too much about it, there are some gaping plot holes, issues with the author's own mythological rules (lack of consistency), and a major imbalance of cause and effect in the first half. People either overreact to a minor problem or pay only lip service with no actual reaction to major developments. Liza isn't stupid (thank God) and she isn't some psychic prodigy, which is refreshing, but these characters display a rather noticeable lack of resolve in...well, almost everything aside from Liza's determination to find her mother. More than one conversation follows this basic outline:

Character 1: "I want to do [insert action here] with you. I feel very strongly about it."

Character 2: "I don't want you to do that."

Character 1: "Oh, okay. Nevermind."

Character 1 is usually right, Character 2 is usually Liza being stubborn without any real reason other than to move the plot along, and it's completely unbelievable. There's a difference between reality and authenticity, of course, but those setups make it hard to suspend disbelief. People, real or fictional, don't give up that easily.

Overall Bones of Faerie is a good read, fluff from your brain that won't take up too much of your time. And yes, despite my complaints, I'm planning on reading the sequel.
The Writer's Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages - Nancy Ellen Dodd If you've never heard any writing advice and have never ever read any other book on writing, you’ll find The Writer’s Compass moderately helpful. If you have read elsewhere or even so much as passed by the open door of a classroom where a writing course was being held, this book is completely worthless. Trust me: you already know more than Nancy Ellen Dodd offers. Save your money and your time.

Before I delve into my passionate dislike of this book, let me speak of the good.

The cover is awesome, and I’m a sucker for pretty covers. The designer was fantastic.

I liked the visual representation of a story map that breaks down the parts of a story like one might diagram a sentence. There are several of these, but my favorite is the first one, which she gives in several stages that begin with the basics and grows to include other elements of a story. Size restrictions of the physical book crowd the graph and accompanying text, making me wish a full page had been dedicated to the final product. Not Dodd’s fault, of course, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

The End. Of the good parts, anyway. Settle in, people, because this is a long one.

The Writer’s Compass doesn’t even qualify as Fiction Writing 101. It’s extremely basic and there’s nothing here that isn’t available elsewhere with more in-depth info. (See: The Elements of Style, The Art of War for Writers, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writer’s, The First Five Pages, and even Chuck Wendig’s blog.) Dodd tries to hit the major points but her analysis is shallow, leaving the unlearned writer to stumble through the trials of plot, structure, character development, etc. with the dawning realization that none are as easy as she presents with such simplicity. Writing is hard, and she forgets that part.

Repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Two-thirds of this book is padding; remove all the instances where she repeats herself and the book would transform into a pamphlet and not a particularly thick one. Over and over again she gives the same idea, the same suggestion, and—most insulting—she didn’t even bother to change the wording more than a minimal amount. These are absolutely unnecessary reiteration of points that should’ve been made once and then left alone.

One instance stands out so much I wrote down the page numbers specifically for this review: page 88, second paragraph, and page 89, third paragraph. Both of these discuss developing your story’s ideas and returning to a questionnaire at the end of every stage to answer the questions anew. Dodd changes a few words (for instance: “reflect” becomes “refine”) and flips a few sentences around, but she’s saying the exact same thing. This example smacked me in the face because the paragraphs are directly opposite each other on the pages, but throughout the book multiple ideas are presented multiple times with nearly identical wording.

Dear Nancy Ellen Dodd: we’re not stupid and reiterating something ten times is overkill. We’re dead after the first five times; let it go.

Another reviewer mentioned Dodd’s “maternal” and “nurturing” style of writing. Seriously? My mother never spoke to me in a manner that implied I was a particularly stupid child and then tried to pass it off as “nurturing.” In fact, she never spoke to me like that at all, recognizing the basic intelligence of her children. Dodd forgets one of the “rules” of writing: assume your audience is composed of intelligent people as opposed to morons.

At one point, Dodd breaks down each genre and gives a table for comparison. Since she’s juggling fiction writing in various forms, this is a great idea, but she screws it up so badly the pages are worthless. Did you know that a novel has less white space on the page than a screenplay? Or that a short story is shorter than a novel? (If you answered “no, I didn’t know that” to the second question, you’re an idiot.) I wish I was kidding or exaggerating, but I’m not. Those are the exact facts she gives, as if they’re gems reserved for the elite.

Really? I mean, really? Where the hell was her editor?

When I read a new book on writing, I mark pages that contain something new, an approach I hadn’t thought of, a fact I didn’t know or a suggestion I had never heard, and fresh twists on old ideas. A writer never stops learning and never stops honing her craft, but not once did I mark a page in The Writer’s Compass because Dodd was offering something new. That’s not to say I didn’t tag multiple pages: ones that are so awful I wanted to remember them for this review. The task drained my entire supply of pink sticky notes.

And finally, on a more personal note:

Lady, I don’t care about your consulting jobs, your spiritual life, or your obsession with 5x8 index cards. One mention is fine, but when you choose to tell me twenty times, I get a tad irritated. This isn’t about you, so hush and get to the writing.

Don’t just skip this one; run away as fast as you can. You’re better off learning these tools via trial and error through writing than from this worthless book.
London: The Autobiography. Edited by Jon E. Lewis - Jon E. Lewis Cut a third of the entries and this book would be fantastic. The vast majority of offerings were vivid and engrossing, an excellent selection, but unfortunately a fair number did nothing but inspire me to skip to the next section. Not all of this can be blamed on Lewis, as certain subjects should have been fascinating but were dead on arrival courtesy of the original writer. What Lewis can be held responsible for are the number of articles that gave me a "WTF? Why is this even included?" reaction, as the subject matter had only minor connections to the overall theme or were so useless and boring that common sense should have landed them in the scrap pile. Just because you unearthed the material, Jon, doesn't mean you have to use it.

Recommendation: skip around, read what interests you and flip past what doesn't hold your attention. Don't get bogged down, which would be easy with a volume of this size, because there's a lot of great reading within these pages if you can find it.
The Art of War for Writers - James Scott Bell Writers never stop learning their craft. There's always a way to be better, to make a story tighter, a fresh way to grab a reader by the nuts and jerk them around until the very last punctuation mark. No matter how long I've been writing, no matter how many days I have that make me think I'm "good," there's always something else out there that can help me improve. Even if it's only a short sentence buried in 200 pages, that single sentence is gold, another weapon to add to my arsenal. Maybe it's something basic, a fact I already know, but it's presented with a new spin, comes at me from a fresh angle and smacks me in the face.

That's how you learn. That's how you grow. And The Art of War for Writers is an excellent tool, a swift kick in the ass that made me sit up, take notice, and take notes. (Seriously, get out a notebook, because you'll be jotting down notes until your fingers cramp.) I've read a lot of books on writing over the years (check out my writing shelf if you want proof), but with each one I find at least one suggestion that gives my writing extra punch. James Scott Bell has written a guide that gives more than one piece of excellent advice, and this little book is worth far more than its purchase price.

The Art of War for Writers covers everything from tips on writing, how to handle the submission process, and, most importantly, how to get your ass in the chair and actually write, which is the foundation that too many "writers" forget about. Writing first, because nothing else happens without those words on the page.

Every writer needs this on their shelf. Don't just read it; buy it. I don't say that often, books are expensive after all and most people find the need to eat more pressing, but if you're a writer who recognizes the need to keep learning, buy this book. It's a must-have for the writing shelf.

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