Category Archives: on reading

Rebecca Dinerstein — The Sunlit Night

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This is another “literary” novel that I enjoyed. I need to stop prejudging books by their genre. I don’t believe you should judge a person by what group they belong to, what they look like, or where they come from. So why should I choose book by genre? Each group has authors I enjoy and those that I don’t.

The Sunlit Night is a delightful tale about two young people who end up in northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun. Frances is a twenty-two-year-old artist from New York City who has accepted an apprenticeship for the summer to Nils who paints only in yellow at an artist colony and museum in the north of Norway. Yasha, seventeen and just out of high school. is a Russian boy living over his father Vassily’s bakery on Brighton Beach. Vassily plans a trip to Moscow to look for Yasha’s mother who stayed behind ten years earlier when father and son moved to the United States. Vassily dies of a heart attack in Moscow and his last wish is to be buried at the top of the world. The artist colony and museum in northern Norway is the closest to his father’s wish that Yasha can find.

Dinerstein paints the stark Arctic landscape as beautiful and colorful. She surrounds us in ever-present light.

In addition to Frances and Yasha, all the peripheral characters are entertaining—from the artist Nils to local blacksmith to staff and manager of the museum. We have glimpses of Frances’s dysfunctional family. Her sister is marrying a man her parents don’t like, and they refuse to attend the wedding. Yasha meets Frances’s family looking over her shoulder at a computer screen. Yasha’s uncle from Moscow and his lost motherarrive for Vassily’s funeral. His mother stays on, working at the museum, and the man she has been living with in New York turns up later.

Everything about the book is entertaining—characters, setting, story. I highly recommend it.

Humor Comes in Many Flavors (Genres)

humor

Humor is good for the soul. I’ve heard that laughter is good for your health, mental and physical. Many authors inject humor into even the most serious subjects. I have been working on formatting for a young adult book, Angel of Tears by Irene “Susie” Smith. It’s a poignant story about a young girl growing up poor in Detroit during the ‘40s and ‘50s. But there is humor.

I just finished two humorous fantasy books. I don’t often read fantasy, but both of these stories were entertaining.

I picked up the first book, Mayor of the Universe by Lorna Landvik, thinking it was science fiction. I guess it could be classified as SF, but to me it’s fantasy. It’s the story of Fletcher, an everyday man with a boring job and few friends. As a child he was alone most of the time and made up an imaginative fantasy life. One night, a group of aliens who believed in having fun showed up in his bedroom. They picked him because they enjoyed his childhood fantasies, and they sent him off to experience them. But it didn’t exactly turn out as he imagined. One of the characters was an alien who took human form to help Fletcher and ends up having a great fantasy life of her own. It’s great fun.

The second book can’t be called anything but fantasy; it’s a fairytale. Letters to Zell by Camille Griep is the story of fairytale princesses after the “happily ever after.” Zell is Rapunzel. She has left fairytale land and gone to live in OZ to run a unicorn preserve. The letters are from her friends, Bianca (Snow White), Rory (Sleeping Beauty), and CeCi (Cinderella). They write about their daily lives, good and bad, and their travels to the “real” human world. Their lives are controlled by “fairy godmothers” who have pages they must follow. If they deviate too far from the tale, all of fairytale land can be destroyed.

It’s full of humor, but as in any fairytale it also has life lessons. It’s an adult book, not for children. But if the language was cleaned up it could probably fall into the young adult genre.

In all of the above, it’s the humor that keeps me hooked.

Literary vs. Mainstream Fiction

I have a problem distinguishing between literary and mainstream fiction. And sometimes genre fiction seems to overlap into those categories. I spent some time poking around the Internet trying to find distinctions or definitions of the two and it only confused me more. The general consensus seems to be that literary fiction is more about style of writing that about plot, while mainstream is plot driven. I found that many believe that a crossover exists between mainstream and literary (and even genre). One suggested that literary was for the “elite” reader. Janet Paszkowski on absolutewrite.com tells a writing professor described non-literary fiction as “artless.”

Some of the interesting articles I read:

I claim I don’t enjoy most literary novels, but I have found several books that are classed as literary that I liked. I’ve reviewed some here on my blog; check the literary category. Some of them may be classified as “Women’s Fiction” rather than literary. Is that another crossover?

What sent me to the Internet to define literary vs. mainstream is a book I read recently (The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi) with a blurb on the front cover saying, “A gripping literary thriller….” To me this is an oxymoron. Thriller to me is definitely genre. The book was good and very plot driven, with good characterization. I would probably call it genre/thriller. Possibly mainstream since the writing didn’t exactly follow the rules for the genre. The one thing I see that probably classifies it as literary is the lack of quotation marks. This style of writing drives me crazy. Literary or not, I don’t see the purpose of eliminating quotes except to make a book more difficult to read.

The next book in my pile (All that Followed by Gabriel Urza) turned out to be literary in my mind. It is a twisted tale set in the Basque Country of northern Spain with three main characters POV: an American expat teacher, a young man almost accidentally involved in revolutionary activity, and the wife of an upcoming politician. Great reading! (He didn’t eliminate the quotation marks.)

I still don’t know the answer on how to define literary vs. mainstream. I think the definitions change with time and with the person defining.

Characters — Part II

I’ve read a lot of novels lately and I’m getting behind in blogging about them. The best ones for me all have one thing in common — good characterization.

From Wikipedia:

There are two ways an author can convey information about a character:

Direct or explicit characterization

The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.

Indirect or implicit characterization

The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, way of talking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.

For me, direct characterization doesn’t cut it. I like to be in the characters head. Show, don’t tell.

Some of those books I’ve read recently: Lies That Bind, by Maggie Barbieri; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert; Cuba Straights by Randy Wayne White; and there were more. There is one in my pile of books to go back to the library that I didn’t finish: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

The characters in each of these books were probably the main reason I kept reading and enjoyed the stories, or not. In Lies that Bind, there were many things I didn’t like about the protagonist Maude Conlon. But she was interesting and likable even though she had a bad temper, sometimes treated her daughters badly. She kept secrets but didn’t like others keeping secrets from her. The story had a good plot; Mauve looking for a sister she didn’t know existed until her father died. I would like to read other novels by Maggie Barbieri.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF authors. He writes epic novels that are more about science than characters. But Aurora had a unique main character. (There were two, maybe more protagonists.) This unusual character is the starship’s quantum computer. We meet him/her/them (the computer calls itself we for a long period of time) as a child being taught to think in human terms by the ship’s chief engineer, Devi. By the end of the story he has a very distinct personality, even a sense of humor. The other main character is Devi’s daughter, Freya, who (like all the others currently on the spaceship) was born in space. The plot is good. What do you do when you arrive at your destination and the planet you are supposed to live on is poisonous to humans? The science goes way beyond what I understand but didn’t bore me.

Bittersweet: A China Bayles Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert is part of a long series. In this book China Bayles, a police detective, is out of her territory visiting her mother when she becomes involved in two murders, plus game theft and smuggling. The characters are interesting and real, including her game warden friend Mack Chambers. The plot is good and the settings are wonderful. It makes me want to visit central Texas, a place I never before had a desire to see.

In my opinion Cuba Straights, Randy Wayne White’s latest Doc Ford novel, is not his best. The settings kept my interest (Cuba and Florida history included), but the plot was somewhat disjointed. I felt that Doc Ford has devolved into a typical macho male, his friend Tomlinson, who used to be interesting, has turning into a drugged-out freak show, and some of the other characters are two dimensional. I probably won’t read the next one. White has lost touch with his characters.

I don’t usually give bad reviews here, but here is a second one to go with the one above. Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald drove me crazy and I couldn’t finish it. Her main character is apparently ADHD. Off the wall, bouncing around, can’t complete anything, not even the email she is trying to write. Maybe it gets better but I couldn’t follow the story and quit after a couple of chapters. Could the author be like that? In this case the character is what kept me from reading this book.

Carolyn Ives Gilman — Dark Orbit

Nothing I enjoy more than a good science fiction novel. I’ve been reading SF since I was about ten. There are many subgenres of SF. Almost as many as there are genres and subgenres of fiction. I’m not into the war games or monsters type of SF. My favorite is “hard science fiction,” based on scientific accuracy and technical detail. I also like the category called “soft science fiction,” which explores the social sciences. This book probably falls mostly into the “soft” genre, but it also includes hard SF (space folds and gravitational anomalies, etc.).

Dark Orbit tells a tale about finding a new “habitable” planet where people are living underground who cannot see. If we are missing one of our senses do we develop others? Does our hearing become sharper? Are there senses we don’t know about or use that can develop in the absence of sight?

The book also shows us different cultures and how people tend to categorize others and react to those differences.

It’s a great read. Gilman is a creative and talented author.

Kathleen Alcott — Infinite Home

I believe there are different kinds of families — the ones we are born into or marry and those we connect with throughout life, at work or play or by chance. The people in this novel are a “family” who live in an apartment house in NYC.

The tenants are all misfits in one way or another. An artist who had a stroke at an early age; he has given up painting. A bipolar woman is afraid to leave her apartment. A thirty-three-year-old man has the mind of a child. His sister, with her need to care for him, has ruined her marriage. A stand-up comic has lost his touch and is no longer funny. The landlady has dementia. They all try to care for each other in their own ways. To me they feel like a family.

The story is funny, touching, and sad. Ms. Alcott’s characters are vivid and entertaining. She kept my interest from beginning to end.

Donna Leon — Falling in Love

It occurred to me that most of my reviews on this blog are more about the authors and their writing style than the novels. Maybe that’s true of most reviews.

Donna Leon’s writing fascinates me. She writes about Commissario Guido Brunetti and his police cases in Venice, Italy. I have read several of her books and feel as if from her writing I could visit Venice and feel at home. I also feel I know Guido Brunetti and several of the other characters in her stories.

The laid-back atmosphere of the Venice police permeates the book, interwoven and contrasting with a chilling plot. Brunetti takes long lunches at home with his family. He sits in his office contemplated the case he is working on, wanders the streets (or canals) of Venice not always knowing what he is looking for, and appears to socialize with others in his department as much as working. He has an appreciation of old Venice, its art, architecture, culture, people…and at times bemoans that it is becoming too much of a tourist destination.

The name of this book is misleading. It is a crime novel, a mystery, not a love story. The plot involves an opera singer who is being stalked. I won’t go into details about the book, but will tell you it ends with a powerful climax. Very unusual. Most novels give us at least one chapter of wrap-up after the climax. But none was needed.

The Unreliable Narrator

Definition: An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.
The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.

The term unreliable narrator came to my attention recently when I was reading reviews of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I turns out that the novel has three first-person unreliable narrators. Rachel (the girl on the train) imagines the lives of people she is watching from the train window every day. She is an alcoholic who suffers blackouts. She fills the blanks with what other people tell her, in particular, her ex-husband, Tom. Megan is a woman she has been watching. Rachel has invented a perfect life for her. Megan has a terrible past that she hides from the world, her husband, and even at times from herself. Anna is married to Tom and pretends their life is wonderful if Rachel would just stay out of their lives. Tom, who is not a narrator, lies to everyone.

Megan disappears and Rachel involves herself in the investigation to find out what happened to the perfect woman she has created in her mind. The plot is complex and we are led down many wrong paths through the unreliable narrators.

The next novel I read, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney (British), also had two first-person narrators. (I happen to prefer first-person POV.) I read somewhere that any first-person point of view in a novel is likely an unreliable narrator. Keeping this in mind, I looked at the story in a slightly different way. Ray, the main character, is a half-Gypsy private investigator looking for woman who has been missing for eight years. JJ is a teenager living with family in the Gypsy site from which the woman disappeared. Ray is looking into a way of life he doesn’t truly understand and hearing different versions of the story of when and how the woman disappeared. JJ is only getting bits and pieces, excluded from conversations because he is a child. He uses his wild imagination to fill in the blanks. So, both Ray and JJ are unreliable narrators.

Next I read In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen. This novel is written in third person (sometimes second person) with multiple narrators. It is a complex story of intertwining lives. Each character has a different perspective on the same events. So I found that even though this story isn’t told in first person, it is told by unreliable narrators. Maybe every story has them in order to keep the plot interesting.

All three of the above mentioned novels are intriguing reads.

I believe my first novel, The Janus Code by J.C. Ferguson, has an unreliable narrator. It is written with a one third-person POV. I haven’t given much thought to the reliability of Ernie Pratt (first person, one narrator) in Mangrove Madness, my second novel. But maybe I will keep it in mind as I work on the sequel.

S. J. Gazan – The Arc of the Swallow

I like reading authors from other countries. It gives me a glimpse into unfamiliar cultures and settings. Of course, some of them are good and some are not, like writers anywhere. Gazan, from Denmark, is one of the good ones. His style is different than what I’m used to, whether that is because he is Danish, or just his personal style. His pace is slower and he covers more detail than many of the US authors I’ve read recently.

Gazan weaves a story with multiple points of view and multiple timelines, jumping back and forth in time to cover a different POV of the same event. Marie Skow, PhD candidate in biology, is faced with two apparent suicides: her mother and her professor and mentor, Kristian Storm. Police detective Soren Marhaunge is not only connected to Skow because of the suicides, but finds that they were neighbors as children. There are other POVs, woven through past and present, family, friends, and colleagues. Gazan even feeds us part of the story through deceased Dr. Storm.

It is an interesting and complex mystery and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Short Stories

I don’t usually pick up books of short stories to read. I’m not sure why since I enjoy them. Of course, they come in a variety of flavors.
I’m reading a book of short stories at the moment, Trouble in Mind by Jeffrey Deaver. Some of them are long enough to be novellas. Some feature characters from his mystery/crime novels and some don’t. They are all good reading and each one has a twist in the plot. The first book of short stories I remember reading and enjoying (many, many years ago) was by O. Henry – always a twist at the end.

I’ve read a few other books of short stories recently, mostly books I’m working on, editing and/or formatting for authors to self-publish. Each book is different from the other and all are enjoyable. Seven Days: One Story a Day from the Philippines by Terence Flannery is a combination of truth and fiction from a good storyteller. Some are delightfully funny, others sad. The book is available on Amazon Kindle.

I’m still working on Tom Nelson’s fifth book of stories in his series, Fennimore…as I Remember. His books are collections of articles he has published in the Fennimore Times newspaper about memories of his small hometown. It takes you back to your own small town or even your neighborhood in a city. The latest volume is “coming soon.”
Also in the works is a memoir from Marsha Perlman, which in reality is a group of short stories about events in her life. She has led a very interesting life. The book should be available this summer.

There are other books of short stories that I’ve reviewed previously on this blog. Check them out Post to Post Links II error: No term found with slug "short-stories".