Review: Bird by Bird

Bird by bird coverContext

If you’ve ever googled something like “books all writers should read”, you have most probably seen Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life at least once. This book doesn’t give precise advice on language and storytelling or how to make a living as a writer, but it gives some pointers as to how to deal with life as a writer – which probably helps in making it sound universally true. Like, on Twitter, I would hashtag this #writerslife, not #writingtips or #authorpreneur.

I happened to finish this book just before the beginning of my creative writing course, and was pleased to find it on the recommended reading list.

Review

First, let me say that this book is beautifully written. It is vibrant, poetic, witty, sad, true. It teaches by example. You’d think that’s a given with books on writing, but I know from experience that it’s not. Anne Lamott’s voice in the book is warm and honest, as if she had written the book for a friend or her son. It makes you feel like you’re talking to a friend over a cup of tea. There are a few references to Christianism, but not so much to bother non-Christians. I found every piece of advice to be sound and wise.

The book is divided into five parts. I had already figured out from experience most of what’s in the first part of the book, but I was glad to have some validation that I’m doing (and seeing) things the way a professional writer would. More experienced writers might find that there aren’t a lot of “new” ideas, but I didn’t mind. First because Lamott’s style is exquisite, secondly because there really aren’t any secrets to writing a book, and thirdly because the chapter on characters made me realize what was wrong with my protagonist.

The second part deals with the mindset. There are a few chapters that I thought most people, and not just writers or artists, could enjoy reading, including “Radio Station KFKD” (about those ugly thoughts that keep being broadcasted in our heads) and “Jealousy”. That last one almost shocked me at first, but then I realized I had experienced a similar feeling in my early 20s, just in a different context that didn’t have to do with writing – but very much to do with providing for myself. Despite all the wise precepts one attempts to abide by, it’s difficult to keep a cool head when survival is at stake.

The third part is about everything that can help a writer in times of need.  I love research and didn’t think I had much left to learn about it, but I had never thought of calling friends and family to have them talk to me about what they know. I especially loved the chapter “Letter”, which opens in the following way:

When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history—part of a character’s history—in the form of a letter. The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism.

The fourth part is mostly about publication. I have no experience in the matter, but a lot of what Lamott says rang true. The chapter “Giving” made me cry, literally. Here’s another quote, from the beginning of that part because I love it and it seems there is “truth” written all over it:

Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.

The last part is a single chapter and wraps up the book, and it left me inspired and at peace.

RosieThis book made me feel the urge to read Anne Lamott’s fiction. She has also written several non-fiction books about faith: that’s not my cup of tea, but a classmate in my creative writing class who happens to be a minister for some Church in Ontario said she loved those.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, old and young, new and experienced. And for non-writers, definitely check out Anne Lamott’s others books: she has published several novels (I added Rosie to my to-read line-up) as well as non-fiction (I heard Hallelujah Anyway was accessible for less-convinced Christians).

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Review: Magnified World

Context

I’m taking an online creative writing class this fall at the University of Toronto. Of course, the teacher, Grace O’Connell, is a published author; that seems to be a prerequisite, alongside “having a master’s degree. So I figured I’d read her debut novel Magnified World, to know a bit more “who I’m dealing with”.

Magnified WorldReview

I’m not sure I should be reviewing this book. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I could have adored it because I love new age stuff and psychology, but I didn’t like the “artistic direction”, if that means anything to you; I liked the ingredients, but not the final dish.

The writing is irreproachable, as you’d expect from an MFA. There are a few weird images along the way, but better that than clichés, I guess. There is a bit too much setting description to my taste: I often caught myself reading a sentence or even a paragraph without really registering it in my mind because I didn’t care. But that’s just my personal taste and I’m sure people who love literary fiction above all else wouldn’t mind.

In terms of story, I loved the beginning, the images it painted in my mind, the mood. And I loved the ending, how the main character finally healed… but is still at risks of a relapse. However, I found the middle too long. There’s a lot of foreshadowing all through the first half of the book, and although it’s subtle, when combined with my knowledge of psychology and writing, it ruined the punch for me: I’d seen every plot point and plot twist coming from miles away.

That  being said, from the reviews I’ve read on Goodreads, it seems if you’re not a psychology connoisseur, some aspects might actually be too subtle: a few people complained they still didn’t understand who Gil was at the end of the book; I knew it, or at least had a strong feeling about it, after the very first card he’d sent. But hey, I’ve spent two months in a psychiatric hospital; I know things most people don’t.

The characters are well crafted and I could sympathize with all of them, although I could identify with none… except the mother, and only a little; only the hardships of raising a child while struggling with a mental illness. I found the main character a bit annoying because I couldn’t understand her. However, that didn’t prevent me from rooting for her, so I guess it’s all good.

The main theme is grief, and you’d think the book would make you cry, or at least make you feel miserable a little, but it doesn’t. I must say, it’s probably the first time I’m disappointed that a book didn’t give me any strong feelings. I did cry once, but I think most people wouldn’t even understand why I cried at that specific point because it had more to do with my own history than the book. It’s not funny either, though. I have no idea what the writer wanted to reader to feel, but I suppose it didn’t work with me.

Overall though, I think the book has a lot to offer… it just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 7/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of literary fiction, especially in their early 20s. Possibly psychology amateurs.

Review: Viral Airwaves

Viral AirwavesContext

Claudie Arsenault was Québec City’s NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for several years. I have chatted with her a few times over the internet and even went to her place for a write-in during NaNoWriMo 2011. I don’t know her very well, but still, when she published her first book, Viral Airwaves, I felt I had to read it eventually, if only to show my support to a beautiful person that inspired me a lot.

I admit I delayed it voluntarily, though. I imagined her to be good and I was scared to be proven wrong. I finally purchased her book on an impulse, after having started a literary fiction that would likely be hard on my nerves and realised I wasn’t ready for another one of those yet.

I wanted her to be good with a force I hadn’t realised until I picked up the book with the intent to start reading it… as scared as that time I opened the letter that would tell me whether I was accepted into the only university I had applied to. I had an idea of how hard she works, how passionate she is about writing. If she could produce awesome work, then maybe I could, too, by following her example. I needed her to be good.

I was so scared. My expectations weren’t realistic, I thought. This was just her first book, even though I knew she had written several, already, by the time she published it. It was “just” an independently-then-self-published book, too. I couldn’t expect professional quality. Yet, I could expect no less, either.

That fear, however, died within the first chapter. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute I’ve spent reading this novel.

Review

This was my first time having a book printed from CreateSpace. The cover turned out more pixelized than expected (I don’t know if that’s due to the actual cover quality or the printing press), but the book is otherwise pretty and agreeable to read. The font might be a bit on the small size.

balloon

The language is fluent and agreeable. If I’m not mistaken, Claudie’s first language is French, and I was somewhat afraid it’d show… Now I feel silly about it. The book was obviously professionally revised, possibly more than once. It should have been obvious: the writer I know is too serious about her work to fudge essential steps.

The story is deliciously fast-paced, although it allows for slowdowns once in a while. Those short breaks never grow boring or pointless, however; the 464-page novel is action-packed and even I, who often wonder at the relevance of certain passages in other (ahem, traditionally-published) books, feeling as though the writer didn’t have enough story to fill 300 pages, couldn’t find a paragraph that didn’t belong.

The plot elements are brilliantly weaved into each other, too. I especially appreciated the discreet foreshadowing.

There is more romance than I like in my adventure novels, but… for me the perfect amount would be close to nil so it doesn’t really count. I didn’t buy all the love stories in the book, I rarely do, but I wouldn’t say they were badly handled; only, they aren’t the main focus. However, those are still better and more credible than the love stories in action blockbusters.

The characters are colourful and vivid. Maybe not as deep as the characters from another dystopian novel I reviewed recently, but deep enough. This book is action-oriented, after all. Too much psychology and emotions would have killed its entertaining quality and fast-paced awesomeness. My favourite is probably Treysh, but Andeal was the one I rooted the most for.

There is a bit of humour scattered here and there that either made me smile or laugh out loud. I love humour so this was the cherry on top. And besides, some of the events in the book are so terrible, I was glad for the relief those provided.

Of course, if I wanted to find faults with the book, I probably could. For one, there is so much knocking people out of their consciousness, it’s a miracle no one has any obvious brain damage. But I can forgive it just as I forgive it (among other things) in blockbusters or best-sellers all the time. There would be no point in my being harder on an acquaintance’s book than I’d be on perfect stranger’s, out of paranoia that I might be biased. I’ll have to trust myself on this

The White Renegade

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of adventure novels, especially if you like fantasy or science-fiction. I don’t especially like science-fiction, but there wasn’t so much science in it as to lose my interest. I mean, they fly in a hot air balloon over trees and rivers: nothing like the grey dullness of spaceships or Coruscant-like cities.

I already have a Kindle version of The White Renegade, a prequel to Viral Airwaves, but now I think I’ll get it printed… I might get City of Strife while I’m at it. I’ve found my self-published gem. I can’t believe it was so close to me the whole time.

If you happen to read the book, I’d love to hear your opinion about it!

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale 01Context

As part of a class assignment, I’ve read an essay titled Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian* by Mel Hurtig. The “never heard of them” applied to Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence among others (read the essay if you get the chance, it’s great). I’m sorry to admit it was true for me too: I had never heard of them before. I swore to myself, there and then, to read at least one book from both these writers someday.

When I joined Twitter several years later, I went and followed a few Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood, whose tweets I enjoy. At last, I became too curious about her and looked for her “best” novel, which seemed to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t tell whether it is her best, but one thing’s for sure: it’s great.

I had no idea what the book was about; I hadn’t read so much as the back cover. I had only a vague idea of the genre, even: something about a dystopian society, somewhere between sci-fi and history, and I’m quite amazed I got even that “close enough”.

Review

The book is a speculative fiction, but there is a non-genre quality about it: it studies human nature in depth and leaves you to make your own opinion. Main themes include power, sexuality and feminism.

The pace is very slow, especially in the beginning. I don’t always like slowness, but here it was welcome. The events are so terrible, I was grateful that the information about “the new world” was given one drop at a time. I’m also glad that I started reading the book early this month, because I could not have binge-read it; it would have affected my mood too much.

The worst thing – or the best thing, but for your feels it’s the worst – is that this dystopian society is set in our own world and is very close to our own society. You feel like it could happen. Actually, horrors like those in the book did happen before, are happening right now in other parts of the world, and most likely will happen again somewhere else in the world. That is what makes it so hard to read.
Offred
That and the fact that the characters are deep and complex and… human. I loved how even those most probably responsible for the worst atrocities were not depicted as overly sadistic monsters. The worst acts can be committed in the belief that they are “for the greater good”.

However, the author is kind: she doesn’t dwell on the atrocities. On the contrary, she constantly diverts your attention toward some little thing, a funny expression, a flower, a dream, for you to get some relief before the next wave of pain. I didn’t cry even once, which I’m thankful for.

Bottom note: this novel is as horrifying as it is brilliantly written.

Now it hits me even harder: how have I not heard of this book or its author outside that one university class? This is the first novel by Margaret Atwood I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Everybody over 16 could enjoy this, but it might be of particular interest to women, amateur sociologists and fans of dystopian fiction.

Reference

*Hurtig, Mel.“Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian.” The Harbrace Reader for Canadians. Ed. Joanne Buckley. Toronto: Harcourt Canada, 2001. 279-284

The Harbrace Reader for Canadians(By the way, there’s an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Harbrace Reader for Canadians about utopia and several other excellent essays on various subjects, including creative writing – my absolute favourite being MadmanArchitect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process by Betty S. Flowers; this is one of the best books I’ve bought for a university course and I warmly recommend it. Obviously, it is of special interest to Canadians.)

Review: More Than Neighbours

Context

More than NeighborsA few months ago, I saw several offers for ghostwriters in the romance genre. I wasn’t qualified for those, but that gave me the idea that maybe it would be easier for me to get published through Harlequin than through finding an agent and then a publisher (not that I even tried finding an agent, but it does look awfully hard).

So I looked up Harlequin guidelines and then found they offered free trial books in each of their romance series, so I downloaded them and looked through the blurbs to find one that would possibly be acceptable to me and chose More Than Neighbors, by Janice Kay Johnson.

In the end, I gave up the idea of writing Harlequin romance books because that could probably not hold my interest very long, but the particular book I read was… quite alright.

Review

The book was better than I expected. Although it mostly focused on romance like all Harlequin romance books, there was more to it. It touched themes like parenting, autism, labels, grief, self-esteem and abusive relationships. I didn’t find them very powerful: I found the melodrama a bit too much at times and didn’t like that everything was spelt out, but still, it’s much better than what I expected.

The story is slow, with a lot of descriptions. It’s a slowness that makes you dream about those countrysides landscapes, woodworking and cutting horse competitions, not one that makes you wonder where that story is leading (anyway, you know where it’s leading: it’s a Harlequin). There are, however, some possibly irritating repetitions.

carouselleriecreative_pinkishblooms_elements_berries-11The romance is also fairly slow, which is a definite plus with me (probably a minus for most Harlequin readers). It was a nice romance, too. I’m sometimes disgusted by romance books when the relationship doesn’t look healthy (or is downright toxic), but this one is as healthy as could be. It reflects my idea of a great, empowering relationship.

There is one very explicit sex scene plus a few other sexy bits that I couldn’t enjoy, but I know I’m the exception rather than the rule: for me, it’s like I met these people, you know, went to their house a few times, and then eventually they just stripped naked in front of me and start going at it… nope. Not something I wanna see.

The characters are fairly stereotypical and the gender roles are as traditional as could be, but I expected as much. Ciara sews and cooks, Gabe is a woodworker owning horses. They both have their own issues and are rather believable, but they didn’t jump from the page either. The one really fun character, in my opinion, is Ciara’s son Mark. He’s one of the main reasons why I liked this book.

In conclusion, it’s a decent light book for when you want to relax and not think too much.

Rating: 6/10

Who would I recommend this to? Women who enjoy light romance, especially if they also like daydreaming about rural settings, horses and cowboys.

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time coverContext

I have first heard about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon in a university class. The teacher’s sales pitch was that the narrator was autistic and therefore his view of the world was quite unique.

Now, the main character of my first novel is autistic too. I didn’t mean to make her, it just happened. That being said, I became curious about how this other autistic character was portrayed and consequently bought the book.

Review

I was hooked from the very first chapter’s number: 2. Yep, who cares about conventions, right? I’m all for throwing them through the window when they don’t suit my taste and have no disastrous consequences for anyone. So I started bonding right there and then with the narrator and protagonist, Christopher Boone.

It is nowhere mentioned that Christopher is autistic – although it is obvious to anyone who has basic knowledge on the subject – so I don’t see why people insist on using autism as a sales pitch. It is quite obvious that the writer didn’t want to put a label on him. And in fact, I wouldn’t even say that his autism was one of my favourite aspects of the book. On the contrary, I found him very “textbook” autistic – as in very stereotypical. Which is okay, but there is so much more to this book than that.

Christopher might seem very different at first, especially for a close-to-100% neurotypical reader (which I’m not, I’m 50-50 so to me he wasn’t that much “weirder” than the 90%+ neurotypical characters I read about all the time), but as the story progresses I think most people could realize he’s more like them than they would ever have thought. Which is often the case with anyone you think is “different”.

The characters are all unique, believable and not always very sympathetic. I had very mixed feelings for almost every character in the book (except Mrs Alexander, she’s the best). They were mostly loveable, but then they did that thing of which I disapproved (a different thing for each). However, that’s part of what made them so realistic. I felt deeply, in particular, for Christopher’s parents.

That being said, to me the most interesting aspects of this book were the plot and theme. Although Christopher keeps saying that “this is not a proper novel”, I think it is. There are several interesting mystery and adventure elements, but mostly it’s a story about life and how different people deal with it.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time cover 2The main theme, to me, was that of courage. In the later half of the book, Christopher shows the kind of real-life courage that cannot fail to have an impact on me. Some other characters also show their courage… or lack of it.

Finally, this novel is refreshingly non-moralistic. Good people do good things and bad things. They care for the people they like and want to protect them, but they hurt them too, sometimes. They don’t mean it. Sometimes emotions cloud their judgement, sometimes they can’t understand how the other person thinks, and sometimes, one person’s needs are simply too much for what the other person can give. There are all three examples through the story and I loved that

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Everyone. Except if you’re reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the same time because there are spoilers. And yes, of course I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the same time or it wouldn’t have been funny: I had meant to finish it before reading this book, but then lack of time happened and I didn’t want to review two classics in a row so I put Sherlock on hold only to see my mistake when Christopher told all there was to know about its plot. Oh well.

Psst! I also posted a “life update” on my Facebook page.

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a MockingbirdContext

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been on my to-read list for a long time. When you hear a title frequently enough, you become curious. There was a child on the cover, it seemed light-hearted… hahaha. That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.

I had no idea what the story was about – at all. Had I had the slightest idea, I would’ve kept it for later and would probably have never come around to read it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: this book is a masterpiece and deserves its Pulitzer Price. But it took all my courage to finish it, and now I’ve had enough emotions for a while.

Review

The plot kept me on my toes for a very long time: until about the middle of the book, when I realised what the story was about. Then, for another 150 pages, I became frustrated and wished I had never started that book. I could see where it was leading and didn’t like it. Worse: I was crying so much, I found it hard to continue reading. But the final 70 pages pacified me and made me feel… at peace. Once you started it, you have to push through until the end and not stop when it gets frustrating because the ending is so worth the effort. (Wow, that could be said of a lot of things in life.)

The themes are the strongest point of the book, as is often the case with non-genre fiction. They are deep and they are many, including courage, compassion, racism, karma and gender roles. It’s impossible to finish that book without having thought long and hard about at least one of its themes… or without having had the urge to throw it out the window.

To Kill a Mockingbird movieThe characters felt so alive, it’s like I was a Maycomb citizen and had known them my whole life. I identified a lot with Scout… It might be only the second time I identify so much with a character (the first being Villette’s Lucy Snowe). When I read my own thoughts written by an author with whom I haven’t much in common, I can only admire them. Someday, I want to do that to someone else.

The secondary characters weren’t any less three-dimensional, though: Jem, Atticus (my new favourite name), Miss Maudie… It’s like I was allowed to see their souls.

The language was plain and easy to understand except for some local words, but nothing out of the ordinary considering English isn’t my first language. I loved to “hear” people’s accents.

There might have been a few too many historical references to my taste, but that might just be me not liking to be showered with dates and historical events.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of deep non-genre literature, who love feeling intense emotions; even better if they also love American history (I’m sure there were lots of references in there I didn’t get because I’m not a US citizen). However, I think it’s cruel to force anybody under 18 to read it; there are more accessible English classics out there.