Books: The Talisman of Set by Sara Hylton

This is, it seems, the time for me to go re-read books I haven’t read in years. First Jack Douglas, now this one, which I first read when I was 14 or 15 years old. I’d found it at the library, quite by accident, but due to a love of gothic romances and Ancient Egypt, this was right up my alley.

The Talisman of Set is about a woman named Kathy who has vivid dreams about a princess in Ancient Egypt and comes to believe she is the reincarnation of that princess. The question becomes whether she can avoid making the same mistakes in this life. Which is set in the 1920s or 30s… She mentions being eight years old when Tutankhamen’s tomb was found (1922), but later in the novel it isn’t clear how old she is when she finally hies off to Egypt to work on a dig. I’ll assume it’s been at least a decade? It’s weirdly unclear.

Still, I remember loving this book. I never forgot it, and years later found a copy for sale online, which is the copy I own and re-read. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as the first time. Maybe because I’ve grown since then, but this time I found Kathy a bit obnoxious. And though the cover promises “A Novel of Romance and Danger,” I’d say there’s not a ton of either of those things here.

The book itself was published in 1984, and I feel like we know more about Ancient Egypt now, or at least have better access to research about it. For example, Hylton’s princess has her hair brushed by a servant, but we know they wore wigs most of the time. Also, the princess’ name is Tuia, which I suppose might be a variant of Tuya? Because Tuia is not an Egyptian name. And she mentions jewelry made of stones that I’m not sure they had in Egypt at the time, though I’m no expert in that. In any case, I found some of these things distracting.

It’s not a terrible book by any means, and I devoured it in just a couple days. But I suppose it’s often disappointing to revisit something that’s held a special place in your mind and heart for so long. I’d recommend it to those who like this kind of story. I’m just not sure I’ll read it again.

Books: What Do You Hear from Walden Pond? by Jack Douglas

When I was 14 or 15, I developed an interest in Thoreau and Walden Pond, most likely due to organized attempts to save Walden from greedy builders who wanted to make it a resort or apartments or something. Around that same time I also frequented a used-book store. And it was there that I found this old hardback. That I mistakenly thought might actually have something to do with Walden Pond.

Jack Douglas was evidently a comedy writer, and it seems he put out a number of books, though this is the only one I’ve ever found at a used-book store, or any bookstore. He’s kind of like an earlier model of Dave Barry? A lot of the “jokes” here are products of the times (this book came out in 1971), meaning today’s PC crowd would not be pleased. I have somewhat tougher skin, but I still winced once or twice. And a lot of the humor requires, er, timely knowledge of persons in the Hollywood system that I’ve never heard of. I can get the gist of the jokes, but they don’t land quite as on target due to my not having been alive at the time.

Douglas writes about how he and his family had lived in a remote cabin in Canada, but he was called up by Hollywood to come out and write a movie for a comedian. Hilarity ensues. Kind of. He moves his family to California and struggles to get this movie written, and the book is really just anecdotes about story meetings and cocktail parties and trying to find a place to live. It’s not an unpleasant read (though I may be giving him more slack since I’ve also worked in “the biz”), but not what I find all that funny. And I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be? Maybe “mildly humorous” is what Douglas was going for all along? Maybe he was saving the good stuff for Jack Parr.

I did tear up when he wrote about all his beloved animals, though. Because I feel the same way about all the pets I’ve had in my life.

I read this book when I was 14 or 15 and have had it ever since. Now, while unpacking after moving and desperate for something to read, I picked it up again. It’s been good poolside fare, and I’d honestly read other of his books… if I ever found any… Guess it’s time for a visit to the used-book store.

More Writers, Fewer Readers

What to Do?

I’m currently reading iGen by Jean Twenge, which discusses all the ways the iGeneration ( b. ~1995-2012) is different from previous generations. There’s a ton to unpack, and I’m not even very far along in this book, but as a writer I wanted to focus on the data that shows this generation doesn’t read. At least not for fun.

Are we surprised? Not really. Attention spans are getting increasingly short, cut into tiny slices of memes and video clips and text messages. As per the anecdotal evidence Twenge cites, most members of the iGeneration find reading boring because it requires them to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. The result are slumping SAT scores in reading comprehension, which Twenge says we shouldn’t ascribe as either “good” or “bad” but… I can’t help thinking it’s bad. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers, but the up-and-coming generation can’t be bothered to work their brains that hard. (Twenge suggests ebooks that include videos and are written in very short chapters/info bursts, but really? We have to dumb things down for these kids?)

Okay, okay, so I’m an old fogey. That’s beside the point. In a world where (for good or ill) getting published is easier than ever, we have more content out there than ever, too. And we have fewer and fewer readers interested in buying or consuming that content.

Hmm.

“What about all those YA novels that sell so well?” you ask. Well, turns out it’s a lot of adults reading those novels and not that many, er, young adults.

“But older people still read!” Yeeeesss. But we need new readers to sustain publishing. And not just new content, since there is clearly plenty of that.

“So just write stuff they want to read.” Yeah, except they don’t want to read anything longer than a listicle.* Hell, short stories try their patience.

*Here’s an interesting tangent: iGen’ers don’t party as much, aren’t as into drinking or sex. So all these “old” people writing books for them… Books that look like something out of the 80’s, with parties and sex and alcohol… These books don’t reflect the current teen experience. Write a book entirely in text messages and memes and you’d be closer to the mark. And they’d be way more likely to read it. Especially since it probably wouldn’t take as long as reading it in prose form.

Bottom line/takeaways: the youngest generation isn’t reading books beyond those assigned to them at school (and sometimes not even that much). They have short attention spans and aren’t interested in an activity that takes time, patience, and concentration. We have more books and writers than ever and fewer readers. [Yes, I know those who do read often read avidly and voraciously, but again, we need new readers in order to sustain writers and publishing.] Already magazines and newspapers are desperate, and publishing is next in line; only people writing pithy (and short) articles online will be safe. And because trends move more quickly than ever, even then one is only likely to be a brief success.

Where am I going with this? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been writing much lately anyway. I’d already seen success (as I personally define it) as unattainable for me. So this data only reaffirms that I made the right choice by walking away. The situation is only likely to worsen.

Then again, once enough writers quit the field, those left might still find an audience, eh? Good luck out there!

Book: Poirot Loses a Client

I started reading Hercule Poirot novels when I was about 13 or 14 years old. Started with Murder on the Orient Express (because I understood it was considered a classic) and devoured as many as our library had. Somehow in all this, however, I never read this one.

If you don’t know Poirot, a quick introduction: he’s a Belgian detective with large moustaches and a fastidious nature. He’s Agatha Christie’s dandy version of Sherlock Holmes, really. In a number of the novels about him—including this one—he has a kind of Watson in the form of Captain Hastings, who accompanies Poirot on his investigations and narrates the story.

This particular tale is of an older woman (70, I think?) named Emily Arundell who writes to Poirot after believing one of her family members has tried to murder her for her money. Alas, the letter arrives too late for Poirot to save her from liver failure, but he launches an investigation all the same. (And was it a natural death after all?)

I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoy any Hercule Poirot novel. It has the usual collection of suspects and, per the typical cozy mystery of this sort, ends with them all in a drawing room as Poirot spins out the whodunit and how. These books are fine poolside reading, quick and not terribly demanding on, as Poirot would say, “the little grey cells.”

Books: You Are a Badass Every Day by Jen Sincero

So… yeah. I haven’t read any of Sincero’s other books; I just found this one at the library and thought I’d give it a go. It’s not really a book meant to be read from start to finish, though, I don’t think. It’s more like a daily devotional. Actually, I feel like it needs to be put on one of those thought-a-day calendars or something? Or maybe the book needs to be expanded so that there’s an entry to read each day of the year?

As it stands, this is mostly very short bits of rah-rah encouragement and instructions on various meditation techniques. It’s a lot of “visualize what you want, feel it, and it will manifest” kind of stuff. I can understand and appreciate the sentiment, but I also feel books like these shortchange the real, true hardships some people face in life. Rather than deep and/or helpful, it comes across as somewhat glib. Part of that, I’m sure, is just that the entries in this book are so short; they’re not meant to dive deep. But there is a certain kind of self-help that feels like victim blaming, as though to say, “You could think and wish and visualize and meditate your way out of this if you just tried hard enough.” Um…

I also feel conflicted when books like this one highlight eating healthy foods. I know I should eat healthy, but between books (and online articles) like these and my nutritionist, I’m tipping toward self-loathing and guilt whenever I eat something I want to eat rather than something these people would approve of. And while this book doesn’t dig in when it comes to taking care of one’s body via eating and exercise, there’s just enough there to make the author sound judgmental. I don’t appreciate that.

So this isn’t a terrible book, but I do think it’s underpinned by some not very good things. And the bottom line is, I didn’t find it particularly helpful or inspiring or anything either. It didn’t say anything new or enlightening, just a lot of the same stuff you can find all over the internet and on motivational posters. Meh.

Books: The Ravenmaster by Chris Skaife

Chris Skaife is the current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. That means he’s in charge of the care for the ravens kept at the Tower due to the superstition that, should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Tower will crumble and England will fall into crisis (or something like that). Here, then, is a quick and engaging read for anyone interested in ravens or maybe some British history. I finished it in one day.

Part memoir, part history lesson, part ornithological research, the book is a blend. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but Skaife’s conversational tone makes it an easy book to sail through. He talks about his time in the military, which is relevant because one must have 22 years of unblemished military service to become a Yeoman Warder at the Tower. He talks about his work at a tour guide, what it’s like to live at the Tower with his family, a little bit of the history and superstition, and of course, he talks about the ravens.

The book, I think, is a little bit out of date already as (if I remember correctly from Skaife’s Twitter feed; he’s @ravenmaster1 btw) Munin has since passed and they have a new raven named Poppy. I kind of wish there were an ongoing blog, but I suppose Skaife is busy enough with everything else not to have to write posts too. (Or maybe there is a blog and I just don’t know it?)

Certainly, the ravens are the best parts of the book. Their antics are highly amusing, and at least once I teared up. But then, I love birds, and corvids in particular—three local crows have trained me to throw them peanuts, and I’m worried about them as we’re moving in a couple weeks. I’m sure I’ll make more crow friends at the new house… I hope…

In any case, I can’t help but agree with Skaife that corvids get a bad rap as birds of misfortune, harbingers of death, etc. They’re quite brilliant, actually, and if they turn up where death is it’s because they’re practical and scavengers. My crows recognize me and also my car; they know if I’m home because of the car, and they’ve been known to follow my car to my kids’ schools because they know I also keep peanuts in the car for them. They’ll follow me on my morning walks, too, so now I often bring a handful of peanuts in my jacket as well. They have me well trained!

In any case, I found this to be a fun read, though I’ve read from some that they didn’t like Skaife’s detours into his military history. But I think everything contributes to the big picture. Still, a book of anecdotes solely about the ravens would be great too. I can’t seem to get enough of that stuff.

Highly recommended for light reading and amusement.

Books: So Anyway. . . by John Cleese

Almost a year ago (late March 2018), my husband and I went to a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that was followed by a Q&A with Mr. John Cleese, who has always been my favorite of the Pythons. So now you know my bias. After said evening, I stopped at the merch table and picked up a signed copy of this book, his autobiography.

This is a very smooth read, as funny and curious and insightful as one might expect from Mr. Cleese. I could hear his voice in my head as I read it. And though I expected to be impatient to get to the parts about Monty Python, I found that I enjoyed pretty much every bit of the book.

I will say that Cleese skims the Python bits. I suppose he means to be diplomatic, but the book ends with this little dabble of Python, leaving me wanting more. Is there a second book? I want to hear about Fawlty Towers and all Cleese’s marriages, but… I suspect that’s not likely to happen. Serves me right, I think he’d say, for being a nosy little thing.

It’s just that he’s so witty and droll, and he was so much fun to listen to at the Q&A, that I can’t help but want more of that.

In short, this is a fun read if you happen to like John Cleese. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people who only like Python because there isn’t actually that much about them in the book. Anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of other books that cover all that. Mr. Cleese’s life is much more than Python, and it turns out to be all fairly interesting.

Good vs. Memorable

Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?

There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.

Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.

Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.

At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.

So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?

What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Books: The Legend of the Seventh Virgin by Victoria Holt

So, in the wake of re-reading The Black Opal and finding it disappointing, I decided to try another one of the Victoria Holt novels I have on my shelf. I’ve read them all, but it’s been a couple decades, so I don’t remember much about any of them except that I liked them an awful lot at the time. (Well, I remember finding the name Lavinia in The India Fan to be just the most elegant name… That’s literally the only thing I remember about all the Victoria Holt books I’ve read.) My question was: if, upon revisiting, The Black Opal wasn’t all that good, how do the others hold up?

The Legend of the Seventh Virgin is much older than The Black Opal, by almost three decades. So it’s probably not entirely fair to compare them as authors’ writing styles change over time. But these are the two I’ve read and refreshed my memory on, so these are the two we’re going with.

My chief complaint about The Black Opal was that the main character Carmel was really, really dull. Not so with the main character of TLOTSV. If anything, Kerensa Carlee suffers from a surfeit of personality. The problem here is that she’s not terribly likable. She is fixated on the local manor house known as the Abbas, determined to somehow make it her own. I guess she’s what some would consider a “strong female character,” but I think her counterpart Mellyora is stronger in a lot of ways (and much more engaging, though we only see everything through Kerensa’s eyes, as she is the narrator).

Cornwall, Victorian Era. Kerensa has big aspirations, not just for herself but for her brother Joe, who she is determined will be a doctor. Kerensa constantly wants people to do what she wants and is infuriated when they make choices different from the ones she thinks are best for them—but are really best for her, or suit her ambitions. I won’t spoil anything on the off chance you’d like to read this book at some point, but Kerensa is selfish and domineering, which she readily acknowledges but makes no attempt to change.

The other annoying thing is that Kerensa is repetitive in her narration, hitting the same points over and over again until readers want to scream, “Yes! We get it!” Time after time she goes on about her brother and how disappointed she is when he doesn’t become a doctor but instead a mere veterinarian. (I guess that was a minor spoiler. Sorry.) She harps on the house, her goals for her son Carlyon… [As an aside, I once had a bad review for one of my books because the reader didn’t find the names believable for the time period, but I ain’t got nothin’ on Victoria Holt. Just sayin’.] Kerensa orchestrates things in an all-out attempt to make her dreams come true, but the costs turn out to be great as well.

I suppose a lot of the fun in reading a Victoria Holt novel is that they’re so outlandish. They’re historical gothic romance, really, and I’m not sure much can be expected of them. I did find TLOTSV to be more absorbing than The Black Opal, but toward the end I was skimming. There were a number of false endings of a sort—just when you thought everything was settled, some other little thing would pop up and happen. If you’re a savvy reader, many of the twists were telegraphed, though I still enjoyed them for the high drama they were.

I have a few more of Holt’s books, but I’m going to take a break before trying any more of them. Although I used to read them one after another like a kid scarfing down candy, I feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before tackling another.

Books: The Black Opal by Victoria Holt

When I was a teenager, I gobbled up Victoria Holt novels. They were—still are, I suppose—the reading equivalent of candy. However, this one gets a bit stuck in your teeth. And not in a good way.

The Black Opal is told by Carmel, who as a baby was found under an azalea plant outside Commonwood House. The family at Commonwood grudgingly takes her in, and it’s bandied that Carmel is the daughter of the gypsies that return to the area each summer. Carmel doesn’t feel entirely welcome, except that the governess is kind, as is the neighboring family at The Grange. Lucien Compton makes it a point to include Carmel in teas and such, and to her he is a hero.

When the harridan wife at Commonwood dies unexpectedly, the children are sent away. Carmel is taken by Toby Sinclair, a sea captain, to Australia. She lives there for several years before deciding she wants to return to England. Alas, she learns that the doctor whose family she’d lived with at Commonwood was hanged for his wife’s murder. Carmel is so sure that he didn’t do it that she… Doesn’t do much of anything, actually, except write a few letters and visit old friends.

Carmel is not a very interesting character, and it’s difficult to understand why three men fall in love with her. The writing here, too, is quite pedantic, with a lot of tell and little show. Maybe that just shows how styles and standards have changed, but even if that’s the case, it’s difficult to ignore while reading. Meanwhile, the murder mystery isn’t much of one, and Carmel’s hesitation when re-connecting with Lucien doesn’t make for much tension either. The whole book feels like a wet rag.

I’d like to go back and read another of Holt’s novels now to see if the problem is just with The Black Opal, or if all of them were this weak. At the same time, I’m worried I’ll discover it’s the latter, and my rosy memory of these books will be shattered. The Black Opal was, I believe, the last one I ever read by her. She died not long after. So maybe her work simply began to fail towards the end? I have several other of her books on my shelf… I will have to pick one up and see how well it stands.