Mini Books Reviews and Actual Progress on ROW80: Camp NaNoWriMo!

Mini reviews!

One of the many things I need an intern for is to collate and catch up with all the book reviews I should be publishing. I find it easiest to mention the books I liked best (or books I didn't like at all) on the blog. This doesn't necessarily help the authors, but I have such a backlog that it would take a few hours to go through the blog and transfer the reviews (which often necessitates adding text or changing the format) to Amazon and Goodreads. I also feel guilty that I haven't reviewed every single book I've purchased on Amazon (whether it's the, .de, .fr, .ca, or .com site)!

The trouble is, because I've been reading since long before the Internet, I find my Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing profiles are not an accurate representation of all the books I own, have read, and have enjoyed. LibraryThing comes the closest, but there I have over ten accounts, and also a second job for my intern -- since I created those catalogues, I've obtained at least 500 more books!

However, a blog review and praise on social media is better than nothing. Zan Marie has a great feature on her blog that helps this situation -- mini reviews!

The following aren't so much reviews as a jumble of thoughts on the last four books I've read.

Mother Tongue -- The Story of the English Language by Bill Bryson

A light hearted journey through the history and usage of English. This is a good introductory text for someone who hasn't read anything about English before. Bryson's writing style is generally easy to read and usually makes me laugh out loud a few times, especially when he's making snarky comparisons or exaggerations.

His comment that it was odd for Tolkien to be involved in a history of English usage struck me as strange, since it seems so obvious to me that Tolkien was an expert in philology. Based on that, too, I don't find it weird, as Bryson did, that one of the words the Romans had for the male member was worm -- anyone who reads Tolkien knows that worm (or wyrm) refers to a dragon-type creature, and not an earthworm. Another oddity -- not referring to George Orwell at all in a book about English! Given Bryson's personal history, it's no surprise that he focuses on the United States and the United Kingdom. But I would have appreciated more Canadian facts and references. (There are a few Australian ones.)

Overall, however, this was an interesting book: I learned some new facts, got to roll some words around on my tongue, added three more books to my wishlist, and -- as it led me to Google Bryson -- I found out that he has a new book about England, The Road to Little Dribbling, coming soon! I also remembered an old post of mine called I love the English language, where I shared a sentence I wrote using all the words I could on the World Wide Words list of weird words. In alphabetical order! Here's how it begins (the weird words are capitalised):
Abigail and her Attercop Absquatulated with my Bezoar, the Blackguards, and it was utter Balderdash because they were Bankrupt so I couldn’t Blackmail them, the Blatherskites, and I was so filled with Blood and thunder that I Bloviated and wrote a Bodacious Blurb about the Boondoggle, upon which they called me a Bootless Brobdingnagian and a Cad, and then Cadged my Didgeridoo – such Cheapskates they were that they rode down a Cataract instead of hiring a Charabanc down to the Cadastral of Cockaigne; what a Cockamamie way to travel I called out, and tried to perform a [continues here]...

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

I just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that the edition I read was missing one story (at least). That's a shame. I love Bradbury's simple and understated yet powerful style, especially in Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451.

Unfortunately, I had some trouble with The Martian Chronicles. It's not a novel, but a loose collection of episodes that roughly flow into each other based on the dates. The dates, though, cover 1999 to 2026, and because they cover the current period, it's hard to willingly suspend one's disbelief. Wikipedia notes that there's an edition of the book that advances the dates by 30 years. That really doesn't help, however, and might make things worse; the trouble is that some things just don't make sense in terms of the future. It's possible to imagine that you're reading about another planet (since we know more about Mars now and there doesn't seem to be any water on there, let alone inhabitants) but it's hard to ignore things like people with no training and no physical preparation simply getting on a rocket and flying to another planet, stepping out and breathing the atmosphere. The chapter featuring groups of little children running around makes no sense even in the internal chronology because it implies that the first men to arrive and build up the cities brought their kids with them only one year after the first expeditions, whereas in another scene it's made very clear that the first men were working men and the only women there were "the ones you'd expect" (i.e. prostitutes).

And that's part of the other problem. We certainly haven't reached full equality across the planet by any means, but the lack of women in any other role than housewife, and the entire chapter called "Way in the Middle of the Air", about a racist white man, made me feel sad that Bradbury, in the 1940s and 1950s, couldn't imagine that humans might be just a tiny bit more advanced in the future.
The issue of nearly all the Martians dying from small pox within a few weeks after exposure to the first expeditions from the United States was all too poignant and sad.

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie
and Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott

It's surprising that, as much as I love Agatha Christie, after over 20 years of being a fan, I still haven't read all her books. I checked a bibliographical list the other day and calculated that if I read each one once (skipping only a handful -- the one or two Poirot novels I've reread often and the two Mary Westmacott books I've already read), at one book a week it would take me two years to read them all. Add this to the list of "someday I will..."

Come, Tell Me How You Live is an amusing anecdotal account of a few seasons at archaeological digs alongside her husband Max Mallowan. The sense of emptiness in the Syrian desert is palpable (another poignant thought, given current situations in Syria) and Christie evokes the charm of the people and the trials and excitements of travel and of an archaeological dig in the 1930s with a smooth and nostalgic style. She makes me want to go back in time and travel with her!

Absent in the Spring is set in the same locations. The novel is amazing, from a writer's point of view, because nothing happens. There are few conversations, except in flashbacks, and most of the novel is the thoughts and memories of the main character during a few days when she is stuck in the middle of the desert waiting for a train.

The story flows, the flashbacks are easily interposed, and there's never a sense of being stuck (i.e. in the narrator's mind). The build up to the emotional climax and again, when the resolution comes (I won't give away the ending), is very well paced. Another aspect Christie does well -- through the flashbacks, and the conversations with the other characters, the reader gets a more well-rounded view of the main character, rather than simply the character's own thoughts and opinions. Little words and phrases can carry so much weight!

Now I'm on another Agatha Christie kick, of course, so I'm reading Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran.

The Hook Up by Kristen Callihan
The first book in Callihan's Game On series, available here!

There's a lot to love in this book. For one thing, I wish there had been books like this around back when I was reading VC Andrews. Instead of depraved sexual matter (thinking about My Sweet Audrina still makes me feel squicky. What a horrible way to treat a little girl, instead of helping her through a traumatic event), I could have been reading steamy romances between characters who - despite the flaws they see in themselves -- are strong, opinionated, and in control. I loved the witty banter (though the casual swearing seemed a bit overdone), and the fact that both lead characters study hard and read poetry. If I'd read this back when I was a teen, I especially would have loved the whole taking-care-of-an-injured-strongman scenario. And the variety in the kissing and the sex scenes is really well written -- there's no sense of repetition in the writing at all -- each time feels just as exciting as the first.

There seemed to be a slight imbalance in the steamier scenes -- they were all concentrated at the front of the book, and there were fewer at the end, especially around the climax. The climax itself might not have been strong enough in terms of raising the stakes between the characters. However, anything I say with regard to timing should be taken with a grain of salt, as I didn't get to read this book in my usual fashion at all. I find reading on screen jarring enough as it is, and this difficulty is compounded at the moment by the fact that I read in bed after the baby goes to sleep, and so I don't get to read as casually and for as long as I'd like (the books I read during her naps or on the walk to work are paperbacks, and I'm more used to the flow of those reading sessions). Since I'm such a stickler, and read with a pen in hand 99 per cent of the time, I also find it frustrating not to be able to mark typos! (There are a few here; Zepplin for Zeppelin and so on...)

The gradual reveal of the characters' back stories is very well done. Now that I think back, the setting is also very smoothly written -- the story takes place on a college campus in the United States, and is heavily centred on characters whose lives revolve around college football. Yet not once did I feel confused or out of my depth. Rather, I felt I understood where the characters were coming from and why they made the choices they did. The secondary characters are also well realised; it's always fun to read a book where you feel like you've known the main characters and their friends for a long time, and you're not struggling to remember who's who. The story is told alternately from Anna's point of view and from Drew's point of view; the male voice seemed very strong; I hope male readers would agree!

Speaking of Drew Baylor, who has the same initials as I have, this happened the other day:

Thanks, Kristen! Looking forward to reading The Friend Zone!

As for my own writing, and checking in for ROW80, I actually got some writing done the other day! Typed up three more pages of Larksong. Then I realised I'd had a chance to do that because I hadn't worked on the Wallace transcriptions that weekend. There doesn't seem to be time for both in the same day.

One decision I've made, though, is to stop feeling guilty about editing. I have to finish typing Larksong and the as-yet-untitled NaNo 2014 story about spies in WWI. After that... it seems best to keep writing, while the ideas are there, and leave all the editing for later. Next project, then, is Camp NaNoWriMo in July! I've already signed up, and hope to explore the story of Brother Arcturus and his adventures on Columbus' second voyage.

What have you been reading lately?

Will you be attending Camp NaNoWriMo? We could set up a cabin!

Don't forget to vote in WRiTE Club!


It's been years since I read The Martian Chronicles. There was a made for television series in the early 80's. I don't recall it being better than all right and probably looks really dated now.
Denise Covey said…
Hi Deniz! No wonder you haven't read all of Agatha Christie's books--she wrote over 60! Mini reviews are good, but as you say they're not as useful to the author on our blogs. I've been participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for years, and this year set my goal at 120 books. I've read 59 so far, and drop a quick review on Goodreads as I tick them off! I'm hoping that will help the authors. If they contact me, I will add the review to Amazon. It's a good way to keep track of your reading, but not all books are on Goodreads and I'm not going through all the rigmarole to put them on. So I've actually read more than 59!

Those NaNo novels of mine are mounting up too. It's frustrating when you want to work on something new and you really are torn which one to work on--editing NaNo novels, or penning a new one?

Denise :-)
I know what you mean about the suspension of disbelief; it's hard to enjoy a book if I can't suspend my own disbelief. I heard an interview done with an author (I think it was Michael Connelly) who said something about how if the reader doesn't believe the plot could happen, then the author has "lost" the reader.
beste barki said…
Great post. It is informative and fun to read.
Jenny Maloney said…
Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks is good. It'll also make you think you'll never nearly write enough!! That woman WROTE. :-)
Nick Wilford said…
Those mini reviews are still pretty in depth! I haven't read anything by Bill Bryson for years, but I enjoy his conversational tone. Sounds like The Martian Chronicles hasn't aged well, that's a shame.
Anonymous said…
I, too, am a huge Agatha Christie fan, but apparently not as big as I thought - LOL. I love to reread my favorites, and even have some in French.

Deniz Bevan said…
Thanks, everyone. And eep! I just noticed the extra plural in the title. Oops...
Hi Deniz .. oops! Ne-er mind ... I couldn't get into Bill Bryson - and was going to give the one book I've got to the Hospice .. but perhaps I'll give him another go ...

Agatha Christie I came upon her Grand Tour highlights "The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922 by Agatha Christie was published on 17 Jan 2013 ..." in my post of 2014 wrapping up my British Coasts A -Z in May?! But there's a link to a Guardian article that would be interesting .. and some notes thereon ...

I actually have read a book recently - one on Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin .. I was fascinated ... quite extraordinary ... mind you she won the Whitbread Book Award. It was her first book written in 1974 ... fascinating author ...

Interesting to read Jenny's comment ... about the Secret Notebooks - enjoy .. cheers Hilary
Deniz Bevan said…
Ooh, that Grand Tour book is on my wishlist, Hilary!