Archive for category Reading

Five Stars or Die? The Dreyfuss Book Rating System

Apparently I’m not the only person stymied and annoyed with the rating system on Goodreads, the same system that has taken over all of our lives. Buy a new TV? Rate it. Have your car worked on? Rate it. Eat at a restaurant? Rate it. And if you can’t give it five stars, forget it. The mechanic/cook/salesperson will be fired because we no longer recognize nuance. Five Stars or die. Although it would not be perfect, a ten-star system would allow for a little tweaking of meaning, if it also didn’t become a Pass or Fail grade.

Others are fed up with figuring out what the stars mean, and this That’s Normal author has a pretty funny take on a better rating system where you consider what you’d rate a book situationally.  Although not a rating system, the Totally Hip Video Book Reviews are pretty funny as well. Ron Charles has some reviews posted on youtube, but there are others viewable under The Washington Post, if you happen to have a subscription.

The code I’d like to adopt is one recently featured on most NPR stations. As it was only given a brief mention, I looked up a bit more information. When Stefanie Dreyfuss died, a CBS station wrote a short piece on her and her system. Buzzfeed includes a more detailed rundown of her system with codes included.

I was driving in the car when the NPR piece aired. The most memorable rating I came away with was Readable Piffle (RP).   This seems like a very useful category for a book that is fun to read but overall not memorable. Some of her other codes are less original, like DNF for did not finish, NMS for not my style, and WOT for waste of time. A G was given to books that held her attention while NBAA was assigned to books she considered not bad at all.

She added refinements, such as adding a +1 to RP for something a step above the usual or RP-M for a mystery. She also had a RB category for Readable Banality. Not sure what the differentiation between piffle and banality is, but overall I like her system and plan to adopt it. I wish there was a way to officially add this to Goodreads and other places where ratings are left for books. Adding a star rating based on the category of read would give a clearer meaning to five stars for a fun mystery compared to five stars for a serious read.

Looking at my list of books read and rated over the last two and a half years I’d give :

Camino Island (John Grisham) RP-M (2.5)

Sputnik Caladonia (Andrew Crumey) NMS/RR-SF (3)

I Will Have Vengeance (Maurizo de Giovanni) WOT (2)

The Twelve Lives of Samual Hawley (Hannah Tinti) RP-Thriller (3.0) The Totally Hip review is not to be missed, although apparently the actual reviewer thought highly of it.

A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) G-5 or should that be NBAA-5?

Mrs. Fletcher (Tom Perrotta) RB (2)

What system do you use to rate books? How would you rate some of your recent reads using the Dreyfuss Method?

 

 

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Help Needed: Soft SF Suggestions, Please!

I have a few ideas for science fiction stories and novels but need some help. Although I read a lot of science fiction in the past, I haven’t read much in the last ten or twenty years. I read one book with a spider as god, and Mary Doria Russel’s series. When I first thought about about getting back into the genre, I bought an anthology of story winners. Most of the stories seemed to me to be of a quality and type that they could have been labeled literary rather than science fiction. This makes me believe the writing in this genre has improved.

The terminology itself has shifted, though, and I’m not clear if I’m using the correct letters, etc. I believe the SF books that would be of interest to me are soft SF, more in the psychological, sociological, or cultural vein than in swords and laser guns. I’m thinking my stuff would be more similar to The Left Hand of Darkness than I, Robot or Dune.

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Recently I also picked up two other SF books. I enjoyed James Gunn’s Transcendental, but I’ve lost interest in Rapture of the Nerds, which had an interesting premise on the back cover but is a bit too all over the place for me to want to finish it. Frenetic is how I’d describe it.

Anyone out there have a list of not-to-be-missed novels written in the last decade or so? I’d appreciate any suggestions.

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Chester or Candy? Do Bookcovers Make a Difference?

I am not really a Twitter fan, but sometimes I do run across interesting articles that I wouldn’t find otherwise. Today I happened upon some tweets by Jennifer Weiner. Since they were a bit puzzling, I followed the trail back to what appeared to be the original reference, which was an article related to gender and fiction.  The article that evoked the reaction appears to be this, Book By Legal Scholar Gets the Chicklit Cover in Jezebel. It showed both the hardback and the paperback cover of a serious novel and asked if you’d pick up one or the other. Personally, I found them both a bit “chick-lit”-ish and wouldn’t have picked  up either. Actually the hardback looked like a YA novel to me.

I found this short piece interesting in relation to a blog I wrote where someone commented that the women’s fiction was mostly defined by the cover. In the comments on the Jezebel post I found a link to another tweet and the resultant piece in the Huffington Post relating to the hypothetical changes in covers given to male and female authors. I’m sure everyone has read at least one of the books that was featured, and the shifts in cover color and design certainly tend to lend credence to the idea that “women’s fiction” is all in the (cover) marketing. Worse, it makes the case that any book written by a woman is forced to appear to be a book of interest only to other women. Check it out. Toward the end of the piece there is a slideshow of alternate covers for around twenty book titles.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935.html?1367956789#slide=more296089

Pick one of your own manuscripts or books. What would the cover look like if you were the opposite sex?

For mine, I’m going to pick my manuscript with the most “manly” title. Maybe titles are the first giveaway rather than the actual cover?

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Statue of Chester Arthur in NYC park.

I have one titled Man in the Middle. If the book were written by Chester Arthur Cole, the cover might feature the figure of a one-legged man with a cluster of women in one corner and a motorcycle in another and fishing equipment in the third. Candy Apple Cole’s cover would be a handsome man with a surprised look on his face and a perky woman on either side, kissing his face. Probably one or both would be holding a rose and the cover itself would be pinkish red.

With this in mind, how would you see your books illustrated? Would you select one cover over the other if you were a reader?

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What Makes You Read On? Does your book exemplify that?

IMG_1012 In September I was assigned three other members from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association to see if we would gel as an online critique group. We’ve had some bumps, and although all three of the other women are excellent critiquers, I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue, mostly due to the heavy reading load.

For our first go-round we tried ten pages a week. This went fast and was easily handled. We all have manuscripts that are in final draft stage, so we are understandably impatient at the snail’s pace of ten pages each a month. This month we’re doing 50 pages each for a total of 150 pages.

I also belong to a local critique group (WURDZ), which meets every other week. Last week I had between 40 and 50 pages to read for that. In the last ten days I read over 100critique pages. I also work part time and have other things to do, including my blog post. Needless to say, I did not get much new writing done. I am not sure I can keep up the pace of possibly 200-250 pages a month.

Both groups include writers of very different genres/styles. One of the women in WURDZ stated she wrote “commercial” fiction. Two others write fantasy/literary fantasy. The online group consists of a historical fiction writer, another more commercial writer of women’s/romance/mystery-thrillers, and the last writes women’s fiction which may be literary.

Today one of the online group members posted some openings to bestsellers, all but one of which were a decade or more old. I had read, or started to read, two of the aforementioned bestsellers, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner. Also included were Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane) and The Cold Dish (Craig Johnson). I found four books I really enjoyed, two of which were a few years older than the bestsellers. The other two were more current. My four books were A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler), Lambs of God (Marele Day), The Epicure’s Lament (Kate Christensen), and The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes). At least three of those authors are  major award winners.

The woman who posted analyzed why she felt each of the openings worked. Her question come down to “what is going on and why?” Those would appear to be good questions. All four of my openings raised the same questions, but more obliquely. Although of mild interest, the questions weren’t what primarily drove me to continue reading. I believe what all four of mine have in common is voice.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me since I’ve written other posts about voice and how it is of utmost importance, but I found it edifying. I’m often trying to write—especially beginnings—to satisfy the perceived demands of agents as expressed by my writing partners, writing conferences, and workshops. Maybe, as a writer and reader these aren’t qualities I enjoy and want to primarily foster. Possibly I’ve set myself an impossible task as it is hard to get an agent to buy on the strength of voice when all they have is my query letter. Possibly they would say voice doesn’t sell. They very well may be correct. It is also highly possible that my voice isn’t good enough to sell a story on that alone.

What, then, are my choices? I could stop writing altogether, but I’m not ready to do that. I could reframe each story to the demands of the market, whatever those shifting demands are. After talking with an editor this summer, I tried to reshape a manuscript to what she was looking for. I soon lost interest. My best option would be to find an agent who specializes in voice and happens to find mine to her liking. This is possible but not necessarily likely to happen.

The last option I see is to switch genre. The first story idea I had as an adult was in the realm of science fiction. I read science fiction as a teenager. I’ll continue to desultorily market some of my other finished manuscripts, but I think it is time to switch. The question is, do I continue with my current critique groups, especially in light of the time they are taking?

Can you identify what makes a book opening most intriguing to you? Does that have much to do with if you read on or not? Does your writing match the sort of opening you prefer?

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Which is like a Made-for-TV movie? Me Before You or The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving?

IMG_0991I had breakfast with one of my librarian friends this past Friday. I related my feelings of a recent book I read, one that IS, I believe, classified as women’s fiction: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I read this book because some of my younger writer friends were mentioning it on Facebook, and I thought someone had said that this author was really good. My feelings about the book were hard to sort out. I certainly didn’t love it and felt as if I should get out my editing pencil, but I didn’t find it so uncompelling I wanted to stop reading. I wanted to finish it, but I also didn’t pine to pick it up. What I finally settled on was that it reminded me of a made-for-TV movie. I guess I’d categorize this sort of TV show as usually not very deep, probably with a happy ending, if it isn’t a three-hanky movie. The characters, who may be loveable, aren’t very deep and often have dramatic problems. I’d expect the dialogue is supposed to be witty or funny but is only marginally so.

Mostly I enjoy watching deeply affecting foreign films. Why foreign? It seems that these movies are more often aligned with literature than all but the very best of independent American movies. Possibly this is due to reading subtitles, or the allure of a foreign language, or the more exotic setting, and not due to the depth of the material.

If I’m going to continue with the movie metaphor, I could throw in Roger Ebert’s idiot plot, and it seems to me that some element of such was evident in this book. The protagonist, Lou, seemed to be lacking basic information that any thinking adult would have. She is only 26 and apparently lives in a small English village. Possible what seems obvious in American culture isn’t obvious in English culture, but I found it hard to believe that an adult in the 2000s would not be aware of handicapped parking spaces, entrances, etc. Somewhat more believable might have been that she had never seen, or apparently heard of, any of the movies made about quadriplegics. She did know Christie Brown, and I’m assuming that is a cultural difference. I would suspect many Americans would not know who that was, although they would be likely to know the movie My Left Foot.

Whose Life it it Anyway? (1981) may have a similar overarching theme of who gets to decide when life is worth living and when you get to die. Since I read Me Before You in physical book form, I can’t go back and check, but I believe it references The Sea Inside, which for me was a lyrical, beautiful film that contained genuine emotion. A more recent French film, The Intouchables presents the other side of the picture, a quadriplegic man who wants to live.

From the ratings on Goodreads, and the stellar review in The New York Times, I know I’m in the minority when I say I didn’t much like JoJo Moyes book. To me it felt like a first draft with characters that weren’t developed beyond the mechanics of the story. I did not shed a single tear, nor did I have a single chuckle. While I was reading this, a young women I know was also reading it. She admitted she also wasn’t that touched by it. In the NYTimes review, Liesl Schellinger mentions this book was called a “real weepy” in the British press. I don’t often cry over books and have cried onl slightly more frequently at movies. I don’t like being manipulated, and for me, that’s the meaning of a tearjerker. The term weepy may mean the same as a “three hanky” movie. Possibly weepy/three hanky movies encompass both tearjerkers and movies that contain pathos.

When looking at the films mentioned above, I mostly remember being infuriated by Whose Life. I had a similar reaction to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. I definitely would categorize this last as a tearjerker. I found The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly both deeply affecting and intriguing.

A similar book to Me Before You is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. Although the protagonist in this book does not take care of a quadriplegic, but instead a teenager with muscular dystrophy, many of the issues and challenges in the two books, are similar.

The Revised is not quite as well-liked on Goodreads, but for me the writing is steps beyond that of the Moyes book.IMG_0992

I may explore similarities and differences between these two books and the movie The Intouchables in a future blog post.

Have you ever thought what kind of movie your book might be compared to?

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Relating Opera to Literary Fiction

IMG_0865Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend Central City Opera’s rendition of “The Marriage of Figaro.” As usual, their production was wonderful, the voices great, the energy level high. I knew I was going to like it as soon as I heard Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone, singing on the trailer, and he lived up to expectations. Another opera lover described his voice as sitting in a cup of Earl Grey tea!The other baritones in the opera were all enjoyable and Susanna, soprano Anna Christy, was also great. What I love about the Central City opera company is that they cannot only sing, but most are also credible actors, which makes the silly opera stories that much more enjoyable.

While listening to the singers, I started mussing about how story and music interact and how this relates to literature. Many operas have rather silly plots, with characters dressing up as someone else, or hiding in spots where no person could really hide. In the dramas, everyone seems to die. A lot of the plots are eerily the similar. Many of them are based on the same play(s)–The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. A number of Shakespeare’s plays are represented. For instance, Verdi operas include Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. Both Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mephistopheles are based on Goethe’s Faust. 

Although not universally true, most composers did not write the librettos for their own work. Often the librettist was a well-known poet. I suspect that most people, like me, do not have the slightest idea who wrote the words for the operas they like. The score is what is usually well known and loved, although when examined, librettos often contain wonderfully evocative phrases.

My thought while listening yesterday afternoon was that the music of opera can often be like the prose in the most lyrical of literary fiction, often covering up the faults in the storyline. Or, like the best poetry, the music evokes a feeling and the listener is less concerned about the plot making sense.

Reference book used to verify the ideas in this post.

Reference book used to verify the ideas in this post.

The cast list

The cast list

 

 

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It’s all in the Voice

It seems that most of the new bands/singers I’ve found and liked recently have one thing in common; I love the singer’s voice. It’s possible that I like the music surrounding their songs, too, but the primary reason I bought an “album”/sought them out” was because I was mesmerized by the voice. One of the most entrancing voices I ever heard belongs to a man I can’t locate again. I was in Santa Fe during some kind of festival. There were musical acts in the square across from the portico where the Native Americans lay out their wares. I was in the art museum’s gift shop about a half a block away when I heard a singer. His voice almost literary scratched at my brain. I had no choice but to put back the item I was looking at and walk, almost run, as if he were the Pied Piper, to see who it was that was singing.

This was two or three years ago, and voice is difficult to describe. I’d say his was a purr like the best of Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison. And who was singing? A short, maybe 5’2″, rotund, slick-backed hair,  middle-aged  or older Hispanic man. I would have bought a CD, but they were sold out. “I’ll remember the band’s name,” I thought, but of course, I didn’t. They had recently won a competition in New York City, but that is all I remember. What category of music did they play? Salsa? Tejano? Mariachi? I don’t remember that, either.

Mid afternoon on Friday I was driving to work. I tuned in public radio, because I was too lazy to look for another station. As I got close to my office, a song came on. I had a similar reaction as I had to the Santa Fe voice, although I wasn’t 100% clear if it was a male with a somewhat high voice or a woman with a deeper voice. All I knew was that I was in love again. The song was “I Don’t Want to Be Loved,” and my car stereo said it was by Me and Appollo. Okay, I could remember a name as simple as that, especially since Appollo was spelled wrong. When I got home, I put that into Google and found a band called You Me and Apollo. (Maybe the ticker had the band name right, and I thought the song was called I Don’t Want to Be Loved by You.) Although an acoustic session, it determined the singer was a male.

The band played a recent show in my town! A little  more research turned up that this was a local band! And they would be playing at our free weekend of music, Bohemian Nights in August! I also found a Facebook page. I liked it and posted a comment, and they responded almost at once.

When I scroll through my limited online library, I do find examples of songs/artists whose music I like even if I don’t think voice is the primary attraction. Here Comes the Mummies, Fela Kuti, and others feature a lot of horns, which might substitute for voice, but others have different characteristics I respond to.

For me, voice is all important in fiction, too. Voice is most often the characteristic that makes me read a book beyond the first page. It’s an intangible quality that can’t easily be quantified and not every book with great and appealing voice exhibits the same characteristics. Of course, all books I read and like don’t have what I’d consider a great voice. The book I’m currently reading is science fiction. I’m not sure it has a voice I’d be able to identify, but it has an intriguing enough premise and odd enough alien characters I’ll probably read the whole book.

I’d attempted reading two other novels before I settled on this as my next read. Two of these I picked up as freebies at the recent Crested Butte conference. One is a fantasy set in early 1900s San Francisco and is another candidate in my search for women’s fiction. The idea of ghosts attaching themselves to people and the woman who was able to see them seemed intriguing, but I didn’t get far before I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to read at that moment. Maybe I’ll never go back to it. The synergy between character/voice/story wasn’t there for me. The book before that, Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, very well might have extreme voice, but it’s another tome. Although I found the voice mesmerizing, I knew it was going to take awhile to read, and I wanted to get in at least one more quick book before tackling it. My thoughts after only reading about six pages is that the voice is magical, a bit old-fashioned as befits the time period of the novel, and full of astounding language.

The Given Day, which I wrote about in an earlier post, had a voice that at first interested me, but which I tired of toward the end. I’d Know You Anywhere had a mixed voice, part dull and boring, part exasperating, each attached to different characters. The other book I spoke of recently, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, had a smart-ass voice that made me not like the first person narrator but probably did keep me reading.

Can you identify books that you read mostly because you liked the voice? What sort of qualities would you say the voice had? And is that one of the reasons you like the artists and songs you do?

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