My grandpa was uneducated. He spent most his life in a steel mill outside Chicago. When he wasn’t working, he was reading. It was mostly paperback sci-fi novels, easy ones he could rip through in a day. When he was finished with one, he’d put it on one of many bookshelves throughout the house. I remember sneaking through his closet filled with retired books and the smell of old paper. The spines creased, splitting names like Asimov and Anthony.
I read a lot of those musty books. Dune is the one I remember most. Herbert created this entire universe and philosophy. I couldn’t imagine how someone would make up something that complex and detailed. I went back to it when I was older, ended up reading every book in the series.
However, I didn’t share my grandpa’s reading addiction. In fact, I’m more likely to put a book down than finish it. I don’t feel a need to plow through something that I’m not enjoying. I want a book to carry me on its wings, not make me climb a mountain.
I give most books 50 pages, but I usually know if I like it on the first couple. It’s the voice, mainly. Style, too. It’s the whole “show, don’t tell” thing that makes writing hard. The concept sounds easy until you try it. It’s easy to tell the reader your character is sad or angry or emotionally unstable, but it's much harder to demonstrate that with a scene or dialog that’s not extraneous. But when the writer can parse his or her words and capture the essence of the character, make me feel what’s going on, then they have my full attention.
Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of books down. Many are well-written, just not my flavor. In the last year, I started reviewing each book on Goodreads, LibraryThing and Amazon. As a writer, I’m sensitive to the author, not that many of them read reviews. Keep it constructive, not necessarily positive. Because of that, I’m much more open to my own reviews, which aren’t always positive but usually constructive.
Nowadays, I’m usually reading YA. Books that I’ve read to the end? Unwind by Neal Shusterman sits firmly on top my YA sci-fi list. Well-crafted. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson takes a close second. The entire Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins was an enjoyable ride.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness was an interesting read. There were aspects that made it difficult to read, in particular the style of dialog. But it was engrossing. However, I got to the end of book three, The Monsters of Men, which was over a thousand pages into the trilogy, and I quit with 50 pages to go, speed-reading at light speed to the last page. It was too long. Felt repetitive, at times. I was exhausted by the characters and just wanted it to be over.
My favorite writing style this year? The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Based on reviews, it appears to be a love or hate style. It’s metaphor rich, and not all of them make sense. But it’s the first book that had flavor.
My favorite voice this year? Years ago, I discovered what voice meant in writing when I read Pulitzer Prizing winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. This year is was Laurie Halse Anderson. I read Wintergirls and Speak, not my usual fare but came recommended by my daughter. In my opinion, one of the best YA writers out there. Like Sean Penn disappears into Harvey Milk and Tom Hanks into Forrest Gump, Anderson transforms into the voice of a teenage girl. It’s mesmerizing, no matter what the topic.
Reading something that good makes me a better writer. Just a little bit.
Thanks for your thoughts, Tony! I loved The Book Thief, and made it through every single Dune book (at least, till the ones his son put out). Anderson is on my list of authors to pick up, I just haven't gotten there yet. And you've added to my to-read pile now, thanks. (yes, that was sarcasm...)