S. J. Kelley

Book reviews

Book review: Sometimes the Magic Works, by Terry Brooks

brooks_magic4/5 stars

“In Sometimes the Magic Works, New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks shares his secrets for creating unusual, memorable fiction. Spanning topics from the importance of daydreaming to the necessity of writing an outline, from the fine art of showing instead of merely telling to creating believable characters who make readers care what happens to them, Brooks draws upon his own experiences, hard lessons learned, and delightful discoveries made in creating the beloved Shannara and Magic Kingdom of Landover series, The Word and The Void trilogy, and the bestselling Star Wars novel The Phantom Menace.

In addition to being a writing guide, Sometimes the Magic Works is Terry Brooks’s self-portrait of the artist. “If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical,” says Brooks. This book offers a rare opportunity to peer into the mind of (and learn a trick or two from) one of fantasy fiction’s preeminent magicians.” — Amazon blurb.

I really enjoyed this book; I love reading about how successful authors started their career. The majority of this book focuses on Brooks’ journey: how his success was launched by a perfect storm at the start of Del Rey books, how he stumbled along the way, and how the mind of a continual, lifetime storyteller works. I found his discussion of how his imagination has interfered with his everyday life illuminating, and especially enjoyed his two chapters about playing and exploring with his grandson Hunter. His style made me feel like I was sitting down and hearing him reminisce with a good friend.

His comments on craft are interspersed throughout the book. There is a section on outlining, the importance of letting your mind wander, and some traditional advice on writing engaging fiction (show don’t tell, start and end strong, etc.) If you’re a fan of Brooks’ style of fiction and were hoping for an in-depth look at his craft, this book isn’t it. It is more of a endearing and meandering conversation, where old nuggets of wisdom are professionally spit-shined so that even the most well-read could appreciate a thing or two.

I loved the “show don’t tell” example on pages 125-126:

Telling: “Maud was eighty-one years of age with piercing dark eyes and s tiff, squared-away stance that suggested aching joints. Gray hair hung in a single braid down her back, tied at the end with a ribbon. Deep age lines marked her strong, plain face. She was missing her right arm, the sleeve of her cotton dress pinned against the breast and neatly folded at the elbow. For any years, she had worked in a bookstore, and before that, as a CIA operative. She loved cats and had two old toms at present named Kibbles and Bits. But while cats were welcome in her home, birds were not. She hated birds because as a child she had always been afraid of their beady, quick eyes and sharp little beaks.”

Showing (I particular liked the underlined sentences): “Maud moved gingerly today, the result of another twenty-four hours added to her eighty-one years. Oddly enough, she felt the same as always, although her dark eyes might give her away to someone looking closely enough. Ignoring her stiffness and the ache in her joints, she brushed lightly at her braided gray hair and smiled at the sunlight streaming through her cabin window. The smile gave her lined face a warm and reassuring cast, the sort that always suggested to those she encountered that she had a good heart. Kibbles, the better half of Bits, trotted up to her, and she picked up the old tom and held him in the cradle of her good left arm. She glanced down at the empty right sleeve of her dress, checking her appearance the way she had been taught to do during her years with the CIA. Government agent never forgot their training. Or maybe it was booksellers who never forgot, she couldn’t remember. She laughed silently at herself, able to push back the years and the past. On a day like this, she could even feel kindly toward birds, and that was rare indeed.

I also enjoyed reading the chapter “On the Trail of Tolkien” where Brooks talks about what he feels the greatest similarity is between them. In my own writing, I want to keep this chapter firmly in mind. Here’s my favourite part, from page 190: “It was Tolkien’s genius to reinvent the traditional epic fantasy by making the central character neither God nor hero, but a simple man in search of a way to do the right thing… Ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances are far more interesting.”

I would strongly recommend this book to someone who enjoys author biographies, but in terms of a craft book I think there are better ones out there. Regardless, if you are considering writing Fantasy, this is a great book to pick up.

Book Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry

thegiver2/5 stars

“The Giver, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner, has become one of the most influential novels of our time. The haunting story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community. Lois Lowry has written three companion novels to The Giver, including Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son.” — Amazon

I’ve had “The Giver” on my to-read list for some time, and eventually bought a very nice hard cover edition of the quartet some time ago (beautiful book; love it when they have the ribbon bookmarks in the hard covers). The book has since languished on my shelf. Then the other night I found myself too exhausted to read, yet too worn out from the day to go to sleep and face another after a long blink, and so I combed through the offerings on Netflix looking for some easy to absorb escapism. Then I saw that they had made a movie of The Giver in 2014. I looked up the trailer on YouTube and was intrigued. But of course, I can’t watch the movie before reading the book. So what did I do at 9:15 pm when I had to wake up the next morning at 6:30 am?

I decided that I would finish the book then and there.

Although I read about a page a minute, and the book is slim, it still took me 3 hours. The next workday was rough, let me tell you. And to be honest, I don’t think it was worth it.

After the first few pages I was really interested; I felt that Veronica Roth of Divergent fame must have read this book at some point. But then the story failed to launch for me. Granted, this is an old book, and perhaps the “science of the art” of commercial fiction wasn’t as prominent back then, but I felt it was a slow, slow launch into the story. And then, just as things were getting started, it was over. The midpoint felt like it should have been an inciting incident, and the ending felt like it would have been a great midpoint, where the protagonist finally switches from being reactive to being proactive. Yet the book just ENDS! And it ends AMBIGUOUSLY!

I am not a fan of non-endings. I thought to myself, “Surely the next book will pick up where this left off. Maybe I’ll just read a chapter or two.” But the next book had completely different characters. Frustrating.

I understand that Lowry won a Newbery for this. I understand that 83% of readers on Amazon give this 4-5 stars. But I just didn’t like it. As I was reading I had this strange feeling that I was reading a literary novel wrapped in genre paper, but the literary side wasn’t true literary, and the genre side wasn’t real either. I dunno. It just wasn’t for me.

That said, the ending did pull at my heart strings; I loved the relationship between Jonas and Gabe. So after throwing the book on my night stand in a huff, I proceeded to spend 20 minutes surfing the internet in an effort to find out if the ending was just a hypothermic hallucination or the real deal (while trying not to ruin the remaining books in the series). Thankfully I did find out, but learned that I would have to read all four books to have this resolved.

I’m not sure if I’m willing to make that commitment.

Book review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

themartian5/5 stars

“Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. 

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. 

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. 

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?” — Amazon blurb

I’m normally not a big sci-fi reader (my husband is the sci-fi fan in this house), but after I heard about this on the Rocking Self-publishing Podcast more than once, I had to read it. Both times the book was mentioned, those discussing it didn’t even want to talk about what it was about, for fear that they would ruin it for the audience. Color me intrigued. I bought the hardcover, because I figured this book would be good enough to earn a permanent position on my bookshelf. I wasn’t wrong.

This book was unputdownable. It takes place in the not so distant future, when mankind has just started sending manned missions to Mars. This is mission number three, and they accidentally leave one of the astronauts behind, thinking he was dead. The story takes off from there, chronicling his time on Mars and his attempts to survive.

A good portion of the book is a series of log entries, but then it starts to switch back and forth between log entries and regular third person prose. I initially found this quite jarring, because the voice of the main character is very distinct and the book had stayed in the log entry style for quite some time before introducing this other perspective. That said, after a while I got used to it, and even within those third person prose sections, the voices of the characters came out (although many of the characters shared the same personality in their quips).

Looking at this as a writer, I think Andy Weir’s strong point is his voice and his conversational style, but at the same time I felt there could be more diversity across characters. In a way the book had one dominant voice: a very intelligent person under pressure, who nonetheless can see the humor in a situation. I thought the character could develop more across the book, but I think his steady personality suited the story in the end. There were times when his base personality shuddered a bit, but I wouldn’t classify those times as “opportunities for character growth.”

Multiple times when I was reading this book, I told my husband that it was the best book I have ever read. It certainly kept me turning the pages. I have read other books with better world building, and other books with better character growth, but this one was one of the best at keeping me glued to the page, worried about the character. Mark Watney was a good man with an admirable personality, and I was rooting for him the whole way. I can count on one hand the times that I have flipped ahead in a book because I could not stand to have to keep reading to wait to see what happened (and I’m one of those people that if a book is said to be good, I try to not even read the dust jacket because I want the true immersive experience!) I had to flip ahead three times when reading The Martian.

I’d recommend this book to anyone and everyone, whether you like sci-fi or not. I really liked the message of the book, which was, for once, a positive and lovely statement about humanity: that when someone is trouble, everyone, in every culture, has a desire to help them. They also used this as the opening to the movie trailer. It was so nice to have a book that touted the virtues of humanity, at a time when most books seem to explore the tragic consequences of being human.

New blog section: book reviews!

I read a lot. I read for entertainment; I read to learn. I read so much that all of the books sometimes start jumbling together. So I’ve decided to start reviewing the books I read, making notes of the things I enjoyed as a reader, but also as a writer.

In terms of fiction, I quite like young adult fantasy, dystopian fiction, urban fantasy, and paranormal if it hasn’t been overdone. I’m just now expanding into adult fiction, and have started sampling the romance genre as part of my research into indie publishing. I definitely sway more toward contemporary romance and sweet romance. I’ve also started reading some suspense and mystery novels, but again I prefer those that are a little softer around the edges.

In terms of nonfiction, my two main categories are books about writing, and books about productivity/reaching your goals. Although I am also a big fan of what I call, “stealth anthropology,” books such as Scratch Beginnings, and Nickel and Dimed. On my to read list are Black Like Me, and The Cross in the Closet. I also enjoy journalistic discussions of the way we think and psychology (The Psychology of Persuasion, Think and Be Rich, Choice), and discussions about sustainability (The 100 Mile Diet, How bad are bananas?, Garbology). I also devour anything by Malcolm Gladwell, regardless of the topic.

So now that you know my tastes, that is what I will be discussing in posts labeled with “Book reviews.” I have told myself that I am not allowed to write these posts during my writing time in the morning, so these will have to happen during my leisure time in the evenings. My plan is that once I finish a book, I write a review before I start another. The exception will be this week, where I am training myself to get up early and taking baby steps (i.e., all I have to do is get up and then I can play as long as I get my ass out of bed), so I will try to write reviews of my most recent reads.