Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Upside to Disorganization

In the past 6 and a half years, and especially in the past 2 and a half years, I've become increasingly disorganized. That time frame is not a coincidence: N-man and B-man are 6.5 years old, and Z-man is 2.5 years old. Some days, I feel like I'm barely hanging in there. On a good day, I'll get done three-quarters of what I *need* to do, and about half of what I want to do. But whatever, I just roll with it.

So, a few weeks ago*, a friend and I went out to Friendly's with our kids. She has three kids as well, so we were two adults with six kids, ages 6, 6, 6, 4, 2, and 2. The kids weren't being bad, exactly. Just a little rowdy. About what you'd expect from 6 kids about to get ice cream.

I joked to my girlfriend that we needed to befriend someone with 4 kids, so we'd have someone whose life was even more crazy than ours. She told me she knew someone who had 4 kids, but this mom had it all together and was super-organized.

I've now decided that there's a big upside to my disorganization: I'm never going to make another mom feel judged! Have trouble cleaning your house? You know what? My house is a mess! Kids running wild? Mine too! Are you totally disorganized? Yep, I'm always a little discombobulated and harried. Need to know you're not alone in the insanity? Oh yeah, I'm right there with you!

I'm going to keep my eye out for those other moms with the stained shirt they probably haven't noticed yet. For half-applied make-up. Whose purse doesn't match their shoes. Whose kids' clothes don't match. These are my tribe. Of course, I'm so busy chasing my three kids in three different directions that I don't have time to notice these things...


*Case in point: I've been meaning to write this blog entry since we went out to dinner. It's been weeks. But I'm doing it now. I get there...eventually.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Good writing, good story

So, I've been editing one of my novels again, and reading a ton.

I've been thinking a lot as a result, about good writing, and good storytelling.

They're so personal, to a certain extent, of what I like, or you like. Especially good storytelling. Though I think an author with a strong sense of plotting can pull a reader through a story, even if it's not of particular interest.

It's amazing when you run across a book that has both strong writing and story. I'm primarily a reader for plot. With a good plot, I can forgive weak writing. But a terrible story isn't something enjoy wading through, even if the writing is strong.

Can you think of any examples of stories that have both strong writing and a great story? Here are a few examples that came to mind:

--Pretty much everything by Margaret Atwood. That's what makes her so amazing to me. Her writing is stunning and awe-inspiring, and her stories are always right up my alley. I'm her perfect audience.

--Pretty much everything by Kurt Vonnegut. His word choice is impeccable, and his humor is, well, what my humor would be if I was funnier.

--Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. A lot of his other work is okay writing with a strong story, or good writing with an okay story, or not-so-good writing with a not-so-good story. But Ender's Game is an amazing story with well-structured, well-plotted writing.

--The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Writing so amazing it almost made me cry. It did make me go out and read everything else he'd ever written, none of which quite lived up, though much of it was quite good.

--The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Excellent writing (though gotta give props to the translator there, too!), amazing story.

That's all I can think of, though I'm sure there are plenty more I've read that just aren't jumping to mind. But it is just so rare, that it's wondrous when it happens.

It's much more frequent that I read books that I really enjoy, maybe even love, that aren't written all that well. These are the books that give me hope. I know I should be aiming to write a novel that is both well written and interesting. But let's be honest: sometimes, when I'm editing, I have to admit that "well-written" might be beyond my abilities. So instead of throwing in the towel, I just think of these books and realize that I don't have to be perfect.

--The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. A few of my more discerning friends, who perhaps are slightly more snobbish with their reading selections than me (who will read just about any darn thing), have complained that The Hunger Games isn't well written. DUH! Who cares? Yes, it's a bit cringe-inducing at times, but the story! The story! Love, love, love!

--The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowlings. I'm hardly the first person to point out there are flaws, but again, who cares?

--Early entries in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. They've become so formulaic that I'd be hard-pressed to even say the more recent ones are redeemed by an engaging plot.

--A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Okay, I'm stretching a little with this one. There are certainly weaknesses, but it wasn't until book 5 that I felt like I wasn't getting believable character voices. He's writing a true epic, capturing the voices of an amazingly large cast of characters, balancing myriad plot lines. Perhaps I should move this into the good writing/good story category!

As I said, I read for plot, so it's not that frequent I pick up a book where I suspect I won't find the story interesting. But I do occasionally make it through a novel that when I finish, I realize that while I can't say I really enjoyed the story, the writing made it all worthwhile. So here's my list of a few great writing/not-to-my-taste story:

--Everything I've read by Richard Russo. I mean, his stories are all boring slice-of-life old people in New England doing things I'm not that interested in. But I can't put his books down.

Hmm, Richard Russo books are the only ones I can think of. I really do tend to put down books if I'm not enjoying the plot.

And then, every once in a while, I come across a book that is so devoid of redeeming values that I'm hard pressed to understand why anyone buys it. And here I'm talking about popular novels...not those found-in-a-discount-bin-or-used-book-store that I've never heard of and really shouldn't be that surprised when it's not that good. I'm talking about those books that people actually like--and I just don't get why.

--The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. Okay, I'll be honest. Twilight was a quick enough read, and not too annoying, soI read the second book. Which was also a quick read, though more annoying. By book three, I was pretty disgusted, but still hoping for redemption. So I read book 4. Oh geez, that was time, and money, I can never get back. For the love of all that's good in the world, I would like to publicly warn everyone to steer clear of these. Don't let the lure of book one pull you down the rabbit hole!

--My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I think this holds the record for worst book I've ever read. Yes, even worse than the Twilight series. Even worse that any boiler-plate paranormal romance I'm too embarrassed to admit I've read. Who knows, maybe other books by her are better, but this was so bad, I'd never risk it.

--The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. What was all the hullabaloo over this book? Not very good, IMO.

What do you think? What would you add to the list? These clearly aren't exhaustive lists, just what popped in mind at the mo'.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Book List

While I was a little better than last year, I wasn't super committed to keeping a list of the books I read. I'm sure I forgot a few, but then, hey, they must have been forgettable books!

I've listed the books I'd recommend in bold, though just jump to the end of the post if you want the abbreviated version.

  • High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (Wow, I only saw this movie once, but it really burned itself into my head, to the point where the British-isms seemed odd in the book.)

  • Spell Bound (Women of Otherworld #12) by Kelley Armstrong (See that, my complaints about #11 didn't stop me from immediately buying book 12 in the series. Just like I'm sure to buy book 13. Because this book did the most annoying thing EVER--ended on a cliffhanger. This wasn't a book. It was half a book. And that's unforgivable. This series is made up of interconnected stand alone novels. That's the draw for me...the change in first person POV characters, the stories from different viewpoints. Getting half a book here was a real letdown.)

  • Waking the Witch (Women of Otherworld #11) by Kelley Armstrong (Another case of a long standing series--you know what you're in for. I like that Armstrong switch the protaganist in the series. This was the first from Savannah's POV. It wasn't bad, but I just haven't paid enough attention to earlier books in the series and felt a little lost about some of this. In fact, the big reveal at the end didn't make any sense to me as I'd totally forgotten that story line from an earlier book. Ah well...chalk it up to a quick read and a guilty pleasure.)

  • Hire Me, Hollywood! by Mark Scherzer and Keith Fenimore (A collection of interviews with people with different jobs in the movie/TV business. A nice variety of people interviewed/jobs represented, though to be honest, I have little knowledge or interest in the inner workings of hollywood. Readable, I expect more so if it's a subject you're interested in.)

  • Explosive Eighteen (Stephanie Plum #18) by Janet Evanovich (You don't read to book 18 in a series without knowing what you're going to get. And this is a lukewarm example, of well, the other 17 books in the series. I think it's time to end the whole Ranger/Joe triangle. It's making me really dislike Stephanie Plum, and that's one way to kick me right out of a book.)

  • 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake (William Gibson lent his name to this collection of tweets, blog posts, and short entries from the week or so following the earthquake in Japan. It was an interesting collection, apparently put together as a fundraiser though to be fair, I never heard of it until it showed up on the freebie list on my kindle. The entries were personal and the book ended up being a bit was kind of just like reading about an event on twitter or facebook. No depth, weird lack of context. But I really applaud the idea and efforts of all participants.)

  • Living Off the Grid by Dave Black (I downloaded this for free to my kindle, because hey, how could I not? A ebook about living off the grid? Ha! Of course I read it, though, and was surprised that a) it wasn't insane and preachy, and b) it didn't require you to have ten zillion dollars. I was a little amused at the author's obvious distaste for people who go off-grid for trendy reasons rather than true commitment.)

  • The Vampire's Warden (Undead in Brown County #1) by S. J. Wright (Again, a freebie or very inexpensive choice on my kindle. I read this two months ago, and I remember little more than the premise that a girl finds out she's a warden to vampires trapped on her family's land. I'm sure I'd remember more if I got the next book in the series, but I'm just not sure if I ever will.)

  • Reflections on Doctors: True-Life Stories from Nurses Who Know edited by Terry Ratner (Proof I'll try just about anything that is on the free kindle list. I don't know what to even say about this. Not bad, though I certainly wasn't the target audience so I'll cut it some slack on being a bit dull.)

  • Smokin' Seventeen (Stephanie Plum #17) by Janet Evanovich (Well, I'm nothing if not committed to a series. This was nothing special, but not terrible, either.)

  • Hit List (Anita Blake #20) by Laurell K. Hamilton (this is so much better than other recent books in the series. But I still wouldn't say it was good. This is *exactly* why I bought a kindle--so no one else has to know I read garbage like this.)

  • A Stingray Bit My Nipple!: True Stories from Real Travelers by Erik Torkells (Got this for free on amazon for my kindle. I got what I paid for. Okay, it wasn't bad, just not really funny. A few were, most were just...huh. Bathroom reading, if I've ever seen it.)

  • Rat Girl: A Memoir by Kristin Hersh (When I was in high school, I saw Throwing Muses open for REM. They were practically unlisten-to-able. So why, when I saw a memoir by the lead singer, was a drawn to buy it? Who knows! But it was good. Really enjoyable. In fact, because I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to nitpick and point out that Hersh had a super annoying habit of contracting verbs willy-nilly. The practice'll drive you crazy (and yes, that's exactly how she did it!)

  • A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire book 5) by George R. R. Martin (his most recent release. It was exciting to get back into the series and some was really awesome. The end was a little heartbreaking, and I hate to think it'll be another five years until the next installment.)

  • A Song of Ice and Fire books 1 - 4 by George R. R. Martin (I reread the first 4 books in the series before the most recent one came out. I love this series, but I'm starting to question if there will ever be a sucessful conclusion to the series. Four books might not sound that impressive to reread, unless you realize it's a total of 3,744 pages. This should count as 7 or 8 books!)

  • Inheritance (Inheritance #4) by Christopher Paolini. (I appreciate that he ended the series. It wasn't the best series I've ever read, but it wasn't the worst, either.)

  • On Writing by Stephen King (Now here is really great King. Part memoir, part writing manual. Both parts are great. And helpful. I read this and knew that a section of my novel that I love but keeps landing funny in my brain with each reread has to go. And I know why, too. So glad I read this one!)

  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (Narrator is a boy with autism who lost his father in the Sept 11 attacks. Sad and interesting.)

  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (Picked this up at a used book sale. Enjoyed it, but it mostly just made me miss the Harry Potter series and wish there would be more books in the series.)

  • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (It was okay YA fantasy, but I probably won't go looking for book 2)

  • Vampire Academy by Richelle Mean (Picked this up at a used book sale on a whim. Thought it would be far worse than it was--it was very readable! I guess this is a series...I just added the next book to my Amazon wish list. Not sure when/if it'll make it to the top of the list, but I did enjoy this book.)

  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver (Loved the ethical dilemma between a well-meaning and truly devoted adoptive mom and the Cherokee Nation. I though the end was a cop-out, though, with too many amazing coincidences)

  • The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1) by Rick Riordan (Fun YA with a greek mythology twist. Not sure I'll run out and buy the next book in the series, but if I saw it at a used book sale, I'd certainly pick it up!)

  • Expecting Adam by Martha Beck (I thought this would be a book about raising a child with special needs. It went in a much different direction than I expected. And while I agreed whole-heartedly with some of the ideas, I just couldn't buy all the angel magic stuff. My loss, I'm sure.)

  • Spook by Mary Roach (I think Mary Roach must have an awesome time researching her books. And I'd like to have dinner with her. There are parts of this book--throwaway jokes and lines, that cracked me up. But this didn't live up to the awesomeness of Stiff. Still worth a read, though, for the good parts!)

  • Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin (One note, not much character development. Readable YA fantasy, but nothing I'd particularly recommend)

  • The Regulators by Richard Bachman (The companion piece to Desperation, which I read last year, I think. Pretty standard King--enjoyable but not amazing)

  • The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (His books seem to be a mix of kind of boring yet obsessively compelling to read. I guess in his case strong writing and storytelling make up for a lack of subject matter that I find really interesting. So I'd certainly recommend this, especially to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting)

  • My Blood Approves (My Blood Approves #1) by Amanda Hocking (I think I'm just plain ol' worn out of vampire novels. Not sure if I'll read the rest of this series or not...)

  • Hollowland (The Hollows #1) by Amanda Hocking (I'm a sucker for a good postapocalytic book. Again, editing was an issue, and writing wasn't quite as strong as I would hope. But, this was definitely my favorite of Hocking's books, and I look forward to the next in the series!)

  • Dead Reckoning (Sookie Stackhouse #11) by Charlaine Harris (I don't know, I'm not going to drop this series--I'm still enjoying it. But I didn't love the direction this book took. Hopefully the next book in the series will bounce back!)

  • Fat, Forty, Fired: One Man's Frank, Funny, and Inspiring Account of Losing His Job and Finding His Life by Nigel Marsh (Another free amazon kindle download. This was a mixed bag for me. Some parts were actually inspiring, and some parts were annoying. Worth reading, if you pick it up for free!)

  • Ascend (Trylle Trilogy #3) by Amanda Hocking (see comments below. I guess I'd give this series a firm 3, 3 and a half stars out of 5. Not too shabby!)

  • Torn (Trylle Trilogy #2) by Amanda Hocking (I don't know what else to say about this series. Enjoyable, and I'd certainly recommend to fans of the genre. But it was poorly edited and the writing could have used some tightening up. Take it for what you will...)

  • Switched (Trylle Trilogy #1) by Amanda Hocking (I downloaded this to my kindle on the advice of a friend. It was $0.99, so I figured why not? I enjoy YA fiction, I enjoy paranormal fiction, so this YA paranormal book was right up my alley. It was good enough that I picked up the rest of the series, plus a few others by Hocking.)

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (I've been attempting to read this book for over 10 years. I kept getting bored of it, or sick of it, and abandoning it. I finally finished it. And you know what? I thought it stunk. Obviously I'm in the minority, but I think I can trust my own tastes that if I put down a book more than 5 times, I really probably won't enjoy it.)

  • Admit One: My Life in Film by Emmett James (I nabbed this book for free from Amazon for my kindle. It was an okay memoir of a film obsessed wannabe actor. Some strengths, some weaknesses. Seeing as I paid nothin' for it, it was a good deal ;)

  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (This book is always going to hold a special place in my heart because it marks the first time I was hired to write a book review. I actually enjoyed the humor in this book, though I have no desire to parent my children like she did.)

  • Pale Demon (The Hollows #9) by Kim Harrison (Gotta love a road trip book! And I was ridiculously amused at the thought of a witch convention. Enjoyed this, and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series!)

  • Black Magic Sanction (The Hollows #8) by Kim Harrison (Again, a good showing in the series. Hooked me back in...I'd been a few books behind and caught back up just in time for the newest book to come out.)

  • White Witch, Black Curse (The Hollows #7) by Kim Harrison (This series lost me a little for a few books, but it's picking back up. Enjoyed this one!)

  • Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling by Linda Geenhouse and Reva Siegel (Being born after the Roe v. Wade decision, I never experience an America where abortion was illegal. This book was very interesting in getting historical perspective about the debate. It was impressively comprehensive, giving voice to both sides of the debate.)

  • Don't Die, Dragonfly (The Seer #1) by Linda Joy Singleton (I picked this up for my kindle for free, I think. It was okay, though I read it a few months ago and never picked up the next book in the series. Maybe one day...I didn't dislike this, it just didn't capture me.)

  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Of course I'd heard plenty about this book, and even knew the plot. I wouldn't say it disappointed exactly, but it wasn't great, either.)

  • Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (I'm not a huge Nick Hornby fan, and I've never really understood or been that interested in rabid sports fanatic. So I'm not sure why I picked up this memoir of Hornby's love of soccer. But, I ended up enjoying it, so I'm glad I did!)

  • Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong (I really enjoyed these short stories set in her Women of the Otherworld universe. In fact, I liked this more than some of her more recent novels in the series!)

  • Keeper of Dreams by Orson Scott Card (While I haven't been enjoying Card's novels recently, his short fiction is always solid. I'd read about half of the stories in this collection previously. I enjoyed the majority of stories in this collection.)

  • The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (I was surprised how much I enjoyed these interconnected short stories. Thought it was going to be just mindless chick lit, but instead I found it funny and engaging.)

  • Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore (Enjoyable! Moore is always a solid choice for me!)

  • Touching Darkness (Midnighters #3) by Scott Westerfeld (The end of the series, I think. Enjoyed the ending, but was only lukewarm about the series as a whole.)

  • Blue Noon (Midnighters #2) by Scott Westerfeld (Once again, okay, but not super duper. I wouldn't rave about this to friends, but I wouldn't steer them away, either.)

  • The Secret Hour (Midnighters #1) by Scott Westerfeld (Okay, but not great. The premise is there's a group of people born at exactly midnight who can "see" an extra hour each night and fight the evil that lives there. Certainly readable, but he's written better.)

  • The Stupidest Angel: A Hearthwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore (I always enjoy Moore's humor, and this was no exception. A quick, enjoyable read, even in the middle of a late May heat wave!)

  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy by Steig Larsson (Another reread for me. TK and I were watching the movie, and I fell asleep. Instead of finishing the movie, I just picked up the book.)

  • The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (A friend was reading these for the first time, so of course I had to pick them up for a reread. So lovely!)

  • The Women by T.C. Boyle (A fictionalized telling of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, told through the lives of his wives. I found the structure of the story distracting (told in reverse chronilogical order via the viewpoint of a minor character who wasn't present for the majority of events.)

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (As someone who really enjoys Bill Bryson book, and has periodically had visions of hiking the Appalacian Trail, I picked this up with relish. It was pretty good. Solid 4 star book.)

  • The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer (Eh. Okay, but characters weren't especially well-developed.)

  • The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle (A fictionalized account of Dr. Kinsey (the sexologist). This book was smutty! But in a good way :) What I mean is it didn't seem like a romance novel (it isn't one), but there was far more sex in it than, well, pretty much any other non-romance book I've ever read. Certainly not a book for the prudish, but an interesting novel about a man and woman in a situation outside their comfort zone).

  • The Child Thief by Brom (A retelling of the Peter Pan story. Dark fantasy/horror. Pretty good if that genre interests you, though I'd hesitate to universally recommend it as I just didn't find it super engaging. Really outstanding artwork, though. The drawings at the beginning of each chapter and the color plates in the middle of the book were outstanding!)

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Interesting book about a German girl during WWII. It was narrated by Death, and came dangerously close to being ruined by the idea. Also, wasn't too keen on the overuse of nonsensical similes and descriptions. I mean, once in a while, it can be amazing (a "cardboard face" was one that I thought worked well), but it was distractingly overdone. But, I do have to say, overall it was a really terrific book. I wouldn't be nitpicking if I hadn't enjoyed it!)

  • Reaper by Rachel Vincent (This is a novella that was offered free on the kindle--apparently it's part of a series. This wasn't bad, but it also wasn't good enough to make me buy the other books in the series.)

  • Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria by Anne Maczulak (Interesting nonfiction. Covers a wide variety of bacteria-related topics. Sometimes the juxtaposition of topics is funny, like a section on bacteria and art discusses both the depiction of bacterial diseases in art, then moves right into how bacteria can degrade artwork. Learned a lot, written at a good level for an interested non-scientist.)

In summary:

Total books read in 2011: 70

Books I'd recommend: 32, so not quite hitting the 50% mark. And even of those, most I'd recommend only with reservations or qualifications for only folks who enjoy the genre.

Favorite books of the year: A total cheat since it also made my best-of last year, but The Hunger Games series stands up to a reread and was once again, just like last year, one of my absolute favorite reads of the year. Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh was also quite readable, and I'd recommend it widely. Stephen King's On Writing was fabulous, and just the advice I needed. I think it would be of interest to any writers or fans of King. And of course for fans of the genre, A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is not to be missed. But if you're a fan, of course you haven't missed it...

Least favorite books of the year: Unlike previous years (ahem, ahem, I'm talking about you, Stephanie Meyer and Jodi Picoult!), there weren't any books that I was completely disgusted by. However, I was disappointed in most of the ongoing series I'm reading: Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Hamilton's Anita Blake series, Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, and Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. All had weak showings this year, which was a let down.

Comments for the year: I'm reading too many series that just aren't living up to the hype. And for the most part, free books on the kindle are free for a reason. You get what you pay for, and perhaps I should stop wasting my time reading lack-luster books.

All this begs the eternal question: what should I read next???