Category Archives: book review

Learning from Bad Writing

So, I just finished reading this book from my leftover pile of classroom reading books that represent my time as a public school reading teacher.

This is book six in the best-selling Charlie Bone series. I didn’t read the previous five books. I have a copy of book one somewhere, but this one is one I picked up for my reading fix last week.

Let me begin by saying, as an obvious Harry Potter imitation, it is a very inventive and enjoyable story.

I read the whole book even though I had difficulty with several things that I have come to recognize as glaring, reader-tripping problems.

Now, to be completely honest about my assessments, Jenny Nimmo, the author of the Charley Bone books, has an impressive resume. She has not only been an English teacher, but she worked for the BBC as well as an editor, director, and other creative endeavors. And her books, unlike mine, are best-seller enough to be picked up by Scholastic Books, a major publisher. She has undoubtedly made a lot more money with her books than I have with mine. And, I confess, I find the story entertaining.

But the story is guilty of writing sins that I am familiar with by having overcome them in my own writing.

Most noticeable is the lack of a sense of a focus character. It is done as a third-person omniscient narrative that goes in and out of different characters’ heads telling what they think and feel. It will go from Charlie Bone’s main-character-thoughts to his nemesis Dagbert Endless’s feelings to the thoughts of the dog that lives in the school and then veers into the bird that is actually Emma, one of Charlie’s female friends with special “gifts of magic” handed down from their common ancestor, the Red King. You end up, as a reader, trying to keep things separate in your awareness about too many characters with too many mental reveals to keep straight. And who all knows what about whom? In one scene a character seems to know already what another character said and did in a previous scene that the knowing character wasn’t present for and hasn’t been told about.

This focus problem is compounded by having too many characters with too little development in the current story. I get it that we are supposed to have met the characters in previous books in the series. But it has to have a more stand-alone quality about it to even work as a separate book. The writer has to keep in mind that readers won’t know everything about every character in previous books because they have either forgotten, or the author has only assumed they would know without being told.

And the scenes and chapters in this book are way too ranging and free-form. A scene that begins in the end of chapter two rambles across to the beginning of chapter three without really concluding and then morphs into another scene entirely when the narrative follows a single character from the conversation in one room into an encounter in the next room. There is a lack of chapter structure to rationalize why those words belong in that chapter rather than the next.

And numerous plot lines are just left hanging at the end of the book, seemingly forgotten rather than set up for the probable sequel. The book does not end with a sense that it is the final end of the saga.

So it is a book that both Hemingway and Dickens would’ve cringed to have written. Never-the-less, I did like this book. The old uncritical critic, you know. I would’ve neither finished reading it, nor written this essay about it if I didn’t find merit in the story. I learned things by reading it. Things to avoid, things to correct when I find them in my own stories, and things that make me go, “Hmmm… I’d like to try that myself.”

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Peculiar Books

The gentleman writer pictured above is a successful creator of innovative and engaging fiction.  As a 1979 vintage, he was still a toddler when I began my teaching career in 1981.  Like John Green, another author I admire who was only a small child when I began teaching, he cut his writer’s teeth by writing for Mental Floss the humor-centric publisher of puzzles, facts, and trivia.  While I do, in fact, envy his success, I do not in any way take it lightly.  He is a capable, highly-intelligent story-teller whose books I have grown to dearly love.

The first book in the peculiar series, also the first book I snagged at Half-Price Books and then devoured in a week (I bought a second copy to read after foolishly eating the first), is the peculiar tome pictured above.  In these stories, the peculiar author presents numerous old black-and-white photographs from the days when stereopticons stood in for televisions because the so-called boob-tubes hadn’t had the decency to be invented yet.  Most of these photos are bizarre in some way like the one used on his first cover.  And the pictures become the story.  The girl on the cover of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children becomes Olive, a young girl whose peculiar power is to float in the air.  In fact, she has to wear lead shoes to keep from floating off into the sky.  

Ransom Riggs as a wight, the vampire-like villains of the series of peculiar books.

Peculiars are menaced by, and have to be protected from wights, former peculiars who eat the souls of their own kind to become white-eyed powerful villains who wish to rule and eat all peculiar people.

The peculiar children have to be protected by creatures called Ymbrynes, women who were originally peculiar birds that found they could turn into human women, and not only that, could loop time in ways that provided pockets of protection from those who would persecute them where time never passed.

Emma, a peculiar girl who can generate fire from her bare hands.

The protagonist-narrator of the entire trilogy is Jacob Portman, a Florida boy who learns that he has inherited a one-of-a-kind peculiar power from his grandfather (turning it into a two-of–kind thing).  And when his grandfather is killed by wights, he learns of a place he must go to take his grandfather’s former place guarding Miss Peregrine’s troop of peculiat children, including Emma, pictured here, (a hot chick in more than one way).

I will not tell you any more of the story of the trilogy.  I hate to spoil anything from another author’s work.  I found that the discovery of every delicious detail and oddity along the way was the tastiest feature of the fiction.  (I do have to break that bad habit of eating books.  Gustatory learning, my peculiar ability and my curse.)  I will, rather, merely recommend that you discover the peculiar charms of these peculiar books for yourself.  (And try not to discover them by eating them.  Books have too much fiber and too little protein to be used like that.)

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Winsor McCay

One work of comic strip art stands alone as having earned the artist, Winsor McCay, a full-fledged exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Little Nemo in Slumberland is a one-of-a-kind achievement in fantasy art.

Winsor McCay lived from his birth in Michigan in 1869 to his finale in Brooklyn in 1934.  In that time he created volumes full of his fine-art pages of full-page color newspaper cartoons, most in the four-color process.  

The New Year’s page 1909

As a boy, he pursued art from very early on, before he was twenty creating paintings turned into advertising and circus posters.  He spent his early manhood doing amazingly detailed half-page political cartoons built around the editorials of Arthur Brisbane,  He then became a staff artist for the Cincinnati Times Star Newspaper, illustrating fires, accidents, meetings, and notable events.  He worked in the newspaper business with American artists like Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington who also developed their art skills through newspaper illustration.  He moved into newspaper comics with numerous series strips that included Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  And he followed that massive amount of work up by becoming the “Father of the Animated Cartoon” with Gertie the Dinosaur, with whom he toured the US giving public performances as illustrated in the silent film below; 

The truly amazing thing about his great volume of work was the intricate detail of every single panel and page.  It represents a fantastic amount of work hours poured into the creation of art with an intense love of drawing.  You can see in the many pages of Little Nemo how great he was as a draftsman, doing architectural renderings that rivaled any gifted architect.  His fantasy artwork rendered the totally unbelievable and the creatively absurd in ways that made them completely believable.

I bought my copy of Nostalgia Press’s Little Nemo collection in the middle 70’s and have studied it more than the Bible in the intervening years.  Winsor McCay taught me many art tricks and design flourishes that I still copy and steal to this very day.

No amount of negative criticism could ever change my faith in the talents of McCay.  But since I have never seen a harsh word written against him, I have to think that problem will never come up.

My only regret is that the wonders of Winsor McCay, being over a hundred years old, will not be appreciated by a more modern generation to whom these glorious cartoon artworks are not generally available. 

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What Are You Reading, Mickey?

Well, I have a thing for collecting old books. This one is 100 years old. It is a modern edition, though, re-published in 2003.

Here’s my Goodreads review;

This book is an ancient treasure in many ways, being now more than 100 years old. The illustrations by John O’Neill, too, have a very antique charm. The book is a little short on plot. Dorothy wanders off from the Kansas farm, meets the hobo Shaggy Man, and Button Bright, one of the stupidest little boys in literature. They meet old friends along the way; Jack Pumpkinhead, H.M. Wogglebug T.E., the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger, Tik Tok the mechanical man, Billina the Talking Yellow Chicken, and the living Sawhorse. And they all end the story at Princess Ozma”s birthday party where Santa Claus is the favorite guest. This is a potboiler novel for Baum, obviously written only because the readers all begged for it, and it has a lot in it to be enjoyed by true fans of Oz, but not much in the way of suspense or excitement. It can easily be summed up in the words of Button Bright, “I don’t know,” which he says in answer to every question.

I find the illustrations more compelling than the story itself, but I have to admit that the story itself is incredibly visual.

I love this book, even though I don’t respect it much as a storyteller myself. But it is the fourth Oz book I have read since childhood. And it isn’t because of the story. Frank L. Baum is a genius at creating loveable and memorable characters. And these illustrations are wonderful. The Shaggy Man with the head of a donkey? Absolutely fabulous! You can’t beat that. (Well, you can. But whether he’s a donkey or a man, it’s still a crime. )

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In Praise of Louis L’Amour

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This man was my Grandpa Aldrich’s favorite author.  Grandpa had ridden the range in the Dakotas in the 1920’s and early 30’s.  He was basically an Iowa farmer for his whole life, but he rode horseback on the plains just long enough to become addicted vicariously to the life L’Amour so vividly describes in his many western novels.

Grandpa read every Louis L’Amour book the Rowan library had.  He read a few more besides.  And I have no idea how many he read twice, three times, or more.  For the last decade of his life, he did very little sleeping, being used to two hours of actual sleep a night, and spending the rest of the time reading westerns while he rested.

This reading addiction is not only one that I understand, but share.  I, too, love the westerns, the heroes, the manly and poetic prose, and the sheer story-telling ability of Louis L’Amour.  I have not yet read every single book he wrote while he was alive.  But I am working on it.

Recently I reread the book The Daybreakers, a critical cog in the story-cycle of the Sackett family.  Here is my review from Goodreads of the third time I read this book.

Goodreads

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The Daybreakers 
by

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Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 01, 2018  ·  edit
it was amazing


This book is as much a hero’s journey as Star Wars. In some ways it is more complex. And in many ways it is a better story.
Louis L’Amour is a master storyteller. He created the narrator hero, Tyrel Sackett, as a young Luke Skywalker. His natural Force abilities are those qualities which make him a competent Westerner and a powerful gunfighter. His brother Orrin Sackett takes the Han Solo role from rogue pilot to New Mexico Sheriff and eventual congressman. Jonathan Pritts is the evil Emperor. He wants to take over the Mexican land grant belonging to the Alvarado family (Princess Leiah’s family on Alderaan). (Drusilla Alvarado is the Princess Leiah character). Ironically, Tom Sunday is a reverse Darth Vader. He befriends Tye, teaches him to read and how to be a good cattleman. And then he later turns on the Sackett family because of a wrong he feels from Orrin. The confrontation between Tye and his dark-side father figure is inevitable.
The writer abilities I see in the author deserve a much more detailed analysis than I can write here, but I loved this great American novel and strongly recommend it.

We have lost Louis L’Amour.  He will never write another book.  Which gives me a chance to read everything he wrote.  But he writes so well, and is such an important part of American literature, that is only the smallest of consolations.

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Hearts in Atlantis (a book review)

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I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend.  And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.

This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack.  I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author.  He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant  (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett).  He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category.  I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read.  And then I did.  But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired.  And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring.  He is mimicking someone else’s voice.  I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.

But this book proved me totally wrong.  I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer.  It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”.  But it is a total trick to draw us in.  And it is even a very good monster story.  Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster.  And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot.  Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future.  Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.

But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two.  The hearts in the title is actually the card game.  It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s.  They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war.  Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.

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The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot.  I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler.  This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster.  I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember.  And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.

 

 

 

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A Perfect Old Book… The Distant Hours

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This book, purchased for two dollars off the sale cart at Half-Price Books, was one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had in my reading life. I knew when I picked it up that it was not a perfect fit for me. It is a Gothic romance tragedy, possible even in a black-and-white-movie sense a horror story. It is a story for women, written by a woman, and all the most important characters, except the man who is murdered, are women. It is definitely not a story for crotchety old men like me, even though the Mud-man is a classic Gothic horror tale monster.  I can relate to that.

But I will not give away any of the convoluted plot. No spoilers here. For it is not the plot that makes this a truly great read. It is the language, the beautiful, insightful, passionate language that links my very soul to the souls of the characters in this story. Three elderly sisters live in a rotting old English castle that once belonged to their father, a famous author who created the novel The True History of the Mud Man. A much younger woman comes along and discovers she has a secret relationship to the castle through her mother who was sent to live in the castle as a child during the London Blitz in World War Two. The characters are so well developed, you can see them breathe. They are real people in a way that real people, especially mysterious real people, always present you with a mystery to be solved. Who are they really? What did they actually do? Which part of what they said to you is true? And which are the lies? And there was a murder? It happened in the past? We didn’t even know he was missing. Where is he now? And what did a monster character in a beloved old book have to do with it? Okay, I promised you no answers to any of those questions. But if you feel already like you simply have to know, well, that’s the magic in this story. You will fall in love with Edie Burchill and her mother. And also the Blythe sisters, Percy, Saffy, and Juniper. And the story will leave you devastated, the way it did me. Test me and see if I’m merely telling hoo-haws. You will not regret it.

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