The January Project, 2016

I’m going to be blunt. 2015 was a crap year for me, with pretty much all my energy was sucked up by efforts to recover from my broken arm (Jan 26, 2015 – I’ll celebrate the anniversary by hiding in bed). I’m finally starting to get over the mental fog, but the best of 2015 lists? Um yeah. Didn’t happen.

I’m still committed to The January Project, even after last year’s abrupt interruption. My goal this month is purchase nothing new (not even free books) and to clear some books off of my shelf while also giving reviews to authors in need.

If you don’t know much about the book business, think of your own life a moment. How much do you depend on reviews? Would you buy a two star vacuum from Amazon? What about a book that had thirty five star reviews, but the only text ones said things like “This is the best book ever!” I was burned a few too many times on that last one in 2015 and quit a lot of crap books with lousy editing.

Book reviews and sales are a numbers game. An author has to have a certain number of reviews to be considered for those nifty newsletters or special sale promotions. An author can’t get sales and reviews without visibility. You can’t get visibility in the form of “readers who liked … also liked….” without a certain number of text reviews. It blows. I cannot change the system. I also cannot change the policy that strips some authors of reviews because they know another author or because a fan friends them on Facebook.

What I can do is read books and write reviews. In the month of January, I commit to cleaning my shelves and reviewing books with less than twenty reviews. I challenge you to read a new to you author and leave a thoughtful review.

Look for reviews over the next few weeks.

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Review: The Boys of Summer by Sarah Madison

My first foray into gay romance brought to you by The January Project.

My alter ego won an ebook of  Sarah Madison’s The Boys of Summer during a month-long blog hop. I didn’t have to enter the contest, but the cover and description evoking World War II sucked me in. I’m so glad I’m a lucky girl.

In the modern day, David McIntyre, a Hollywood location scout, hires Rick Sutton of Sutton’s Air Service to fly him around Hawaii’s islands.  A storm forces Sutton to crash land on a deserted island as the two are nearing the end of their working relationship.  The two men take refuge in an abandoned World War II outpost and scavenge resources, battle the elements and injuries and try to attract the attention of potential rescuers before it is too late.

This is only part of the story. Roughly one third of the way into The Boys of Summer, the author introduces a lengthy dream sequence. For some people, this is a deal killer. In the past, I’ve been known to roll my eyes or worse put down a book with dream sequences lasting a page or two because they are irrelevant to the story. David dreams he and Sutton met and became romantically involved in London during World War II. About twenty pages in, the idea crossed my mind that it was a novella that could stand alone and apart from the contemporary frame, then the last third of the book, set once again in modern day Hawaii blew up that foolish conception.  The dream sequence becomes integral to David’s character arc and guides his actions. Major props to Sarah Madison for making a dream sequence that is worth reading AND relevant to the story.

I also commend the author for the judicious and effective use of detail. All too often in historical novels, superfluous detail describing the curtains or ruffles on a gown the sheen on a street take away from a character and deep point of view.  The reader sees both settings through David’s sharp eye.  He is a man who notices detail as a profession, but his commentary on what he sees is honest, never showing off.  Madison did her research and her accuracy shines as the RAF pilots discuss planes, but she never loses sight of her characters.

This is a character driven novel, in spite of having adventure scenes that would fit into one of the movies David loves. The male/male sex scenes are pretty tame compared to ones I’ve read in mainstream male/female romance and even sex scenes from literary works. I walked away with a sense of tenderness between partners rather than sex simply to titillate and push book sales.

All in all, I’m surprised how much I enjoyed this novel.  The Boys of Summer certainly exceeded my expectations, although in truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than “gay romance.” The beauty in this story and writing go beyond a subcategory.  I will seek out more of Sarah Madison’s writing in the future.

As always, I make no money by offering buy links but I want to offer them as part of The January Project to encourage book reviews.

Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Summer-Sarah-Madison-ebook/dp/B00CCUVR7G/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1390076079&sr=1-4&keywords=the+boys+of+summer

Barnes&Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-boys-of-summer-sarah-madison/1115194648?ean=9781484135495

The January Project

The January Project evolved from a desire to reduce my “To Be Read” pile.  Initially, I intended to only read books by authors I have met face to face and from whom I’ve received a free book. Then I decided that was arrogant, and potentially friendship ending if I didn’t like the work a person produced.  I decided to expand my list of authors to those I have gotten to know online and include books I’ve purchased as well.

My brain agonized over the point of this project.  Should it simply be to free up space on my bookshelf or should I incorporate a higher purpose? Why have I received so many books in the first place? Easy – REVIEWS.

When an author or the publisher provides you with a free copy of a book, whether at an industry event or through an on-line giveaway, a sale is lost in hopes of gaining more. Since fewer of us peruse the physical aisles of bookstores, a splashy cover is no longer enough.  For a book to become visible to readers, it needs reviews and buzz.

I offer the January Project as a way to help my fellow authors.

Here are the guidelines under which I will operate:

1. I will work from my existing to be read pile.

2. I will prioritize works with less than fifty reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.

3. I will step outside my reading comfort zone since I have met a number of authors who write erotica, a genre I don’t read.

4. If a book triggers one of my personal “hot button issues,” I won’t review it because I cannot give a fair and honest review.

5. I will try to note when I received a free copy. None of the books will be advanced review copies.

6. I will include publications of all lengths.

7. I may make an exception for audio books.  Although my library has several from authors I have met, there is no guarantee of availability during the duration of this project.

8. I will post reviews on my site and major review sites.

If you wish to join me (Lyra), please reblog. If I’m clever enough, I add you to my blog role or linked sites or something like that.

Review: Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

I’ve been a bad blogger lately, but as I prepared for my annual “best books I’ve read this year” list, my daughter threw me a curve ball.  Who out there guessed a book geared for ages 8-12 would throw my list into turmoil?  A Maud Hart Lovelace Nominee–which is some Minnesota thing– my daughter spent three months trying to get this book from the library.  Don’t waste your time on the wait list. BUY this book immediately, especially if you have school age children. Because of Mr. Terupt  by Rob Buyea is the type of book they will want to read again and again, and chances are, so will you.

I hardy know where to begin, except to say this is a masterful work.  As a writer myself, I am in awe of Buyea’s technique. Plenty of authors struggle to create two distinctive and believable narrators for their story. Buyea created seven unique fourth graders with heartbreaking authenticity.  By the time the reader gets partway through October, the point of view character is obvious, even without seeing the name.

Technique is nothing without heart and Buyea writes with plenty.  The seven fourth graders are part of Mr. Terupt’s class and the story follows them throughout the school year. Mr. Terupt is the type of teacher we all want our children to have — someone who inspires them and encourages them, alas to add conflict and drama, an accident occurs. It is only then, the characters truly understand what their teacher gave them.

My daughter handed the book to me and promised “you’ll cry because you’re laughing so hard and because you are sad.” Yup. I also loved how it opened communication between us.  With so many different types of characters, we had lots of conversations that started about the book, but ended with both of us learning more about each other.  Terrific writing entertains and builds empathy.  Mr. Buyea wrote one for the ages.  So whether you are a grade-schooler, the parent of a grade-schooler, a grade school teacher or someone who once had a memorable and wonderful teacher, do yourself a favor.  Get this book.

Because the cute photo didn’t want to work, here’s a link to the book on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/Because-Mr-Terupt-Rob-Buyea/dp/0375858245/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387405374&sr=1-3&keywords=rob+buyea

And one for B&N http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/because-of-mr-terupt-rob-buyea/1019626278?ean=9780375858246

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

On paper, Death Come to Pemberley by P.D. James sounds like a can’t miss book.  One of the masters of modern British literature takes on a masterpiece from the past, that being Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.  The execution well… To honor James’ effort in adopting another persona to tell this story, I will write my review as a publishing house editor who plucked this from the slush pile and was forced to read and provide feedback to author who lacks the powerful, normally reliable name of P.D. James. ***

Dear Author,

Thank you for considering us, however we will pass on Death Comes to Pemberley.  Although we normally can’t be bothered with detailed rejections, this was so egregious, we will make an effort to prevent future catastrophe.

From the first pages, it is apparent that while you appropriated the characters from Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, you have changed core aspects of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s personas in a way that subverts the essence of Ms. Austin’s book and why countless readers have made Elizabeth an enduring character.

Although you have made an effort to stay true to Ms. Austin’s writing style, the repeated use of the phrase “It was generally accepted that…” is insufficient.  Yes, Ms. Austin was prone to rambling sidebars, but she also knew how to use witty dialogue to convey information.  In your effort, on the few occasions dialogue appeared, it fell flat.

Perhaps, you should have spent more time studying dialogue than doing the historical research that is frequently “shoehorned” into random places in the text.  The overall effect is to create an inauthentic voice that sounds like someone trying too hard to be someone they are not.  Indeed, this comes across as a school assignment to write what happens five years after the events of Pride and Prejudice.

On another note, there were considerable plot issues in this work.  What little plot there was disappeared under the weight of back story.  Industry insiders understand that every character needs a back story. Your job as an author is to create one.  However, you do not need to share all the intimate details of every character’s back story, nor should you add characters to your book simply to show off your historical research.  Scene and characters should advance the story relative to the primary plot.  Back story creates the dreaded “information dump” that serves the sole purpose of adding pages to an otherwise thin story.   I fear that if we eliminate all the unnecessary moments in this book, we will be left with a short story of roughly 8,000 words and our publishing house only accepts full length titles.

Before attempting your next manuscript, you may wish to read some books on craft.  As for Death Comes to Pemberley, we are unable to accept.  I strongly suggest you keep this one under the mattress or in a box on the closet shelf.

Sincerely,

Publishing house that would have never pulled this manuscript for publication, even if it had the name of a famous author attached.

*** – Yup – I’m that mean today.  I read this book so you don’t have to, although in truth, I suffered through it as an audio book.   I have enjoyed P.D. James in the past and have read Jane Austin multiple times.  After reading this book, I’m so disappointed.  Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shows you can make bold changes to well-loved classic characters and stay true to the original.

As an author with one book to my pen name, I’m stunned that this book ever arrived on shelves.  There are so many terrific lesser known authors out there struggling for shelf space who are producing higher quality story telling.  If any of us had sent in Death Comes to Pemberley as a manuscript, it would have never seen the light of day.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find another book. One that will remind me why I love reading.  Any suggestions?

Remembering Roger Ebert

I may not go often anymore, but I love the movies.  Once upon a time, I harbored the dream of going to film school. Not because I wanted to make them, although playing with fake blood would be a pretty good job description, but I wanted to be a film critic.  And not just any critic.  I wanted to be the female Roger Ebert.  Growing up in Chicago, Roger Ebert was as much a part of my movie going experience as an oversized soda and bucket of popcorn the size of which rivaled a bathtub.  Today I mourn the loss of a man who influenced me and millions of others with his belief that going to the movies should be fun.

Forgive my scattershot thoughts.  I am not the eloquent writer Ebert was.  I cannot knock out a beautifully written an  d thoughtful essay in five minutes – which is all the time I have before the kids wake up.  If you doubt his eloquence, get one of his wonderful essay books stat.  You won’t be disappointed unless you are some type of insane person who cannot appreciate wit, joy, and precisely chosen words.  Don’t judge his writing by watching “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the Russ Meyer film he scripted.  Or go ahead.  Indulge and don’t feel guilty about it.  Ebert didn’t.

I will miss Ebert’s passion the most.  The man loved movies. Plain and simple.  His paring with the more classically trained movie critic Gene Siskel proved golden.  I loved them on “Sneak Previews” and continued following when the show morphed into” At the Movies.”  I loved how they argued, even when they ultimately agreed.  I loved that two people could look at the same thing, have completely different experiences, and yet often agree the movie earned two thumbs up or two thumbs down.

When I think about my personal Golden Age of going to the movies, that post movie breakdown was as integral to the movie experience as greasy popcorn butter.  Whether I went with to the movies with Mike, Amanda, Mom, Dad, Gabe, Marci, Eric, Genna, or a host of others, the post-film pow-wow and breakdown of what worked and what didn’t was part of the experience.  My husband doesn’t think of going to the movies as a particularly social experience.  I’ve been working with him and he’s improving, but he also didn’t grow up watching Siskel and Ebert.

For teaching me how to watch, enjoy, and discuss not just the movies, but the arts and more, I give Roger Ebert two thumbs up.  Thanks for the inspiration and I’ll see you “At the Movies.”

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.

I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read.  Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on.  The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman.  We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.”  I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting.  The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation.  For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.

That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters.  The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.

On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book.  Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways.  It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form.  You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.