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.

Nope Book Tag

This is an old one that I only recently heard about, but I decided to do it despite it being old news.

1. A NOPE Ending – A book ending that made you go NOPE either in denial, rage, or simply because the ending was crappy.

I love, love, love Tana French’s In the Woods, but I recall being disappointed that it left many questions unanswered. It’s been long enough since I read it that I can’t remember specifics, but I do have the lingering sense of having wanted more from the ending.

2. A NOPE Protagonist – A main character you dislike and drives you crazy.

I know so many people adore Lila Bard in the Shades of Magic books, but ugh, I can’t like her. She feels like a cliché to me and something of a Mary Sue.

3. A NOPE Series – A series that turned out to be a huge pile of NOPE after you’ve invested all that time and energy on it, or a series you gave up on because it wasn’t worth it anymore.

I read all of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles when I was in high school and college, and I was pretty excited when she went back to writing them a few years ago. But I just could. not. finish. Prince Lestat. So I don’t know if I’ve changed or the writing has become…something… I dunno, but just nope.

4. NOPE Popular Pairing – A ship you don’t support.

You know, I don’t read a lot of the books that prompt this kind of reaction. I guess I do feel like Peter Grant + Beverley Brook is a bit forced, though. That relationship just does not add anything to the stories for me.

And though I know this is a book tag, can I just say that I can’t understand the Sherlock/Molly thing. I just don’t feel that one at all. (Nothing against those who ship it.)

5. NOPE Plot Twist – A plot twist you didn’t see coming or didn’t like.

I didn’t find the unearthing of Gwenllian to benefit the Raven Cycle very much. I don’t know if that counts as a plot twist, per se, but it was a moment that could be plucked out of those books—the character could be, really—and nothing lost.

6. A NOPE Protagonist Action/Decision – A character decision that made you shake your head NOPE.

Bad decisions make great stories, right? But I think pretty much everything Bella Swan did (and I only read the first two books, couldn’t even go on) just felt like NOPE to me.

7. NOPE Genre – A genre you will never read.

While I hesitate to say “never,” I probably won’t ever pick up erotica. Not my thing at all.

8. NOPE Book Format – Book formatting you hate and refuse to buy until it comes out in a different edition.

I don’t *hate* ebooks, but I tend not to read them. I’ve got so many downloaded that I will probably never read because my first inclination is always to reach for a physical book.

Oh, but I DO hate movie/TV tie-in book covers. I won’t buy those.

9. NOPE Trope – A trope that makes you NOPE.

Alpha males. A gruff bad boy that just needs the right woman to soften him. The overprotective type that comes off as controlling. Nope to all that.

10. NOPE Recommendation – A book that is constantly hyped and pushed at you that you simply refuse to read.

Well, to be fair, any time someone says I “have to” see or read something, I’m that much LESS likely to do so. I’m contrary like that. But I don’t care how many people recommend Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale to me, I’m probably never going to read it. It just doesn’t sound interesting to me. My loss, I guess.

11. NOPE Cliché/Pet Peeve – A cliché or writing pet peeve that always makes you roll your eyes.

Scenes in which two characters are arguing and then suddenly they start kissing. Arguments are not foreplay (at least not for me).

12. NOPE Love Interest – The love interest that isn’t worthy of being one. A character you don’t think should have been a viable love interest.

Pretty much any Sherlock Holmes story that puts Holmes in a relationship (but especially if the relationship is with Irene Adler). I nope right on out of books that do that.

13. NOPE Book – A book that shouldn’t have existed.

Did I mention those new Lestat books? Also, with many apologies to Uncle Stevie, but Dreamcatcher was awful.

14. NOPE Villain – A scary villain/antagonist you would hate to cross and would make you run in the opposite direction.

I know they’re dead, but the Dane twins in A Darker Shade of Magic were pretty damn creepy. I’d definitely avoid them.

15. NOPE Death – A character death that still haunts you.

One Day by David Nicholls. Movie was terrible, but the book made me ugly cry, and that’s very difficult to do if there aren’t animals involved.

16. NOPE Author – An author you had a bad experience reading and have decided to quit.

This is probably going to be somewhat… I don’t want to say “controversial,” because that’s not it, but it’s something I’ll probably get a lot of backlash for. But I don’t read Neil Gaiman anymore. I think he’s a lovely man, and I’ve enjoyed much of his work, but I never could get into American Gods, and I picked up one or two other books now and then, but they just didn’t work for me. And I don’t know if I outgrew him, or if the tone of his work changed, or what. I can’t even say I’ll never read him again. I just haven’t in a long, long time. But I do still admire him as an author.

Books I’ll Probably Never Read Tag

This one is making the rounds, so I’m not 100% sure who to credit for it… Whoever you are, thanks for the blog prompt!

1. A really hyped book you’re not interested in reading.

Just about anything by Kristin Hannah, really. Or Liane Moriarty. I tried one of hers once and could not get into it. There’s something about literary women’s fiction that puts me off. I can’t identify with the characters at all.

2. A series you won’t start/be finishing.

Everything I’ve read about the Court of Thorns and Roses books is just a no for me. I also tried reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and couldn’t get into it, so I won’t continue on that one. Same with the Game of Thrones books. (Yes, okay, A Song of Ice and Fire.)

3. A classic that you’re just not interested in.

Just about anything by Charles Dickens. We had to read Great Expectations in school, and it was excruciating. Though not as bad as Les Misérables. So I won’t read any more Victor Hugo either.

4. Any genres you never read.

I don’t read erotica. Not my thing. Not into westerns or hard sci-fi either.

5. A book on your shelves you’ll probably never actually read.

I’ve had Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on my shelf for a long, long time. Watched and loved the television adaptation but will probably never actually heft the book to read it.

Proof of Skill

Today I read an offhanded remark on a site that said something along the lines of (paraphrasing): “Well, they’ve only ever self-published, which is fine, but it’s no proof of their skill as a writer.”

Hmm.

It made me wonder: How do we measure “proof of skill” for writers?

My guess is that we mostly measure authors by their sales, simply because that’s the easiest way. It’s quantifiable and concrete. And since publishing is a business, certainly sales matter. “Oh, So-and-So sold a bazillion copies of Bookity Book? Must be a great author!”

But there are plenty of books that sell a lot of copies that aren’t all that great. I mean, it’s subjective, of course, but just as many people seem to hate Twilight and Fifty Shades as love them. So sales aren’t necessarily proof of quality. They’re really more proof of appealing to a large (I won’t say lowest) common denominator.

How else might we figure proof of a writer’s mad skillz?

Less quantifiable is “buzz.” Which is to say, how much are you hearing about a particular book or author? (And, really, how much good are you hearing about it/them?) If many people are talking about a book, there are usually two reasons: it’s amazing or it’s offensive. It can, I suppose, even be both(?)…

So does word of mouth = proof of skill? Well, it = proof of marketing skill at least. But again, there are plenty of hyped-up books that end up being big disappointments and just as many hidden jewels gathering dust on shelves, and whatever ebooks do when they’re ignored.

Does being picked up by an agent and then a big publisher mean you’ve got amazing writing skills? Based on the comment that started this post, that still seems to be the gold standard. Even as we continue to say that self-published books are often just as good, and sometimes better, in quality, that they’re often more original because of the authors’ creative freedom . . . Deep down there’s still a sense of a need for gatekeepers to validate a book or author, an idea that books need to be “good enough” for an agent or major publisher, and books that were self-published clearly aren’t or weren’t. Never mind that self-publishing is no longer a last resort for many authors; they’ve learned they make more money and save a lot of time by doing it themselves. The stigma, alas, remains.

And I must say, of big-house books I’ve read lately, I’ve noticed a lack in editing quality in many of them. Now, I don’t know if that’s down to the authors or the editors involved in those books—I suspect many of the books were hurried out without enough proofing—but I’m just saying: having an agent and a big publisher doesn’t, in my view, immediately mean an author has skill. It could mean they had a connection to someone in the industry. It could mean they had a good idea that, even half-baked, the agent or publisher thought he/she/it could sell. It could even mean—yes, I’m going to say it—that they’re the token [insert diversity here] that the agency or publisher was looking for so they could feel good about themselves. I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in publishing, and I’ve seen it happen.

This isn’t to put actual, skilled writers down. This is just to say that the way we decide whether an author is “skilled” is . . . Biased a lot of the time. Subjective to each person’s preferences. There are a lot of factors involved. Being self-published versus agented and published by a big house—that’s not a definitive guideline as to an author’s skill.

The final facet of an author’s skill might be their actual craft, from the foundations of punctuation and spelling to the more lofty question of how they use words to build a story. BUT, again, not all of a writer’s ability can be determined this way. After all, a good self-published author probably hired an editor and proofreader. So maybe the author can’t spell and doesn’t know a comma from a semicolon but found someone to fix that problem. Maybe the story had huge plot holes that a development editor helped fill in. On the flip side, maybe the editor at that big publishing house was tired that day and missed a few things.

The key thing that set me off on writing this was the very casual dismissal of self-publishing I felt underlying the comment I paraphrased above. Not just because I’ve self-published a number of my books, but because to say something like that and not maybe define your personal criteria for “skills” feels a bit like a fly-by. Every reader has a checklist, whether they’re aware of it or not, of what they will and won’t tolerate in a book. They consider the authors who tick all their “yes” boxes to be “skilled” and authors who don’t, or who actively tick their “no” boxes, to be hacks. I’d like to think that most readers are open to self-published works so long as those books tick enough of their “yes” boxes, but I’ve seen readers in online groups have that as a “no” box: NO SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS. Sad but true. They cite poor experiences with self-published books as the reason for their prejudice, but have they loved every traditionally published book they’ve ever read? I doubt it, and yet they don’t boycott those.

I won’t claim to have answered the question of how to discern a writer’s skill. There are too many moving parts, and I think the largest part is that we won’t even all agree on which authors are skilled to begin with. What some readers treasure, others despise. What some consider classics, others consider trash.

How do you decide whether an author has skills? What’s on your reading checklist?

21st Century Yokel

So I have a YouTube channel now, and I recommend you subscribe to keep up with all the videos because I won’t always be posting them here. The link to the channel itself is on the sidebar to the left. (Scroll down to all my online media buttons.)

I’ll try to get more sophisticated with my recording and editing methods. But for now, enjoy this short video about author Tom Cox’s work. And if you watch long enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of my cat Minerva.