Archive for March, 2011

Book-Related Pet Peeves

I don’t usually do internet memes, but this one, from The Broke and the Bookish, really made me think.  Those who love to read always say that we “love everything about reading”, but it isn’t really true.  There are tons of things that I don’t like that are book-related (not to get all negative on you).
Raping Good History (Philippa Gregory, I’m looking at you).  I understand that the whole fun of writing historical fiction is creating your own spin on it.  That’s fine.  But to take history (which I always feel is better and more incredible than any fiction writer could invent) and write blatant and ridiculous lies into it to make your book sell more?  Ugh.  Criminal.
Quick-and-Dirty Plot Hole Covers.  I’ll use the Harry Potter series as an example (which sucks because I love Harry Potter).  In The Chamber of Secrets, Polyjuice Potion is an extremely complicated potion to make (it takes one month for full potency) and includes rare, hard-to-find ingredients.  By The Half-Blood Prince, everyone and their mother is brewing (and using) Polyjuice Potion.  Come on.  Work a little and come up with a better cover for your plot holes.
The Current YA Literature Genre.  Every time I go into any bookstore lately, the YA shelves are full of nothing but vampire fiction.  Twilight has been done, guys.  Move on.  And in the same vein, every YA book I seem to pick up has “bland female protagonist lusting after cute but aloof male who turns out to be supernatural.”  Ugh.
Adjective Overuse.  “She looked sadly out the window at the falling rain” = fine.  “She heaved a melancholy sigh as she stared balefully out of the rain-spattered window at the cold, gray rain falling from the iron-clouded sky” = you need to put your thesaurus away and tone it down a bit.
Books with Multiple Protagonists.  The only book that I’ve ever read that featured multiple protagonists that I liked and could follow was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult (mainly because each protagonist got a different font in the chapters in his/her point of view).  Other times, I get confused when the first person narrative switches from one character to the next.  Too strange.
Unauthorized Prequels/Sequels.  I am sorry.  All you have managed to do is get your fanfiction published.  Also, you are riding on another author’s coattails and using his or her hard work as your own.  The most difficult part about writing (IMHO) is coming up with compelling characters and a setting that interests the reader.  When you write an unauthorized prequel or sequel to an original piece that doesn’t belong to you…well, the hard part is effectively over.  And I have never yet read an unauthorized sequel that was as compelling and well-written as the original.  Someday, when I have time and feel like giving myself a headache, I’ll review Susan Hill’s unauthorized sequel to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, entitled Mrs. DeWinter…but today is not that day.

Hyped Books.  I’m stealing this one because I agree.  When a book has been so overhyped, I find myself feeling let down if it’s not quite as amazing as I heard it was.  Which makes me not want to read overhyped books.  I have been proven wrong a few times (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Hunger Games series, etc.), but overall, I find I’m disappointed when a book has been over-exposed.
Re-writes of a Well-Known Series.  Everyone was buzzing about the Sweet Valley High books being rewritten to update them to the 2000s instead of the 1980s.  I went through these books like crack when I was a teenager, so I picked a copy of the “updated” series in Borders to check it out.  Thank God I didn’t buy it.  The “updated” slang was terrible, and really, making the twins a size 4 instead of a size 6?  Ridiculous.  And thanks for showing us that body image in the 2000s is every bit as ridiculous and vain as we already knew it was.
What are your book-related pet peeves?

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I don’t generally read books out of obligation any more (I stopped doing that in graduate school), but after finishing Gods and Generals, I felt somewhat of an obligation to complete the so called “Civil War Trilogy” and give The Last Full Measure a shot.
*sigh*  Where to begin.
In The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara once again faces his old nemesis of biting off more than he can chew.  He picks up where The Killer Angels left off, in July 1863, describing the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg and the inability of the Union army to capitalize on their victory.  Shaara attempts to sift through the confusion by focusing on three leaders this time — Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Joshua L. Chamberlain (who is really relegated to little more than a footnote in this final book).  But there is still just too much information.  The battle scenes are confusing — without the incredibly dramatic chapter ends (Shaara explains where the battles are taking place by way of one general saying the name of the city/location i.e. “Appomatox” or “Cold Harbor” on several occasions), it’s difficult to even discern where the battles are taking place.
The wounding of the superior officers gets somewhat repetitive as well.  Although Shaara’s research is correct, and many commanding officers suffered major, yet not quite fatal wounds towards the end of the Civil War, his description of “the punch” in the arm or the gut for every single wounded man is repetitive AT BEST.  I concede that Shaara has never experienced a bullet or Minie ball to the stomach or one of his extremities…but a variation in the description might have served him well.
Jeff Shaara, unfortunately, is not working to the same caliber as his father Michael.  The original book, The Killer Angels, was based off of extensive research by Michael Shaara into the personal memoirs and reports of the soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg, which were then turned into a novel.  Jeff Shaara takes an alternate approach, and just writes the history.  He is more interested in telling a compelling story than he is concerned about the accuracy of emotion.  And it is painfully obvious when he was conjuring up his own interpretation of a character’s reactions — it is at these moments that his writing is most heavy, wooden, or awkward.
I said in my review of Gods and Generals that it is unfair to compare the writing of the father to that of the son.  But by attaching his body of work to his father’s, Jeff Shaara opens himself up to the criticism that unfortunately I must give — he is not his father, and the “prequel and sequel” to The Killer Angels are better read on their own, and not in connection to the Pulitzer-prizewinning novel.
Rating: **

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Yesterday, self-published writer Jacqueline Howett had a much-publicized meltdown when she discovered that a Kindle copy of her ebook, The Greek Seaman, had received a lukewarm review on a well-read book critic’s blog, BigAl’s Books and Pals.  Howett’s comment was the first that BigAl received on his review, and instead of thanking the reviewer, she unleashed a tirade about the poor review and demanded it be removed from the website.  Other comments followed hers, which riled her further, and she posted two explicit comments before abandoning the blog.
BigAl, in response, posted an entire entry titled, “A Word on Negative Reviews.”  I encourage anyone who enjoys reading (and sometimes critiquing) books, or reading book review blogs, to check this entry out and see if it rings as true for you as it does for me.  Two parts in particular stood out to me:
“…the purpose of a book review…(is) to help readers decide if it is a book they want to buy. The primary purpose isn’t to help the author, publisher, or anyone except the reader.” 
I’ve seen two star reviews for books I’d give four or five stars. I’ve seen one star reviews on books considered “classics of literature.” If 9 out of 10 disinterested reviewers love your book then what I think shouldn’t matter.”
I don’t flatter myself that I have a ton of readers, and I won’t kid myself into pretending that many people care about the books I read.  Though I am attempting to branch out into more fiction writing, I realize that I am thoroughly mired in history, biography, and historical fiction, and sometimes these genres don’t appeal to many people.  I might give something four or five stars that you, or your friends, might think is the most boring book ever.  
I hate the Twilight series.  I have never made any bones about this, or excuses.  But I also know that these are among the most popular books in the world right now.  If I leave a one-star review on Breaking Dawn on Amazon.com, it really shouldn’t matter to Stephanie Meyer — as of today, there are 2,634 5-star reviews on Breaking Dawn‘s Amazon page.
Granted, Jacqueline Howett is not Stephanie Meyer.  She is a self-published author, not a multi-millionairess with a film franchise that’s going to support her well into her old age.  This is probably her first brush with a seriously negative review.  But I say to you, Ms. Howett — learn from this.  

Writing is hard.  It has to be, or everyone would be out there getting published.  There are going to be plenty of people who do not like your work, who are going to say that it sucks.  Plenty of people think that Shakespeare sucks, too.  I personally can’t stand Ethan Frome, and it still is taught in high schools across the country.  It doesn’t matter what the reviews say.  You must hold your head high and take the criticism like an adult.  Because it doesn’t matter how well you write, or how good your books are — someone out there is always going to have something negative to say.  What matters now — and will always matter — is how you respond to the criticism.

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Crazy, crazy weekend!  David and I spent the majority of it at our new place, laying siege to the kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom, aided and abetted by my father, who shared his expertise on wallpaper removal and spackling with us.
Day One (Saturday) was spent in puncturing the wallpaper, pouring glue remover on it, and stripping the paper off piece by piece.  Unfortunately, we discovered that there was paint, another layer of wallpaper, and more paint underneath the original hideous pink and beige spotted wallpaper…so that was fun.  Renting a steamer would have been easier, but less cost-efficient.  We’ll keep that in mind if we ever decide to buy a house that has wallpaper.

After removing the wallpaper, we scrubbed the walls with more glue remover to get rid of the last traces of glue.  That took up the majority of Saturday.
Day Two (Sunday), we came in after church to tackle the kitchen once again.  My father was a complete rock star and spackled the entire kitchen, going over the walls that I had scrubbed clean and patching holes and cracks with putty.  He did the whole room in three hours.
I made the rookie mistake of trying to sand the rough edges of the putty without wearing a mask, and made it about 15 minutes before my father noticed what I was doing and told me to stop.  Unfortunately, that was enough time to get the grit into my lungs, which I was definitely feeling last night.  I feel better today though.
After breaking for lunch at my parents’ house, we came back to tackle some of the painting.  I went into the bathroom, which used to be the color of a radioactive lemon, and painted it with the Behr Premium Paint that we got at Home Depot.  The color is “Pure Snow”, but it looks exactly like Marshmallow Fluff.

Meanwhile, David went into the master bedroom and painted the walls in there.  I don’t have a picture of the finished first coat, but I do have some pictures of his work-in-progress.  The color is Sherwin-Williams “Peacock Plume”.

I wish my good camera was working so I could show this color accurately.  It’s a really pretty greeny-blue.  Unfortunately, all I have are cell phone pictures.

Might as well say “David Was Here”.  This was on Saturday, he painted this wall and the others yesterday.  The first coat of the whole room is done, he needs to go over with a second coat in places today.
Suffice to say, there was little to no reading done this weekend, and no knitting whatsoever.  I don’t know how much I’ll be getting done in either department this week — I’m going to the new apartment every day for redecorating purposes.  And we move in (the bed, the clothes, the pots and pans, the cats, the guinea pig, and the TV) on Friday.  Cable will be set up on Saturday.  And the big stuff gets moved next weekend!
I can’t wait until we’re in and it’s all done.

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Loving The Killer Angels as purely as I do, it is probably odd that I have never (until now) seriously ventured into the rest of the so-called “Civil War Trilogy”.  Truthfully, I had misgivings when I found out that Jeff Shaara had taken it upon himself to add a prequel and a sequel to his father’s work.  I’m not a fan of other authors building on original stories.  But my father gave me the Civil War Trilogy, and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for several years now, so I thought, why the hell not?
Gods and Generals, the first book in the Trilogy, differs from The Killer Angels in the scope of its timeline.  While Angels takes place over four days (June 30th – July 3rd, 1863), Gods begins with the unsettlement of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, before the Civil War even began.  Like his father before him, Jeff Shaara focuses on the military leaders and their points-of-view of events leading up to the war, and the battles, when they begin.  He chooses to focus on Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Winfield Scott Hancock, and the fledgling-soldier Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, with a few chapters about other minor officers.
The domestic scenes, the interpersonal reactions, are where Jeff Shaara’s writing shines.  I never found Michael Shaara’s descriptions of battle sequences confusing, but I muddled my way through the battles of Bull Run, Second Manasses, and Antietam in a way I never did the Battle of Gettysburg.  The main issue, unfortunately, lies in the fact that Jeff Shaara has too much material to work with.  A better choice might have been to focus on one or two battles — perhaps Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, which he writes more clearly — instead of trying to cram so many years into one novel.  True, four years does not seem like much, until you realize that 1859 to 1863 were four extremely turbulent years.  Jeff’s handicap is that he simply has too much to write about.
That being said, the humane side that Jeff gives to some of the soldiers —  noteably, Stonewall Jackson and Joshua Chamberlain — is well-written and appreciated by this reader.  I wasn’t a fan of his portrayal of Robert E. Lee, mainly because I felt it was too far from what Michael Shaara had depicted.  
It comes down to this one fact — one cannot compare the writing of the father to that of the son.  It is just too different, the scope of writing too large.  I will be reading Jeff Shaara’s sequel, The Last Full Measure, but really only to finish off the trilogy.
Rating: ** and 1/2

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In the summer of 1994, when I was ten years old, closing in on 11, I went to a now-defunct used-bookstore in Old Saybrook, CT, with my mom and little sister.  My sister ran for the kids’ books, my mom, to the romance novel section.  I shyly approached the cashier and asked her if she would help me find a certain book.  She didn’t think they had it.  But she thumbed the shelves, and there, at the very bottom, close to the floor, collecting dust, was a paperback copy of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  Probably selling for less than $5.

I had just seen the film “Gettysburg” in my fifth grade class the previous year, and something about that movie captured my attention.  Other kids in my class hated it; I loved it.  I wanted to get my hands on as much literature about the battle as I could.  And during the credits of the film, the words “Based on the Pulitzer-prizewinning novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara” flashed across the screen, and I knew I had to read the book.  The book that became my “gateway drug” to becoming a history freak.
I read it.  Then I read it again.  And again.  I wore out that copy.  My mother found me another in a used bookstore.  I wore out that copy.  Now, seventeen years after I picked up that old paperback book in a used-bookstore, I have worn my way through four copies of The Killer Angels.
Why am I telling you all this?  By way of explaining exactly why it is so difficult for me to write an unbiased review of it.  How do I critically evaluate the book that made me the history geek I am today?  I will give it my best shot, though.  Bear with me.
The Killer Angels is historical fiction — I use this term loosely — about the battle of Gettysburg, July 1 – 3, 1863, as seen from the points of view of the men who were there, the leaders of the battle.  Michael Shaara, the author, during his meticulous research, dug into the memoirs of such military greats as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and John Buford (to name a few), to determine exactly what they were thinking at the time.  What were the emotions as these men directed their troops into battle?  What was Lee’s motivation for Pickett’s Charge?  How did they, as individuals, view the opposing army, or the nigh-impossible tasks they faced?  Shaara took their words, their writings, and wove them into his novel, to give the reader an insider’s look at the battle.  Years after reading the book, when I was 14, my grandparents took my sister and I to Pennsylvania to tour the battlefield at Gettysburg.  Seeing the places I had imagined in my mind so many times was just astounding, and viewing the monuments to the many men who died there was a humbling and moving experience.
Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for writing The Killer Angels in 1975.  After his death in 1988, his son, Jeff Shaara, wrote a prequel (Gods and Generals) and a sequel (The Last Full Measure) to his father’s work.  I am currently embarking on Gods and Generals, which, thus far, I am disappointed in.  But to compare the son’s work to the father’s is unfair, I guess.  And I have to be honest: there is nothing that I can imagine taking the place of The Killer Angels in my mind.
If  you are going to read one historical novel about the Civil War, make it this one.
Rating: An admittedly biased *****

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Happy Spring!  I have never felt so happy to say those two words!  It really does feel like this past year was the cruelest, coldest winter ever.  And even though we in Connecticut are due for not one, but TWO snowstorms again this week (*sigh*), today’s date is the death-knell for winter 2010 – 2011.  It is ALMOST OVER.

And with the death of winter, to the B household, came an email.  Our landlord will meet with David on Friday, take our security deposit and first months’ rent…and the apartment is OURS.  We can then go in any day we like, and move in on April 1st.

So painting and redecorating will commence next weekend.  We’re moving in to our new apartment a week from this Friday!

It’s coming at just the right time, too, because I have had it with this place.  The small space, the cramped quarters, the bumping into each other constantly.  It’s not easy being married in two and a half rooms.  Soon we’ll have SIX rooms to spread out in, and move about, and decorate!  I can’t even imagine having that much space right now.  I am so excited about it.

Life seems very good right now.  I started Weight Watchers this past week, and so far have stuck to it very well (even on St. Pat’s, which was quite difficult!).  I’ve also gone to the gym three days this past week, and biked a total of 41.39 miles and 115 minutes (1 hour, 55 minutes) on the stationary bike this week.  That is now my base goal — this upcoming week I will try to bike for at least 20 hours and try for 50 miles.  It can only go up from here!  I also have to pick up a scale, so I can weigh in once a week.  I’m supposed to weigh in on Monday, but I don’t have a scale right now.  Other than my WiiFit one, and I hate getting on that thing.  Ugh.  It just goes “ooooh” like an elephant is getting on it.  Demoralizing!

And it may snow tomorrow, but as for today, I will spend the afternoon outside, and enjoy this fleeting glimpse of Spring.  It’s almost here.  You can smell it.

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