Sometimes You CAN Tell a Book By Its Cover

Emails pop up every day in my inbox, offering eBooks at reduced prices, sometimes free, and I always look at them but seldom take advantage of any of the offers.

But one day a book popped up that immediately caught my interest. I was captivated by the book cover. It’s the picture of a shack amongst trees and a full moon overhead.

Asleep Without Dreaming by Barbara Forte Abate.

Asleep Without DreamingPerhaps It’s because I am partial to moons these days but I thought wow, that’s one hell of a cool book cover. And I liked the sound of the story too, so I went for it.

I’m glad I did. It was beautifully written. Long complex sentences that I often had to read more than once.  It’s about a fifteen-year-old girl, Willa, who is pretty much alone. Her father left her with the woman who was her mother, but with whom he could not live.

Some people should never have children. Willa’s mother, Stella, is one of those. Willa lives her life, one day at a time, struggling to survive. She and Stella leave town one night to start a new life, after one of Stella’s probably shady dealings has blown up in her face. The car breaks down, they end up in a town as dismal as the one they just left.

It’s the story of that summer, spent in a neglected, seen-better-days motel. The prose is dark, it is often depressing, and the reader wants so much for something good to happen to Willa, who asks herself the question “Why is it so easy for everyone to leave me?” Stella begins to disappear for days at a time, until finally she never comes back at all.

There’s a boy, whom Willa comes to know, and their love is so deep that they don’t even need to speak about it. It just is. But all the while, the reader is beginning to speculate, that something is very much amiss, yet hopes please, don’t let it be true.

Many readers don’t like books like this. They want fairytales, and happily ever after, and devoted parents, especially moms with their daughters. This novel has none of that. Instead there are beautiful descriptions, haunting images and profound thoughts.

This book affected me very deeply, as an example of true literary fiction, of not writing to a formula, but writing from the heart.

The book cover captures the essence of the story. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover.

10 Things Not to Like About Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of GreyRated M for Mature Audiences.

What’s wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey? What’s right with it? Read on, to find out!

Yet another blogger is taking it upon herself to critique Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. Moi! This is not a review of the novel exactly. Because Ms. James needs no review from me. On Amazon alone, at the time of this writing, over 16,000 reviews were in place for her novel, the first in the Fifty Shades trilogy. The average rating is a little over 3 stars which is mediocre, so apparently a lot of the reviewers feel the same way I do. I’m not reading all 16,000 to find out though.

Like many others, I had to find out what all the excitement was about. I had started this tome before, and got half through, and was thoroughly not captivated, not amused, not titillated, and not interested in what became of Anastasia Steele and her ill-fated tryst with Christian Grey. But I decided to try again and this time, I would note all the things that drove me bug-nuts and then blog about it.

A handy itemized list of complaints for your easy consumption:

1. Repeating actions. Anastasia does the same things over and over, ad nauseum. Eye rolling and lip biting does get tedious. Maybe try some other quirky, I-am-so-lovely-yet-without-a-clue-how-lovely-that-is, twenty-something, amusing facial expressions. It would be appreciated by the reader. The wonderful, virginous, cutsily clumsy Ms. Steele even rolls her eyes at herself! Oh Ms. Steele, you minx, you.

2. Cliches. Pedal to the metal? Are we serious here, Ms. James? Your picture shows a woman so young as to not even have heard this particular phrase used in conversation. Do people still say this? When I think of it, I think of some of the guys I used to know with their primer-painted, fixed up ’57 Chevies. And Monkey’s Uncle? Please tell me this one got by your editor. Or maybe she was rolling her eyes at the time and missed it?

3. Stereotypes. Ms. Steele never knows how off-the-charts gorgeous she is, of course, in a messily, plump-lipped, doe-eyed way and so she falls into Mr. Grey’s office the first time she meets him. That’s right. She trips over her own feet and falls down, and he has to help her up. This sounds like a really bad chick flick to me, and we’re still in Chapter One. And she’s a virgin, at what, twenty-two? And the time frame is, uh, now? This is a rare situation indeed.

4. Overused craps. Enough with the crap, double crap and the occasional triple crap.

5. Wow-did-she-really-write-that phrases. Here’s three that made my eyes roll:

  • …tossing her silken reddish-blond hair over her shoulder.” I don’t know what is most annoying; the tossing, the silken or the reddish-blond.
  • …gasping out my name in desperate wonder.Wha-att? I didn’t really read that, did I?
  • He gives me a wolfish grin.Pa-lease, I’m biting my lip here.

6. Too-often-used physical reactions. Ms. Steele flushes and blushes and goes crimson so often I think she may need to consult someone who specializes in blood pressure issues.

7. Holy Repeating Phrase, Batman! Here’s where it really gets tedious. The holy craps, holy shits, holy fucks, holy cows, holy hells and even an occasional holy Moses became so repetitive and annoying that I decided to count them. The Grand Total is 139 instances of these various Holy phrases. Everyone must have noticed this. I’m not the only one. Why is Anastasia in awe or in shock so often?

  • Holy shit (50)
  • Holy crap (38)
  • Holy fuck (19)
  • Holy cow (18)
  • Holy hell (9)
  • Holy Moses (5)

8. Writing style. It was not beautifully written.

9. The subject matter. Surprising how many people don’t have a problem with it.

10.Miscellaneous. Charlie Tango is a dumb name for a helicopter.

Shocked Woman

Holy crap! That’s right, holy crap!

Lest this be considered yet another sour grapes epistle, let me congratulate Ms. James on being the first at something. She brought erotica mainstream and her trilogy was newly a phenomenon when the copycats were popping up as fast as Viagra ads in the spam folder.

Here’s what I liked about Fifty Shades:

1. Writing style. It was not horribly written.

2. Music. The references to music  (and when I looked up some of the pieces I found a Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack!) There’s going to be a movie! Of course, Hollywood has to get in on the action. How are they going to get that rated R, I wonder?

3. The ending. Probably some of the best writing in the whole book and I had to wait until the last few pages to read it. And it’s a hook to get you to go on to the second in the trilogy.

4. The cover. The tie has a special significance in the story, and what could be more a symbol of power than an understated, expensive tie?

I am going to pass on any more Fifty Shades. I found it to be tedious, and I was uncomfortable reading some of it. The writing was mediocre, but it wasn’t terrible. I’ve read a lot worse. But I guess with what this book is selling, the quality of the writing is not too important.

What do you think about it? Or are you tired of the whole subject?

Image courtesy of marin at

5 Good Examples of Character-driven Novels

My third novel, Perigee Moon, is done! That is to say, it’s written and mostly edited. I find I edit and edit some more and edit a little more. Then I let it sit around for a while, reread it and edit it once again. I’m at the point where I’ll “edit a little more” then leave it alone. Put it on the backburner for a week or two.

I have the critique of my first reader, my very good friend, who pronounced it “a very good book”. My friend said “I think you’ve got something here.” My friend didn’t like Second Stories but did like Whatever Happened to Lily? and says this is my best work so far.

I like your writing, my friend said, it’s very polished and I like your style. But nothing happens in your books. I keep waiting for the payoff, and it doesn’t come, or if it does come, it comes much later than I would have hoped. And then my friend said that the humor works well and that parts of it are, in fact, pretty funny.

Happy though I was with the news, that the first person likes it enough to say this, I was disconcerted about the “nothing happens” part. My books are more about characters, developing them such that the reader comes to really understand them, which is “character-driven” as opposed to “plot-driven”. This might be the problem. My friend is more of a plot-driven aficionado, who wants action.

In thinking about some of the books I had read in the past and whether they are character-driven or plot-driven, to the last, they are all about the characters, how they evolve, how they think and make decisions and change as time goes on.

In novels that are plot-driven, action takes priority and the characters are there to have things happen to them in order to advance the plot. In a character-driven novel, it’s all about the people, and what they think and how they interact with each other, with the emphasis on emotion and reflection and what happens to them, the action, is there to advance the development of the character.

Occasionally, it’s both. A good plot-driven novel that has characters you care about is likely to be a winner.

Here are five excellent character-driven novels. There are many more but these are a sampling of what I consider to be some of the best:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – All of Ms. Tyler’s novels are character-driven. Stuff happens to them but sometimes not much, and the reader gets the impression that the stuff that happens only contributes to how the character will react to it. This is a bit darker than some of her novels, but I thought the characters were diverse and interesting and quirky. Some are not likable at all, in fact most of them have things about them not to like, except for one, a guy who is the solid steady one, who just wants a family and a normal life. He is lovable and kind and you find yourself rooting for him. Unforgettable book, but like I said, dark.

Say When by Elizabeth Berg – I was hooked from the first page. The story of a divorce, and in first person POV as the man, Griffin, who is such a wonderful character it doesn’t matter whether the plot is good or not. In fact, the plot wasn’t not too believable (at least in my opinion), but a great character study of a guy who wants a normal life, a family, and comes to wonder if he is a bit too boring. I like stories about regular people because what we find is that while each one of us might be “regular” we still are all different. Ms. Berg does a really good job of thinking like a guy. She is a consummate women’s fiction author. She doesn’t write romance, or include a lot of sex, but covers topics which are interesting to women, or anyone for that matter. Stories about families, and problems, and breast cancer, and friendship. And in Griffin’s case, how he comes to know himself better because someone he cares about no longer wants him in her life.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer – This dark love story leans towards obsession rather than love. It is deep, emotional and depressing at times. I guess an apt description would be that it is complex. The longest sex scene probably ever written is in this book and it is as explicit as erotica, so be warned about that. It seems a bit superfluous in its detail. The reader gets to feel David’s love and obsession, as well as his eventual loss and wants so much for it to end well. David simply can’t get over Jade. He can’t let go, it wouldn’t be possible and the reader feels his misery. The last lines of this novel are some of the best I’ve ever read. There was a movie made of this book. Don’t bother, it was cheesy. It’s not possible to capture the emotion in film that is in this story, in my opinion, because it is internal to David. It isn’t anything he talks about or can tell anyone, it just is.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – The consummate character-driven novel. It’s 400+ pages of pure joy of reading, about the funniest dysfunctional family on earth, yet they are all kind of believable somehow. Enid, the semi-crazy, ditzy housewife and Alfred, the stoic, male patriarch who is now in failing health, so the tables appear to be turning as to who is in charge, and neither Alfred nor Enid is completely comfortable with that. Their three grown children Gary, Chip and Denise are all delightfully screwed up in their own ways. My favorite was Gary, who’s wife was a control freak, and it was maybe the best example of “Show – Don’t Tell” I’ve ever read. There is a lot that can be learned by studying Gary and his familial situation. The underlying theme is Enid’s hope there can be one last Christmas in the old homestead with everyone in attendance, and a lot of the action is in the backstories of the characters. It was very funny to me, but a lot of people don’t seem to care for Franzen’s particular style of humor. Probably the best example of character-driven fiction in the www (Whole Wide World).

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – If you like stories about the Indian culture, this is for you. And if you don’t know whether you’d like stories about the Indian culture, try it. It’s a great character-driven novel and educational as to what life in India is (or was a few decades ago) really like. If you don’t know much about India, you will when you’ve finished this novel because there’s a bit of Indian culture on every page. Be forewarned that some of the back story of two of the characters is quite brutal. It’s the story of a woman, widowed unexpectedly, who strives to make it in a country where women are of little value, and three men whom she employs to work in her home-based dressmaking business. They come to really care about each other in the years they were together (not only did they work together but they lived together too), and develop a lifelong friendship. I guess it could be said that this is also a plot-driven book because there are plenty of things that happen, but the story of these four people and how they came to depend on each other was the main point of the novel.

The above five books have not been read by my friend who read Perigee Moon. My friend is a guy, who only reads non-fiction. So getting him to read this was a bit difficult, probably because he assumed he wouldn’t like it, and I assumed he wouldn’t either. But it seems he did.

Anne Tyler Did Not Give Up

Today I’m writing about one of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler. Ms. Tyler is, in my opinion, a Master of Quirk. Quirky characters, quirky families, quirky situations. I picked up If Morning Ever Comes, several times at the library and always returned it to the shelf. But I finally decided to try it, even though I thought the title seemed unlike her others, it almost sounded romance-y. If Morning Ever Comes. Bah.

It wasn’t like her other novels at all. I couldn’t keep the sisters straight at the beginning, and was no better off at the end. The “feisty” grandmother didn’t connect with me, the mother was aloof and a mystery and not clearly developed and the main character was boring. He might be the most boring guy who ever lived, and his dialogue was less than stellar. He says “Well” a lot. Nothing more. Just, well.

The most minute details are discussed, even the location of where one of the sisters left her napkin. I’m guessing it was a cloth napkin, and, mystery solved, she left it on the porch. As if anyone would care about that. It wasn’t a long book, I’m guessing under 100,000 words, and most of it was devoted to describing boring and trivial events.

I could scarcely read the main guy’s name, Ben Joe, without cringing (wasn’t one of the Walton sons named Ben Joe? No I guess that was Jim Bob.) Apparently, Ben Joe figured that the household couldn’t function properly without him and so, when his oldest sister, who was married and lived in some Midwestern state, Iowa maybe, with a daughter, left her husband and returned to the old family homestead, he decided, being the only male member, he needed to make the trip back home from college to attend to things.

He shows up, and things get more trivial from there, details about who sits where, and these descriptions lack imagination. And forget about Show Don’t Tell. I finished the book because I wanted to blog about it, and for no other reason. I went on Amazon and looked at reviews of this book, and found that other people disliked it as much as I did. I read comments like, “I really love Anne Tyler, but this book was not like her usual, it was just boring.”

And then I discovered that it was her first book, written in 1964 and Ms. Tyler later disavowed it, saying she didn’t understand how it got published in the first place. Maybe some editor saw something in her prose, some glimmer of great things to come. And maybe the fact that she sold the first one, gave Ms. Tyler the enthusiasm to go forward, write more stories, which got better and better, as time went on.

So the moral of the blog is… Authors, Don’t Give Up.

Keep on writing. Sure maybe the first one isn’t going to make anyone’s best seller list, and maybe looking back on first attempts, you might think, I kinda wish now I hadn’t put that out there. But the skill of writing is a learned one, just as everything else. Of course, it helps to have a bit of talent, and a sense of humor, and maybe a few ideas that no one has thought of, but no one can put a string of words together in quite the same way you can.

Everyone has different histories, different environments, different families and friends and events that happen to them. All of that goes into writing too, as one of my friends put it, and I’m not quoting directly, but words to the effect that “An author’s fiction is his own unique perspective on life.”

So, get discouraged if you must, but don’t give up.

I’m not going to.