Archive for category: Book Reviews

I love January.

I realize that for many people it’s one of their least favorite months, but I find it so hopeful. New year. Days getting noticeably longer. Every now and then a mild day delivers the promise of spring.

It’s also a great time to get cozy and read and write and watch good TV. My own version of Hygge.

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching as of late…


Manchester by the Sea. I saw this film with my mom the day after Christmas. I didn’t love it. I’m in the minority, since the film just garnered a bunch of Oscar nominations. Casey Affleck gave a solid performance. Oscar worthy? Yeah, I guess. The story itself felt predictable to me, and given all the hype, I think I was expecting something a little more unexpected and perhaps a bit more heartbreaking. I DID think the ending was well done. It felt quite realistic, and I’m glad Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, decided to go for real over neat and tidy. A big complaint, however: the score. Wow. I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched a movie where I was so distracted by the score. It felt forced and overly loud as if it were trying to get me to FEEL. Anyhow. Not my top pick.

The Crown on Netflix. Halfway through and I’m enjoying it so far. The Crown is about the ascension of young Elizabeth to the throne. When I first saw the trailer and caught sight of the actor playing Winston Churchill, I was like, “Who is that? He seems so familiar, yet not.” It was John Lithgow, completely transformed. If you liked Downton Abbey, I suspect you’ll like this Netflix original series.

Select episodes of The West Wing. I watched The West Wing for the first time last year. It’s still so relevant. *sigh*


American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin. I knew very little about the Hearst kidnapping or the times in general (I was just a pup in 1974). This book is illuminating on both fronts. Toobin is a solid storyteller as well. Nitpick: certain words should be used only once in a book (e.g. whipsawed, peripatetic, perfidy — several of these are used within a few pages, and even a few paragraphs, of their first mention). All are great words, but let’s mix it up a bit. I blame the editor for this, not Toobin. An editor’s job is to save the writer from himself or herself.

In progress: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge, one of my all-time favorite books. The narrator of this book…the voice reminds me of a grown-up version of the little prince from The Little Prince (even though the narrator in Lucy Barton is female). That’s the best way I can describe it. I think I might need to read it again, much like I had to do with The Little Prince, since I believe there’s much subtle wisdom that I know I’m missing on this first read-through. I need to read Strout’s other works as well.

Up Next? Either Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Just Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain or The Brief  Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

I’ve been feeling stressed over my reading.

I get this way sometimes. I’m a reader, but I wouldn’t use the word “voracious.” I go through periods of voraciousness, but then I have quieter periods as well.

In the writing world, especially, there’s a ton of pressure (and it’s real) to always be reading. I get it. Reading with a critical eye can help improve a writer’s craft—to a certain extent.

But writers need to write. They need to write regularly. They need to get comfortable with revising. They need to develop a ruthlessness about their own work. None of these things comes from reading.

So while reading is one item in the writer’s toolbox, it’s not the only thing. Nor is it the most important, in my opinion. I know many voracious readers who struggle conveying their thoughts clearly on the page. But it’s also true that I do NOT know any good writers who don’t read at least somewhat regularly.

It’s a balancing act, for sure, especially when there are other storytelling mediums (media?) that can serve as teaching tools as well. We’re living in a Golden Age of television (that started with The Sopranos). Writers CAN learn many aspects of craft and storytelling from watching TV, although your snootiest writers would likely say otherwise.

I don’t apologize for watching TV. I think visually, so great TV is a great playground for me. I’m pretty much exclusive to Netflix these days. Binging does affect what I’m able to take in and process, so I will binge and then go back after some time and re-watch shows with a critical eye. I’ve done this with The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, The Newsroom, Dexter, and probably others I’ve forgotten. I’ll often watch pilot episodes a half dozen times, since pilots (when done well) effectively and efficiently set up the narrative and characters.

Anyhow, back to my point.

Despite everything I just said above, I still feel self-conscious when I get to the end of the year having read only 10-20 books and some of my colleagues have read 60, 70, even 80 books.

I do think I could—and should—read more. I definitely waste a lot of time doing stupid stuff (ruminating is a biggie), so my goal for 2017 is to shift my mindset when I get anxious and ruminating-y and do something else. Not just reading, either. Getting out and about. But definitely reading more.

So first up is this book: American Heiress by Jeffery Toobin.

It’s for a book club I’ll be crashing later this month. I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own. Going in, I was only mildly interested in Patty Hearst. But the book IS good—and not just because of the sensational story that it was (and still is), but also because it’s providing me with a sense of time in history that I’ve paid little attention to. I was born in 1973, so while I was alive during these events, I obviously don’t remember them…or even have a sense of the time.

In terms of the book (I’m about half way through it), my biggest nit so far is Toobin’s vocabulary. He’s obviously a smart guy (regular writer for The New Yorker, after all), and he loves impressive words (which are probably normal words to him, and probably normal for the average New Yorker reader). I have no problem with this. I’ve acknowledged over the years that I have a weak vocabulary. No shame in that, since I’m aware and am constantly trying to improve. I’m friendly with my online and paper dictionary and love learning new words.

That said, certain words should be used only once in a book (e.g. whipsawed, peripatetic, perfidy—several of these are used within a few pages, and even a few paragraphs, of their first mention). All are great words, but let’s mix it up a bit.

I don’t blame Toobin as much I blame his editor. A good editor should save a writer from himself or herself. I suspect Toobin wrote most of these words. But the editor should have flagged the second and third mentions, especially when such great synonyms exist. For example, perfidy and treachery. They mean the same thing, and they’re both good words.

After this book, I might read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. It’s been sitting on my shelf forever.

What are you reading?

I’m late to the Twilight saga party, and I know this subject has probably been talked about to death, but I find myself qualifying my reviews of the books with statements like this: “I enjoyed the Twilight saga (pause at the look of people’s disbelief) … I mean, despite (cough-sputter)  issues with the prose.” I add that last bit because I’m a cowardly shit sometimes, worried about what people (who? I don’t even know anymore) will think of me. Because, well, we writers aren’t supposed to, you know, actually LIKE Twilight. We lose our writer-cards or something.

That’s a load of bull. So let me be clear: I enjoyed the Twilight saga. Period. So there.

Yeah, I found the dialogue tags annoying in the first book, but they went away (or I got used to them) in the next three. I skimmed some sections, but dog knows I did that during Great Expectations and some of Austen in high school.  Pretty small quibbles for over 1500+ pages of prose. And I thought Meyer really hit her stride by the last book (as in, she grew as a writer. Which is kinda the point).

I know saying all this shows that I’m scrappy and not particularly refined in my literary tastes, at least according to some of the high-brow lit snobs out there. I’m fine with being scrappy. The books were fabulous escape reading (at a time when I really needed the escape), and the world Meyer built was vivid and three-dimensional. I read New Moon, which was over 500 pages, in one evening. One. And I loved every minute of it.

There, I feel better now. 🙂

Oh, by the way: I loved The DaVinci Code as well (I might get my MFA taken away for that blasphemy).

Do you ever feel you have to defend what you read? If yes, why (and if no, why not)? Share in the comments.

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July was a fun month.

I spent the bulk of it working on revisions for my second novel, What Happened in Granite Creek, which comes out in October. I was also on a virtual blog tour for Forgotten April, and, at the same time, the reviews started coming in fast and furious for da book.

I made a little video that recaps some of the highlights. It’s below (and if you’re reading this post via email, click here if you can’t see the video):

You can read the complete reviews by visiting the Forgotten April product page on Amazon, on B&N, or on Goodreads. Remember, it’s only 99 cents. So if you like women’s fiction (or if you know someone who does), consider checking it out. It’s also available in paperback.

Okay, end of shameless self-promotion. I’ll be back with some non-promotional posts soon — promise! A topic I need to cover is research, because something interesting happened in the 11th hour of my July revisions, and I think it’s important for both writers and readers to know about. Aaand I’ll be unveiling the cover art for What Happened in Granite Creek veddy, veddy soon, my pretties. I’m all sorts of excited about it and the book, which is quite a departure from Forgotten April.

What was that about stopping the self-promotion? Starting now!

Tell me what you did during your July.

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Whenever I read a book I don’t like, I go to its Amazon page and read the 5- and 4-star reviews and remind myself that mine is just one opinion in a sea of thousands and to get over myself.

It gives me hope, actually, since it shows that there’s probably a writer out there for everyone. Some writers, sure, will have smaller followings than others. Other writers will have huge fan-tribes. But even those authors will have 1- and 2-star reviews in addition to their dozens of glowing tributes. It’s the ying/yang of reviews, the great equalizer (and humbilizer) for all of us.

You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try. Logically, I imagine we all know this is true, but it’s a hard thing for our emotional selves to deal with, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to people reviewing our art.

But the fact is, people will hate your work. Violently, even. To the point they feel compelled to publicly claim that their 12-year-old deaf and blind chihuahua has more writing talent than you. They’ll be “forced” to leave a one-star review on Amazon only because Amazon won’t allow them to give zero stars. (And no, this hasn’t happened to me yet. It will, though.)

Don’t believe me? Think of three books you recently read and enjoyed. Go to Amazon, look them up, and check out the reviews. Do it — I’ll wait. I guarantee that at least one of these books you enjoyed has some scathing one-star reviews.

Need more evidence? Check out some recent award winners, like Tinkers by Paul Harding or Jonathan Franzen’s much lauded Freedom or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (a book I absolutely adored). Not only are there negative reviews, some are downright ugly and mean.

So that’s the dirty truth: people will hate your work. And at times, it will feel like people hate you. It will sting and hurt (don’t deny this — I don’t care how “thick” you claim your skin is). But the thing we all need to keep in mind is that it happens to ALL writers. (Yes, even the classics. Check out Great Expectations by Charles Dickens or Moby Dick by Melville. That’s Dickens in the pic, by the way.)

The antidote to a bad review is a good review. Focus on the people who love your work. Because if you’re doing your job well and you have some talent, there will be an audience for your art.

(PS — Can you tell I’m gearing up for reviews of my debut novel, Forgotten April? Please point me back to this post when all I want to do is drink and drool on the rug after I get a bad review. 🙂 )

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