What I read last month: September 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

Magazines

The new Tin House arrived in my mailbox in mid-September. Yay! I’m trying to ration it so it lasts.

I also read a few stories from Bodega and The Baltimore Review.

I secretly love well-written television, and will consume content about television writing at any opportunity. Despite being notoriously snooty about excessive television-watching, I tore right through the New Yorker TV issue. The piece about Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds and Orange is the New Black, was right up my alley.

Books

Winter Garden

★★★★

Well, shoot. I’m unsure how to rate this one. I almost feel like I need to evaluate the first and second halves of the book separately.

I have to admit, I wished I could put this book down for at least the first half. A lot of things tripped me up: frustrating main characters, who kept hurting good people who loved them. Clunky exposition shoved into characters actions that conflicted with the close third POV. Unnatural-feeling dialogue. Whole sentences summarizing what a savvy reader could easily learn from the surrounding prose.

These trip-ups appear in many, many successful books. And indeed, there’s a reason I kept reading this one. After reading two of her books, I think Kristin Hannah’s special power is creating characters that pop. Even when I felt frustrated with them, the characters felt real enough to me that I couldn’t walk out on them. I had to know what happened.

In this case, perseverance paid off. The first-person chapters are especially powerful. The final half of this book feels like a different story. I couldn’t stop reading. The pacing was spot on, emotions were intense, and the end was totally unexpected. I’d normally say it was too neat, but the neat ending worked for me this time.

I’d give the final act of this book a much higher rating than the beginning, which could use some work. Overall, the average experience for me still balanced out to three or four stars.

Bonita Avenue

★★★

I’m not sure what to make of this book.

On the one hand, it is a truly impressive debut novel. Well-honed, and the writing pulled me right in. The English translation reads wonderfully. Despite its considerable length, especially for an author’s first published novel, I read Bonita Avenue rather quickly.

That said, all this skilled writing hangs on a plot that I struggled to find believable by the end. The one major aspect I found lacking in Bonita Avenue was contrast. As I read on, it seemed every character had something outside the norm going on: schizophrenia, a secret multi-million-dollar porn site, sociopathy (though, as depicted, Wilbert is hardly a believable sociopath, which makes his outcome in life feel overblown), a weird fetish.

This is a consistent pet peeve of mine: books that offer a full slate of outlier characters when one rarely finds that in real life. One might believe the (step)daughter of a university president could have become a secret millionaire from the porn site she ran with her boyfriend. That, in an of itself, is a great plot set-up. But from there, every single circumstance we encounter is extenuating. The POV shifts, though they work well for the book, exacerbate this issue by bringing in backstory and side plots from multiple angles.

Bonita Avenue was well-written enough for me to let this go as a form of abstract art. However, the end of the book really brought this contrast issue into focus for me. The final chapters are troubling and intense, but somewhat dulled by everything we’ve seen thus far.

Without revealing any spoilers, there are also some significant reveals toward the end. These are left mostly unresolved. The end of a book shouldn’t wrap up every plot thread neatly, but neither should the reader be left hanging. It’s a delicate balance. For my taste, Bonita Avenue stopped just short of giving me everything I needed to feel like I could close out my relationship with its characters.

Overall, the reading experience was something I definitely don’t regret, but I had higher hopes for the eventual resolution.

Other stuff

I’ve spent some quality time with Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents, both of which have helped me organize my fiction queries.

I also attended the Baltimore Book Festival with my four-year-old. I had to pass up the opportunity to wander for hours in the used-book tents in deference to my travel companion, but I did snag a free copy of Towson’s Grub Street magazine.

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What I read last month: August 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

August was a bear of a month. I was out of town for 16 of 31 days, stretched over three different trips. That’s a lot of time spent packing, unpacking, visiting, and traveling to and fro, not to mention my WDC17 prep and followup.

Despite the harried pace, I was lucky enough to find some great reads. I give mostly three-star Goodreads reviews, and August gave me two five-star books.

Here’s what I read:

Magazines

I read the summer issue of Tin House on the beach, starting with Daniel Wallace’s Sea Girls. I also polished off the previous issue, which included Leslie Jamison’s un-put-down-able essay about Amy Winehouse.

Catching up on a big stack of New Yorker short fiction, I found myself most transported by Will Mackin’s Crossing the River No Name and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Show Don’t Tell.

Books

The Unseen World

★★★★★

This is the rare book that I finish and think, “there’s nothing I would’ve done differently.”

The Unseen World is a clever, well-executed novel. The characters are compelling and their lives are set against a delightful backdrop.

There are some plot developments I anticipated (and was glad when they finally arrived), and some surprises that made for lovely Easter eggs at the end. I was about to call the ending too tidy, but the epilogue completely made up for it. Just like Moore’s previous book Heft, I recommend this to just about everyone.

World Made By Hand

★★

When I got around 85% of the way through this book, I realized it wasn’t all going to come together in a big bang at the end.

I’m going to spend some time chewing on this one, and considering why the author did these things the way he did.

In the meantime, I’ll say I enjoyed the setting and the world-building was good. This book reminded me why I think post-apocalyptic fiction is so neat. I love seeing writers ponder what humans would do if the world as we knew it came to an end.

The book could’ve used a little more resolution at the end, re: the different factions, how we should feel about them, and how they might work together (or not) going forward. We spent a lot of time learning about the various folks living around Union Grove, and sometimes I wondered to what end.

Perhaps the biggest issue for me was the female characters. I’m not sure why the end of the modern age resulted in all the women reverting to traditional gender roles. Many of the cult members came from the military, but they couldn’t have included any women who had formerly served in the military? There weren’t any gay people at all, or women who did something other than tend the home and support the men? I’d buy it if many, or even most, of the women did this. However, it would’ve been more believable to have a token woman vying for her rightful place within the town leadership. Or even a man who rejects the new (old) mountain-man lifestyle. As it was, the characters were too divided into types for a book released in 2008.

The Hate U Give

★★★★★

Every once in a while, I come across a book I want to read slowly, but can’t. The Hate U Give was one of those books. I knew I was cutting my time with these characters short by devouring it so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself.

From page one, the main character, Starr’s, voice is so on point and compelling. There’s no getting-to-know-you period, no slogging through act one to get to the action. I was hooked from the very beginning. The narrative sucked you straight into the world of the story, and I experienced everything vividly, right alongside the characters.

This is a really important book, and it’s pulled off superbly. I want to go tell everyone to read it. We need more books like it, to bring us out of the hashtags, the generalizations, the racist talking points around privileged white dinner tables.

I saw another reviewer criticize the character Hailey — a white friend of Starr’s who claims she isn’t racist, but reveals over time that she actually kind of is — as an unrealistic caricature. I wish that were true. The Haileys of the world grow up with no requirement to develop empathy or deep understanding of people who aren’t like them. Successful contemporary fiction like The Hate U Give could change that.

Though this book is billed as YA, it holds nothing back. So, buyer with a younger YA reader beware, and The Hate U Give is every bit as valuable and relevant to adults as it is to YA readers.

My only substantive criticism is that a few of the longer chunks of dialogue started to lose the voice. It’s easy to slip into a little monologue in service to the message and have it come out not quite how the character would say it. But, all things considered, this effect was mild, and offset by the excellent flow in most of the book’s dialogue.

All in all, The Hate U Give is an important and compelling read, and I highly recommend it to just about anyone.

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World

★★★

This is such a fast read, you have no reason not to read it.

Unlike David Allen’s Getting Things Done or Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this book won’t give you a full action plan to improve your life. It’s more like a compass to point you in the right direction.

Of course, given its length, the author really can’t get into detailed how-tos and action items. If you’re looking for that, go with a longer book like those I mentioned above.

However, this book gives a nice kick in the pants and a reminder of what’s important.

Other stuff

I also grabbed a copy of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat from the library and I’m in love. The illustrations are delightful, and Nosrat’s tone and style make the subject matter super approachable. I’m not finished yet, but I already know I’ll need to buy it for my kitchen shelf. I’ve renewed it the maximum number of times and don’t feel I can go on without it in my life.

Enough about me. What are you reading? Shoot me your recommendations in the comments!

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Excerpt of the Week #2

Fishing through the pile of guest posts and creative non-fiction I’ve been working on this week, I felt inspired to share an excerpt from my young adult novel manuscript. I recently decided to switch the perspective from third person to first person, which had the somewhat unexpected effect of taking me way back in the editing process — if it’s not a first draft all over again, it’s nowhere close to a final draft, either.

I love intense, well-written fight scenes — think the Nate-Brenda breakup scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under (disclaimer: contains excessive profanity and, of course, spoilers) — and I worked for a long time on this one. Of course, switching the perspective forced me to tear much of it down and rebuild. Here’s a piece of the new scene:

John rubbed his eyes with his palms, letting out a long breath that puffed his cheeks out around his lips. Just a few minutes earlier I’d wanted to stand my ground in that room until I’d saved our love somehow, but now all I could think about was getting out of there. My heart was growing little tendrils, reaching out through space for somewhere warm and safe and, most importantly, nowhere near John or his house. I needed to find Claudia.

“Look, I have to go. I have plans with Claudia later.” I settled my messenger bag across my shoulder and turned to walk out the door.

“Mariana, hold on.” I turned around, tried to keep my eyes cold, felt my body tense as he stood and walked toward me.

“Can I have a hug?”

“Why?” We stood facing each other in the doorway for a moment, waiting to see who would blink first.

— from Standing on the Precipice (YA fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

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Excerpt of the Week #1

This week I’m introducing a regular feature I’ve had on my mind for quite a while. With Excerpt of the Week, I’ll share around 100 words from one of my active projects every other Friday. You’ll be able to find them all by clicking here or following #ExOTW on Twitter. Feel free to share your own excerpts in the comments!

I thought of my apartment, the stairs creaking and flexing as I hauled my feet up the two flights to my door with its three locks and its crooked lettering bearing the characters “3F.” Soon, I told myself. Soon. You’re almost there. Outside, an ambulance shoved its way through a line of cars. I tried to steal a look into the yellow-illuminated interior, where I could see a paramedic moving to and fro, head down. An ex-boyfriend had called this habit sick, voyeuristic, but in truth I was feeding my anxiety, trying in vain to see if everyone was okay.

— from The Test (flash fiction)

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