Monday, November 25, 2013

Book 47 of 52: Shoot the Woman First by Wallace Stroby

Shoot the Woman First (Crissa Stone Novels)is the third book in Wallace Stroby's series about career criminal Crissa Stone. I'm not really into mysteries or thrillers, but I read another of the Criss Stone books when I wrote about Stroby for New Jersey Monthly, and I was hooked.

Yes, Stone is a career criminal, but she doesn't target people who would miss the money, or focuses on bad guys. In Shoot the Woman First, she's involved in a heist from a drug dealer, and things go wrong (if things didn't go wrong, this wouldn't be much of a book). The story flips between Stone, who is trying to give a part of her take to relatives of her partner, and Burke, a former police officer who is being paid by the drug dealer to track down who hit his operation.

Crissa Stone a variation of a hooker with a heart of gold type story. She does bad things, but to bad people. She's living by her own moral code, and that makes her a sympathetic character. Stroby's done his work, too. When I interviewed to him for New Jersey Monthly, he talked about how he built the Stone character based on interviews with female criminals, and that most of the heists are based on actual events.

And this is why genre fiction can be good. This book feels real because it's based on fact, and the book is so well written. It's so good that Showtime has a Crissa Stone series in development.

I'm glad I looked beyond the title - I admit! - I don't like, and spent a few days in the world of Crissa Stone.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book 46 of 52: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Halfby Allie Brosh seems a fitting read right after the last book about memoir writing. Because, yes, this is a lot of memoir, even if part of the story is told in comic from.

Brosh started blogging and posting comics about her life in 2009 as a way to procrastinate from studying for a physics final.

Some of the comics in this book have run on the website already; some are original. I have heard about Brosh in passing from some editors at Runner's World. Even though I really enjoyed them, I never really checked the site outside the links that they shared, so almost all of this was new to me.

It's an interesting way of story telling because it's not just comics and it's not just words, but a blend of both. And because that visual element is there, Brosh can inject some very perverse humor into comics about terrible topics, like contemplating suicide in a bout of depression. I felt bad for laughing, but I think that's the point. It's weird, dark and brash, but that makes her story telling that more honest and real.

Also: there are comics about dogs. Lots of funny comics about insane dogs.

And now a stupid comment: Reading these in book form was good for me - see statement above about how often I read the website - but I think I'd have preferred this as a hardback. The book is thick with glossy color pages, which made it heavy and hard to hold. A more solid spine might have helped. Of course that's not up to Brosh, but it was part of my experience, so I'm including it here.

Also worth noting: if you haven't listened to her interview on Fresh Air, please do. It's gotten a lot of attention because of the discussion about suicide, but it's not just about that. Great listen.


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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book 45 of 52: Writing is my Drink by Theo Pauling Nestor

Writing is My Drink is the second book of this cycle by Theo Pauline Nestor. The first was Book 16 of 52: How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed, which I read after attending a memoir writing retreat organized by Nestor.

While How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed is a full on memoir, Writing is My Drink is part memoir but the memoir part is set up to support the writing instruction that is given throughout, from personal lessons that Nestor learned on her path to publication, to lessons that she uses in her writing classes, to check lists of writing activities at the end of each chapter.

I've been writing professionally now for a while - 15 years if you count when I started earning something for my writing, almost eight years if you start the clock from when I became a full time freelance writer. I've written a lot of personal stuff and what could be considered memoirs in essay length since then.

So some of this advice is basic to me, but not all. I dog eared a lot of pages with writing actives that I'd like to try later. I don't really aspire to do the big memoir anymore. I did when I was younger (my master's thesis was a 30-page memoir that made the agent rounds and got a lot of nice rejections), back when memoirs by young women were the hot new thing. But I've really found my groove in journalism. I often use the personal in those articles - like this piece that ran today, the bulk of which I wrote in one long stream while in Chicago.

But I don't sit down to write out my guts like I used to. Maybe that's a phase I'm in right now, or maybe I found what works best for me. I know that some of the exercises in this book will be helpful with what I write now, or will be should I chose to write more personally in the future. Even if I'm not going to go full blown memoir, sharpening the personal when I chose to use it can only make me a better writer, and this book can help with that.

One of the exercises struck me, and I'm going to do that here. Chapter 8 is all about finding your tribe, and Nestor writes about identifying those authors and musicians and artists whose work spoke to her. It took her a while to admit that these folks were in her tribe because she tried to hide some of her favorites for a long time because she thought other people would look down on her because of her tastes.

I used to live with someone who did not like my music. At all. I didn't like a lot of his music either, but I didn't try to prove something about him or myself because it. However, I became the one with the unsophisticated ear, and by proxy, the less sophisticated person in the couple.

Well fuck that. Here's my tribe, and I am proud to share it:

Caroline Knapp, Tom Stoppard, Nora Ephron, Bill Bryson, Guster, Matt Pond, Angels & Airwaves, Anberlin, Eloisa James, ELO, Katherine Paterson, Elin Hilderbrand, J.K. Rowling, Aziz Ansari, Robert Zemeckis, Tom & Lorenzo, James B. Stewart, J. Courtney Sullivan, Jon Stewart, Michael Lewis, Tom Perrotta, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Lawrence.

Random list? Perhaps. I'm not going to explain why each one is there (though if you ask, I'll be happy to tell you). The common thread is that their work speaks or has spoken volumes to me, and I have learned and been inspired by every single one.

So I'll hang on to Writing is My Drink for when I need some help with the personal. It's a wonderful book for a beginner if you're looking to start this kind of writing, and a good tune up for those of us in the thick of things.

My only quibble is a throw away line about writing for low or no money. No no no. That was one of my quibbles with the conference, too, especially when Very Famous Wonderful Writer suggested to the crowd that they write for free (and then mentioned that her husband supported her through a lot of her rambling around in writing before she wrote Book that I Really Do Love).

I can't agree with writing for free, for reasons I have written about many times before. I earn my keep from writing and writing only, and I'm the only one whose work is keeping the lights on and paying the mortgage. I can't give this stuff away. I don't want you to either. It's not an okay practice, and writers should stop doing this immediately.

Small quibble, but to me an important one.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book 44 of 53: [Redacted]

So I'm not going to share the book that is #44 of the series for a lot of reasons, the top one being that this is my blog and I MAKE THE RULES, DAMMIT! It's a self help book and I really don't want to share what I was reading and why. In case you're wondering, I'm fine, fit and healthy - I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend.

But I read it, so it's part of the list.

It's also an example of the back stories of used books. This one was published in the early 1990s, and it had been read before. Someone wrote in the book, and turned down corners. Based on how flat those folded corners are, I'm betting this book has stayed shut for about 20 years.

The person who read it before me made notes in red pen - a very specific red pen if I can remember right: the old Bic pens with the white body and the cap to match the color of the ink. I used to pop off the bottom of the pen - a little round plug - and play with it when I was bored in class. I went through boxes of those pens when editing papers for school, even though I hated the way they felt on the page - hard and thin. I stole felt tip pens from my dad's collection when I could, and I now use Uni-ball and felt tips when editing. Seeing that red ink was a flashback to when I was typing on a typewriter, and then our old Tandy that didn't even have a hard drive.

Anyway, I was supposed to be reading this book for myself, but I started building a picture of this pervious reader based on what check marks she filled, what she had starred, and what corners she turned down.

I don't know how much good the book will do me, but I was reading about a phase from my past, not my present. I hope she found what she needed because based on her marks, she was very much in the thick of it.

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book 43 of 52: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

If I remember right, I was sent a galley of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars before it was published in 2012. It didn't seem like the book for me. YA? Cancer? Pass. I donated it.

But after seeing some of John Green's Youtube videos, and realizing he was friends with my friend Claire Zulky, and that the book was being turned into a movie AND that I had marked it "to read" on my Goodreads page, I decided to give it a go. And I am so glad I did.

The Fault In Our Stars is told from the point of view of Hazel, who should be dead. She almost died when cancer took over her lungs, but was saved by a miracle drug that keeps her tumors from growing. So she is alive, but constantly attached to oxygen and knows that the drug could stop working at any moment.

At group therapy for cancer kids, she meets Augustus, who has lost part of a leg to cancer, and Isaac, who is about to go blind because of it. The book is what happens to the trio, though Isaac is the third wheel in this situation.

Yes, parts of this book are extremely funny, but it's a sad novel. As I finished the book last night, I thought about books I loved as a kid, and realized they all are, too: Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia. Even Old Yeller.

They're so good because they deal with real life, which isn't always about dating and fun and parties. And vampires. Sure, those books serve their purpose - just look at how I enjoy a romance novel every once and a while, and as a kid I read about every Sweet Valley book I could get my hands on - but books like The Fault in Our Stars is a reminder that kids can and want to read books that deal with heavy topics. Because their life is not unencumbered.

Now I want to go hug a puppy.

I read this book on my flight home from Chicago with the beginnings of a head cold that stopped me from running a half marathon today. The flight home was much better, in part because on this reward ticket, I was put in first class. At first, I felt strange reading a YA book around an entire first class cabin of business men, but not so much when the guy next to me started snoring loudly.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book 42 of 52: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Dear readers, I am writing to you from a terrible flight. First, I had an abominable day yesterday. Probably the second worst day of 2013 that left me sobbing in the shower for an hour.

Then, for today, I finally cashed in some of my USAirways Dividend miles for a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago. In return, USAirways gave me a ticket that put me on the plane in the last boarding group. Person after person with rolling bags got on before me - including a woman with two! - and then, just as I was about to get on the plane, a USAirways employee grabbed my bag and took it from me. When I then took the ticket from her hand, she made a nasty comment about me, in front of a crowd of people. Apparently she thought I couldn't hear her because I was wearing headphones. But no. I heard her, loud and clear. As did everyone else.

So then I get packed onto the flight, and a person is in my seat. After much shifting around, I finally sit, and the woman next to me promptly takes over the arm rest and puts her arm into my "space." We taxi. And then stop. And sit on the runway. In a hot plane. For an hour. We are now airborne, and seat hogger just coughed into my coffee, and is clearing her throat every 30 seconds or so.

What does that have to do with Courtney Milan's 
? It is the only thing that kept me sane through that ordeal. Because before that USAirways employee yanked the bag from my hand, and then made fun of me in front of a crowd of people, I was reading a delightful romance novel. Then after, as the woman shoved her elbow into my arm, I was reading a delightful romance novel. As I sat on the hot plane, sweating, and before and after emailing my Very Important Client in Chicago about being later for our meeting, I could read that very delightful romance novel. And then, after takeoff, and before I logged on here, I read the happy ending.

I could tell you more about the book, but I'll just direct you here. So what I'll say is this: This is why I read romance novels sometimes. Because life really sucks sometimes. And these books take you away to another place where you know the guy will get the girl, or vice versa. It's not really about the smut. It's about picking up a book where you already know everyone is happy at the end.

That's not how life always looks, but I try to stay positive. I'm not a "glass half empty" or "glass half full" person, but instead a "who drank out of my glass" kind of gal. Reading these kinds of books balances me out sometimes. Even when this lady's elbow is just about nestled into my hip.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book 41 of 52: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The parade of Collingswood Book Festival titles continues!

The Casual Vacancyby J.K. Rowling was the most expensive of the batch - it cost me a whopping $5. That's a lot more than most vendors were charging for used hardcovers, and the guy tried to hard sell me on it by saying it's a first edition (yes, a first edition Harry Potter might be worth something, but this? Eh). But since I so loved the Harry Potter books, I figured Rowling was worth a fiver.

The Casual Vacancy looks at what happens to a community after one person dies, though Barry Fairbrother's death doesn't cause the problems in Pageford Parish. It sets forth a series of events that take place revolving around who will take Fairbrother's seat on the parish council (because he died, his seat being open is called a "casual vacancy")

That's because Fairbrother had been on the side of council that didn't want to relinquish control of a poorer part of town. The other side thought that section, called the Fields, didn't belong in good ol' Pageford, and never should have been put under their control in the first place. Fairbrother also advocated keeping open an addiction clinic where other members of council wanted to see it closed.

Even though The Casual Vacancy is set in England, its themes are very in tune with what's going on in the U.S., given that just Friday, food stamp benefits were cut for 47 million Americans. The council members in Pageford who want to give up the Fields say a lot of the same things as politicians say about people who receive food stamps: that they caused these problems on their own, if they wanted to, they could get out of poverty and stop sucking off the government teat (even though a lot of food stamp recipients do work but still can't afford to feed their families on minimum wage). The Casual Vacancy goes deeper into the issues of poverty and gives the backstory behind people who are written of by Pageford residents (the heroin-addicted single mother; the trashy teenager who sleeps around) and shows why a lot of people are trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. These kids were born down. They never really had a chance. A lot of these characters come out looking despicable. I didn't like many of them.

These issues are timely, but I wasn't in love with the book. If the author hadn't been Rowling, I might have DNFed it. There's a lot of people in this novel, and I still confused some of them more than half way through. That's, in part, because you hear inside the head of different characters within the same chapter. The revolving narrator can work very well, but not when it jumps from person to person within paragraphs of each other. The book improved as it went along, but I'm still labeling this an okay read.

Two months and 11 books to go! That's more than one book per week. Can I make it? I think so.

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