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Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

Before he wrote his mega-selling novel, The Fault In Our Stars, young adult author John Green penned this 2008 gem that featured Colin Singleton, a child prodigy whose distinction was that he had been dumped 19 times by women named Katherine.

It was a difficult proposition for the reader to buy, but Green pulled it off. Katherine 19 dumped Colin at the end of his senior year in high school. Heartbroken and adrift, Colin embarked on a road trip with his best friend, Hassan.

A major theme in the book was the desire of young people to matter–to someone else and to the world. Colin had a desperate desire to matter; he wanted his life to have significance. Green would later return to this notion in TFIOS through the character, Augustus Waters, whose greatest fear is oblivion.

Obsessed with figuring out why he can’t make a relationship work with the various Katherines, Colin turned to math to try to derive the answer. He developed the Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability and plotted graphs in a notebook showing the peaks and valleys of the relationship between the Dumper and the Dumpee. What the reader knew and what Colin eventually figured out was that math and science cannot explain why people are attracted to one another and why some relationships last while others do not.

While this might seem like an obvious lesson for the reader, the journey Green takes us on is so much fun and Colin is such an engaging character that it is worth the ride. At least for me. Along the way, Colin and Hassan discover the purported gravesite of Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I, in, of all places, a town called Gutshot, Tennessee. That’s also where the due meet the irrepressible Lindsey Lee Wells and Hollis, her mysterious mother, the industrial mogul who employs the entire town.

What sustained this book was the verbal interplay between Colin and Hassan and Colin’s odd assortment of talents, which include an affinity for anagrams, learning multiple languages and his knowledge of odd historical facts. He is a lovable oddball and his coming of age tale provides valuable lessons about the nature of relationships.

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Book Review: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

A major challenge I face in my work-in-progress is to convey the emotions of my main character in an effective way. Discussions with my critique partners led me to discover a great resource, The Emotion Thesaurus, by authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Writers often make the mistake of telling the reader how a character feels, rather than showing the reader. For example, “Mary was sad,” does nothing to make the reader feel what she is feeling. The writer is simply telling us how Mary feels. The goal should be to write emotion so that the reader is in the character’s skin and feels what she is feeling.

The Emotion Thesaurus breaks down each emotion into three categories: physical signs (how our bodies outwardly respond to an emotion), mental responses (the thought process that corresponds with an emotional experience), and internal sensations (the most powerful form of non-verbal communication, the visceral reactions to emotion).

“All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion,” Ackerman and Puglisi write. “It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story.”

After a helpful introduction that explains how it should be used, the book takes 75 emotions and, for each one, it lists physical (body language) cues, thoughts, and visceral responses associated with that emotion.

The authors caution that showing emotions is a tricky balancing act between showing too little and showing too much. They also say writers must be cognizant to not over-rely on dialogue or internal thoughts or physical descriptions.

They urge writers to identify the root emotion a character is experiencing and to utilize the setting as well.

There are also writing tips at the end of each of the 75 emotion sections.

The value of this book, as the authors state, is that it will “help writers brainstorm unique ways to express character emotions.” In the e-book edition, each emotion listed in the Table of Contents has a link to where that emotion appears in the book, making it easy to navigate.

I am confident that The Emoltion Thesaurus will help me to bring out emotion in a more powerful way.

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Book Review: The Authentic Swing, by Steven Pressfield

Don’t be fooled by the slimness of The Authentic Swing: Notes from the Writing of a First Novel, by Steven Pressfield. While it clocks in at just 143 pages, The Authentic Swing packs the power of a 300-yard drive straight down the fairway in golf.

The author of Turning Pro and The War of Art, Pressfield’s books on writing focus not so much on the craft, but on the mindset and habits of the writer. The Authentic Swing tells the story of Pressfield’s hard knocks journey to publishing success. He was writing spec novels when he decided to pen, The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. The novel would eventually become a movie.

Pressfield preaches a tough love message in Turning Pro and The War of Art. Writers must overcome Resistance and develop serious working habits to develop into professionals. The Authentic Swing touches on these themes, but is more philosophical. Consisting of short chapters, the book makes interesting parallels between writing and golf. In golf, every golfer has an Authentic Swing.

“To say that there is no such thing as the Authentic Swing is to build upon the concept of not-learned-but-remembered,” Pressfield wrote. Later, he elaborates on the meaning. “What is the struggle? It’s the quest to connect with one’s true ground,. To become who we really are. It’s the search for our true voice.”

The chapters are brief (one or two pages) and easily digestible. For example, in a chapter entitled, Finding the Theme, he quotes Paddy Chayefski: “As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in one line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that isn’t on-theme.”

The chapter, How Writing Works, consists entirely of this: “The Muse gives you stuff. That’s how writing works.
The writer’s job is to get out of the way.”

In How Writing Works, Part Two, he wrote: “The trick to writing, or to any other creative endeavor, is that once you start, good things happen. You can’t explain it. You don’t know why.”

And then there is this pearl from the chapter, My Philosophy: “The act of writing, or the pursuit of any art, is that adventure by which the Knower injects himself into the Field. You go in not-knowing and you come out knowing.”

This is the kind of book that should be read twice to capture all the useful nuggets.

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Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

With its alluring title and aqua-hued cover, Emma Straub’s third novel, The Vacationers, screams out “beach read.” It is that and more. The story centers on a long-awaited family vacation for the Posts, a Manhattan family. Jim and his wife, Franny, and daughter Sylvia, and son, Bobby, embark for two weeks on the island of Mallorca to celebrate the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary.

But there is more than a little trouble in paradise. Jim has been dumped from his job at a men’s magazine for having an affair with an intern. Franny, a food and travel writer, “wants to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes.” Sylvia, about to go off to college at Brown, wants to lose her virginity and Straub conveniently gives her an Adonis of a Spanish tutor. Bobby, not yet 30, brings along his girlfriend, Carmen, a bodybuilder who is ten years his senior. And Franny has invited her best friend and confidant, Charles, and his much younger husband, Lawrence, who are awaiting word on their dream to adopt a baby.

Infidelity is the elephant in their vacation home. Each of these characters has cheated or has been the victim of cheating. While opportunities abound for tawdry liaisons among this crew, Straub wisely eschews the temptation to go for the cheap, salacious story line. Though the constant point-of-view shifts could giver a reader whiplash, Straub puts the reader in the heads of each character with great sensitivity and empathy. These are not bad people; they are imperfect human beings who hunger and hurt as we all do.

What I found endearing about this novel was the way Straub gently shifted the reader’s attitudes toward the characters. I found Jim and Franny at first completely unsympathetic. Franny was obsessed with food, meticulously shopping for just the right ingredients for her dishes. But preparing food is an expression of love and I came to see that in Franny. Jim, over the course of the book, comes to realize what he has done and what he has lost. Bobby and Sylvia have epiphanies of their own, as do Charles and Lawrence.

While I am not sure I’d want to spend two weeks with these characters in a house on Mallorca, I was happy to sit on a beach and savor Straub’s poignant story.

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Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s murder mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the name Robert Galbraith, caused a major stir when it was revealed that the Harry Potter series author penned this work. Stories followed about the difficulties of getting a publisher interested in the manuscript and the sluggish sales of the book until the identity of its celebrated author was made public.

All of this publicity obscured the fact that Rowling had written a first class mystery novel, featuring a larger than life protagonist in the form of down and out private investigator Cormoran Strike. While the Potter series is about good and evil, the cruelties of adolescence and the power of love to overcome bigotry and intolerance, The Cuckoo’s Calling can best be described as an indictment of the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the media culture that surrounds them.

This story has it all: celebrity models, a chic fashion designer, a rapper with a rap sheet, a troubled rock musician, an egocentric movie producer and various hangers on and paparazzi. Rowling brilliantly sprinkles red herrings throughout the narrative as each of these characters seems to have an angle and a scheme going. Amid the colorful cast of the glitterati, the most striking character is Strike.

A military veteran who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, Strike is a bear of a man. How is this for a physical description: Strike has “the high bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had just taken to boxing.” When we meet Strike, he has just dumped his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, he has no clients, he is near bankruptcy and he is forced to sleep in a camp bed in his dingy office. He is doomed, until two saviors show up in his office on the same morning. The first is Robin Ellacott, a young temp worker walking on a cloud since her boyfriend has just proposed to her. Robin is wise beyond her years and yearns for a meaningful job. The second is John Bristow, scion of a wealthy family who is convinced the death of his adopted sister, superstar model Lulu Landry, was a murder. The case was covered extensively by the media. Police believed Lulu jumped out of a window of her luxury condo to her death on a frigid London night. Bristow hires a reluctant Strike to investigate.

Strike methodically disassembles and reassembles the sequence of events, with each new revelation casting light on Lulu’s troubled life and the people in her circle of friends. It all leads to a shocking conclusion.

Rowling skewers many of the same targets she went after in the Potter series: the rich and powerful, gossip obsessed media, rigid bureaucrats, and self indulgent pop culture stars. In Strike and his young assistant, Ellacott, she has created an appealing chemistry, not sexual but based on mutual need and respect. I cannot wait to read the next installment.

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Book Review: We Are Water, By Wally Lamb

I’m big fan of Wally Lamb’s work, but “We Are Water” was a tough read for me. The subject matter was dark as it dealt with childhood sexual abuse, racial prejudice and violence, mental health issues, and the thin line between creativity and madness. The alternating point of view (POV) chapters and leaps across decades in the narrative were jarring. The cast of characters was large and somewhat unwieldy. POV characters included Annie and Orion Oh and their three children, Andrew and Ariane (twins) and Marissa, and a host of others whose lives intersected with the Ohs.

Annie Oh is an experimental artist whose violent and bizarre art provides an outlet for her seething rage. Her anger stems from a dark secret. She was the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin, Kent Kelley, who also saved her life during a devastating 1963 flood in Three Rivers, CT, based on Norwich, where Lamb grew up. The story begins after Annie divorces Orion, a psychologist and university mental health counselor, to marry her art dealer, Viveca. The gay marriage doesn’t sit well with Andrew, an Army nurse and born again Christian.

At a recent presentation I attended, Lamb said he writes about imperfect people seeking to improve their lives. The characters in “We Are Water” are certainly imperfect, but many of them almost feel like caricatures. Andrew is an angry young man. Ariane is the do-gooder who is self-conscious about her looks. Marissa is the struggling actress living in New York who drinks too much.

Other than the likeable Orion and the scary Kent, these characters didn’t seem real to me.

I admire Lamb for tackling the big subjects of the day, as he did in The Hour I First Believed, but this time it feels like he is over reaching. There is too much going on here and the story lacks focus and cohesion.

In spite of its flaws Lamb offers a redeeming message about the healing power of love. It is best expressed by Orion, who observes near the end of the book, “So maybe that’s what love means. Having the capacity to forgive the one who wronged you, no matter how deep the hurt was.”

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Book Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

It’s difficult to review this book without giving away spoilers, but here goes. Gone Girl is a gripping psychological thriller about the after-shocks of a toxic marriage, but it’s much more than that. It’s like a hall of mirrors or a series of optical illusions. Just when you think you have the two main characters figured out, Gillian Flynn delivers a punch to the gut.

Flynn spends the first part of the book meticulously constructing a complex mosaic, then she tears it down and reconstructs it. And then…well I can’t say what happens without revealing spoilers.

The story begins on the morning of the 5th anniversary of Nick Dunne’s marriage to Amy Elliott Dunne. The scene is deceptively normal. Amy is making crepes as Nick enters the kitchen. The only thing off-kilter is the song she is humming: the theme from MASH (suicide is painless). Nick goes off to work. He manages a bar with his twin sister, Margo. The bar was purchased with the remains of Amy’s trust fund. In the middle of the day he receives a call from a neighbor. Someone has apparently broken into their home.

Things happen rapidly from there. Amy is missing. Furniture has been overturned, indicating a struggle. As police begin to investigate, the reader learns some disturbing things about Nick.

Flynn tells the story in alternating point-of-view chapters, first from Nick’s point of view and then from Amy’s, through a diary that dates back seven years. Amy is the daughter of two child psychologists who gained fame with a series of children’s books centered on Amazing Amy, based on their daughter. The real Amy, though, is nothing like her fictional namesake.

Amy meets Nick at a party in New York City, where they both work for magazines. He loses her number, but they meet again seven months later and fall in love. They marry and it seems like a dream marriage, until they both lose their jobs. Amy loans her trust fund money back to her parents after they make a series of bad financial decisions.

The couple is forced to move to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, where Nick’s beloved mother is dying of cancer. They live in a rented McMansion in a half-finished subdivision along the Mississippi River. Amy is unmoored and unhinged. Nick is distant and uncommunicative, traits he despised in his own father.

Like many communities, North Carthage is ravaged by the bad economy. Its economic pillar, a tourist destination shopping mall, sits empty and becomes home to drug dealers and vagrants. The bar in which Nick and his sister invest, called The Bar, seems like the only sensible bet in town.

As events unfold, Flynn cleverly drops bombshells that cause the reader to shift loyalties among the two main characters. It wasn’t until about the halfway point that I figured out where my sympathies truly lied and I can’t say why without giving away key plot points.

I found the main lesson of the story centers on the natural human tendency to develop a persona to please another person. That is what Nick and Amy did and that was their undoing as a couple. It is especially challenging to be true to one’s self in this age of social media, where people can reinvent themselves and create a persona of their liking. This notion is not lost on Nick, who reflects at one point, “It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless automat of characters.”

Gone Girl garnered much hype in the months after its release. I’m skeptical of over-hyped books, but in this case, Gone Girl lives up to the buzz.

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