Sunday, December 27, 2009

Notes on Sandman

I don't feel up for a whole write-up on Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Sandman. I only read Vol. 1, and GN and RA are still a little shaky for me, but I wanted to record a few notes in case I come upon anything in the future that may be a readalike.

The first volume is definitely strongly influenced by horror. In fact, I feel like this series is often suggested as a good intro to GN that many adults will like, but I don't think I was prepared for how violent and scary it is. I hear the later volumes are less so.

Other descriptive adjectives: fantasy, a bit of humor, the justice league makes a very brief appearance, fantastic, absurd, unpredictable and at times unclear (though explanations follow).

Dr. Doom, the bad guy and source of most of the horror of the book, describes the book well when he's talking about dreams: "People think dreams aren't real because they aren't made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes..."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

RAview: Knit the Season

I just finished Kate Jacobs's Knit the Season on audiobook. I found it a little harder to identify appeal in this format, I think primarily because I'm not as accustomed to it as reading a physical book.

It would be classified in that dumbly named genre, Women's Fiction (which feels different from Chick Lit to me, But is it?). It's a character-driven book, but, as the third in the "Friday Night Knitting Club" series, there isn't as much character development as one would expect.

This volume focuses on Dakota, daughter of the knitting shop owner, Georgia, who recently died. Dakota has reconnected with her father and taken the club members, women of a wide range of ages, as family.

Most of the characters are likable and easy to identify with. Sections of the book alternately focus on different members of the big cast, but none of them are too multilayered or complex to understand and like quickly.

Although not plot-driven, the pacing is fast, as the language is pedestrian, the setting relatively unimportant, and details only pop in to describe certain things--a wedding outfit, knitting projects, holiday traditions, food, specific memories of Georgia.

I'm not yet sure how to tackle the organizational aspect of story line in an audiobook, since it's difficult to tell where section breaks are. The book is told in roughly chronological order, taking place from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, but it jumps into the past as characters remember previous times. Themes include family relationships, holiday traditions, aging (both growing up and growing old), dealing with change, cooking, and crafting.

The tone is nostalgic--that mix of sad and happy that come with it--festive, exciting, warm, comforting, and inspiring.

Since I had to look back at my appeal terms cheat sheet, I figured I'd throw in a link for you, too, and add it to my "What is RA?" sidebar. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thrillers 101

I haven't read any thrillers--it's one of the most popular fiction genres, but it never seemed like these were books for me. But, since becoming an adult, I've started enjoying Law & Order, mystery books, and some thrillers on film, at the same time that I started reading more pop fiction, so I figured it is past time to give them a go.

Also, in my efforts to understand appeal, I think it is smarter to focus on a genre rather than jumping around as I've been doing. I was going to try to make up a Thriller 101 list, but I also found the Thriller & Suspense Challenge 2010 for some communal motivation. It requires reading 12 thrillers in 2010. Here are the sources I've compiled to get book suggestions for where to start.
Seems like Lisa Gardner's The Neighbor and Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow are on almost all these lists.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

RAview: The Handmaid's Tale

I started Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale not knowing anything about it except that it was maybe sci-fi-esque and dark. I don't think that describes it well, but I won't spoil the experience of going at it clean by trying to summarize.

The pacing feels leisurely, but the book is a fast read with short chapters and simple language. Atwood does choose her language carefully, though, to create an impressionist sense of a woman so scared and troubled that she isn't able to sit down and think carefully on her situation. It's told primarily in present tense, with the past flowing in and out of the narrative without warning.

An example of the rich, impressionist language (language that also helps keep up the pace):
I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table. The table has been scrubbed off, cleared of flour; today's bread, freshly baked, is cooling on its rack. The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine.
Characterization is not the book's strongest factor. The narrator is nameless and she's lost touch with herself. Readers are sympathetic to her, but she's not the main draw. The situation she's thrust into is--the storyline elements of piecing together the mystery of what really happened, the what-if futuristic aspects, the nostalgic flashes to the narrator's past, the politics and hierarchy of this society.

The book is full of details of the narrator's everyday life, her clothes, her room, smells, the scenery. Again, these add to the rich, impressionistic experience of reading. Atwood focuses on things one can see and hear to evoke what the narrator must be feeling because she is so entrenched and not able to describe her feelings.

The overall experience of quiet, pervasive, everyday horror reminds me of Toni Morrison, Tim O'Brien, and Cormac McCarthy. Any other readalikes you can think of?

****Side note! Just discovered Reader2 in looking for a book cover. Does anyone know anything about this site?? At first glance it seems cool, and I picked up another Handmaid's Tale readalike recommendation: "reminded me of Ayn Rand's "Anthem" and Lois Lowry's "The Giver" with its overall plot." and a link to more recommendations, seemingly based on a user generated tag cloud.

Friday, November 27, 2009

RAview: World War Z

To kick off Thankfully Reading Weekend with a bang, I finished Max Brooks' World War Z. I only had about 50 pages left, so I thought this would be a confidence-boosting way to start my first challenge.

I'm not that into zombies and even less into blood and gore, but a persistent friend convinced me to read World War Z. She was right! Although the book is a fictional oral history recorded 12 years after the zombie war, it is primarily about the world politics, military tactics, and practical details of the effects of mass panic, exodus, and death on the world's environment, economics, psyche, and day-to-day life.

The storyline is also a draw--the oral history format will appeal to some and turn others (even huge zombie fans) off. The book can even be compared to Daniel Defoe's fictional A Journal of the Plague Year, although readers should be warned that, having been published in 1722, the language is much different and more difficult than Max Brooks'. Defoe uses the same detached tone of looking back from the future at a horrific time and making a fictional narrative feel real with specific "facts" and practical details.

Certain science fiction readers may appreciate World War Z's military tactic details, as will Tom Clancy fans, although the structure of Z does not make for a tremendously fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat read. The Booklist review on Amazon compares it to Studs Terkel's nonfiction The Good War.

Of course, it's also a book for zombie fans (and I won't begin to recommend those since I don't read them. There are a ton of lists online--e.g., see the Monster Librarian), but, as I like to say, my focus is not the plot.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thankfully Reading Weekend

I'm trying out my first reading challenge. Thankfully Reading Weekend has no rules and no prizes--just a plan to devote some time to reading the Friday through Sunday after Thanksgiving and connecting with other reading bloggers--so it seemed a great first try!

On my overly ambitious TBR pile are World War Z (almost finished), The Handmaid's Tale (my first Atwood), Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (my first steampunk), and Anita Diamant's Day After Night.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Publisher marketing vs. appeal

Last week at The Book Smugglers, Ana blogged about "genre exhaustion." Wicked dukes and duchesses, covers featuring pastels, frilly bodices, and cursive fonts--Romance can be overbranded. In theory, this is supposed to help readers find books they like ("Oh, this looks like that one I just read...must be good, too!"), but I find it confusing and intimidating. First, it nullifies what little ability I have to remember the books I've read without this blog and Goodreads (The two images above are two of the less-than-10 romances I've read), and second, at first glance they all look borrrrring and the same--the sheer number intimidates me, and I have no idea what to pick.

Ana also takes issue with marketing:
The idea is “if you liked this, then you’ll love THIS too because it’s the same.” I see a lot of this, especially in the marketing materials we receive with ARCs and review copies (”This book is X meets X! Fans of X will be pleased!”). It is useful information to have for reviewers but I can’t help but to roll my eyes sometimes.
I've recently heard a similar complaint (though can't remember where) on this "It's Harry Potter with zombies and a dash of Philip Roth" marketing, but this kind of talk is akin to Readers' Advisory language, i.e., it should be a helpful tool for readers. The trick is to separate marketing speak from reviews, a bookstore's shelftalkers, and good book advice from a friend or librarian. How much can we trust the publisher's copy--sure, they're trying to capitalize on recent best sellers, but they're also familiar with the books and trying to put them in the hands of readers who will love them.

Romance is an extreme example, but generally I think this trend is based in good ideas. Publishers just need to start thinking beyond the plot when they're making connections between books.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Horror & romance in the same RA class?

I follow RA for All, a blog by a Readers' Advisory librarian and RA teacher at Dominican University, and was recently struck by a post on Genres of the Emotions.

Becky writes that she teaches Horror, Romance, Women's Lives, and Gentle Reads all in the same class because these genres are all about mood and people read them primarily because of the way the books make them feel (even though that feeling is very different among the genres). It's about the reasons people are attracted to these books...what they get out of the books and what motivates them to continue in a genre.

Her students write annotations at RA 763's Blog. Some of the books they read for this segment of the class include Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job, The Secret Life of Bees, and Meg Cabot's Size 12 Is Not Fat.

Now I must get over my fear of reading horror to see for myself--maybe I could try A Dirty Job. Also, I wonder if Thrillers could fall into this camp, too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

RAview: Jill Nelson's Let's Get It On

I would call Jill Nelson's Let's Get It On women's fiction or chick lit. It's a sequel to Sexual Healing, in which three single Black women friends open a spa that also sells safe, women-focused sex from hot male sex workers.

Both books are quick reads, employing lots of dialog and first-person narrative chapters from various characters. Sexual Healing focuses on Lydia and Acey, and Let's Get It On pays more attention to Wanda and Odell (a partner hired to manage the sex workers). I thought the characters were better established in the first book, and I found Lydia and Acey more likable and relatable than the primary narrators in the second installment.

Story line themes in Let's Get It On include politics and parody (e.g., the President is trying to pass "No Child, No Behind," which would outlaw sex except for procreation to build an antiterrorist Christian army), the Black social elite, Martha's Vineyard high-class island lifestyle--golf, clam bakes, etc.--and the historical lineage of white supremacist groups.

Details of clothing and dialect are used to portray characters. There are also detailed sex scenes, and details of running a small business. The tone is generally light and humorous, righteous, proud. Language is not particularly distinctive, but it does help with characterization, as the narratives from Odell, Wanda, and Lydia are written in their manners of speaking and thinking (e.g., from one of Lydia's sections, while a stranger's loose dog is humping her leg: "Frankly, the spectacle of a Yorkie creaming on my leg, not to mention my cashmere sweats, takes me past disgust, fear, and anger to homicidal rage and self-preservation...I'll beat the little pooch's paws with my pocketbook until it lets go and topples into the ocean, hopefully to die an unnatural death being ground into shark chow by the rotors of the ferry.").

Setting is relatively important. Martha's Vineyard as an elite vacation town helps define the character cast. The new spa franchise they open in Let's Get It On is on a boat just off the coast, and nautical themes play a role. Also, good food, drink, and company (which is easily associated with a place like the Vineyard) helps forward the book's themes of relaxation, pampering, and sexual satisfaction.

As far as readsalike go, nothing in my personal library jumped out at me, and I'm having little luck searching around online. Brenda Jackson's Solid Soul is on my TBR list, so I'll get back to you on that one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Neal Wyatt on the ideal tool

Serendipitously, after my post on Drinkers, watchers & listeners' advisory, Library Journal ran Redefining RA: The Ideal Tool by Neal Wyatt.

She considers Netflix, Pandora, and Project Steve (a museumgoers' art classifying tool that I hadn't heard of previously) in an exploration of how to make the best Readers' Advisory database. Basically, ideas I was pondering in a previous post with a lot more meat and expert opinion.

She concludes:
RA has the human experts; what we need now is a database that manages to meld rich RA-infused data with an algorithm that lets us use it as we will.

If the day comes when a reader can open an RA database, input the title of a beloved book, and get back a list of suggestions that was collaboratively developed based on appeal, a range of expert input, and the books other readers suggest who also loved that title, then we will be well on our way to a database that supports our work.
Now we just have to get more people to be computer scientists/readers' advisors.

I have to apologize in advance for a hiatus here. I've been reading a lot of nonfiction for work and have let my pleasure reading slip. I shall return with verve next month, I hope!

Monday, October 12, 2009

RAview: Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt

Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt is a historical romance, the first of a trilogy in which each title focuses on a different woman protagonist/couple.

Lucy was essentially raised by her brother (e.g., not as a lady) and hung around with his hunting buddies when they'd vacation yearly at his home. This makes her a fantastic protagonist, as she fancies herself not as naive as ladies, but still, at 19, is far from grownup. The book is narrated primarily from her perspective, although the male lead, Jeremy, gets maybe 30% of the book devoted to his thoughts and feelings. Of course, his thoughts and feelings are all about Lucy. That is to say, this is definitely a character-driven novel, as I suspect most romances are (what, with such a similar plot and expected happily-ever-after ending).

The language does not significantly add to the book's appeal, but it illustrates pace and mood well. The pace is quick but slows down a bit as the book doesn't end when many romances do--at the wedding. Details highlight period clothing, natural scenery (hunting), the class relations among a lord and his tenants, and the role of a proper lady.

The tone is exciting, anticipatory, sexy, witty, defiant. Tone has to do with how the book makes readers feel, so I would also say this book could be somewhat frustrating. We get the perspectives from the man and woman, and there's a lot of misinterpretation of emotions and misreading of actions, so near the end, the tension is somewhat grating. Some readers will enjoy a drawn-out dance, though.

I haven't read enough romances for readalikes. Eloisa James blurbed the book--"The sweetest, sexiest romance you'll read all year"--and she's one of the few other romance authors I've read, but her books seem more traditional, more formulaic (but not in a bad way!). The protagonists aren't as individual or relatable to modern readers (at least in Desperate Duchesses and An Affair Before Christmas), perhaps because her historical detail is more carefully cultivated and emphasized.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

RAview: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a mystery, with a main character sleuth, Flavia de Luce, who is a 10-year-old girl who's obsessed with chemistry in mid-20th-century England and lives in a decaying mansion--her mother died when she was a baby, her father is so distant he might as well not even be there, and her two sisters' relations to her revolve around pranks and torment.

The setting is primarily a mood evoking backdrop of dusty, mysterious chemistry mechanisms, a decaying manor, a marshy wetness that is somewhat dickensian. This is a character-centered book; Flavia narrates, and we experience the disjointedness of a 10-year-old's thought processes complete with her morbid curiosity at finding a dead man in the family's cucumber patch, her fearlessness, and the simple, absorbing, distracting joy at the freedom of riding a bicycle.

Details of stamp collecting; chemicals, elements, and poisons; and magic pepper this world of academia and all the secret guilt and unshared thoughts and emotions that go along with a stereotypically upper-class British stoicism. But Flavia, being a kid, smashes through all that with endearing, precocious wiles to solve the crime.

This may appeal to nonmystery readers, as the focus is more on Flavia than on the clues themselves. It doesn't feel as though the reader should or could have figured out the whodunnit before the characters.

Looking through what I've read recently, I'd say Flavia shares some appeal with Bod, the young main character from Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book. That's YA, though, and I'm assuming young protagonists are much more common there. Any plucky young narrators in adult fiction you can think of?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Drinkers, watchers & listeners' advisory

Although I've been quiet recently, I assure you I have been reading. I'm at work on Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt and Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (two genres--romance and mystery--I haven't tried to tackle here yet).

While I was home sick with a cold this week, I noticed on the back of my Twinings ceylon orange pekoe tea box "If you enjoy Twinings Ceylon Orange Pekoe Tea, we recommend that you try English Afternoon Tea or Prince of Wales Tea." What a brilliant marketing idea! Keep people coming back by suggesting what to consume next from a position of authority (derived from individuals like librarians, brands like Twinings, computer systems, or a combination).

This got me thinking of other Readers' Advisory-like services outside the world of books. Pandora and iTunes Genius do it for music. And Netflix does it for movies, although not very well, I think. (Though they just announced the winner of $1 million prize competition to improve its recommendation matrix and began a second competition for an even better system.)

Yet these are all primarily computer based. I suppose a sommelier is a kind of human corollary. Librarians, too, can use databases like Fiction Connection or NoveList for RA support. But it is refreshing to see everyday counterparts to RA, a concept that can be so intimidating because it seems so ephemeral and personal yet is also complex and codified.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Readers' advisory & series

I just returned from a vacation to Seattle and realized I brought two sequels with me to read. I think I was, however consciously, looking for things I knew I would like and that would be an easy read.

I finished Jordan Summers' Scarlet (book 2 of her Dead World series, which began with Red), and I started Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire (book 2 in her Hunger Games trilogy) on the trip. I have to say, I think I would write up Red and Scarlet differently in an RAview or annotation/shelf-talker. Scarlet seemed to use a more paranormal romance construction (a new couple, a periphery and a nonexistent character from the last book, get the longest, final sex scene), and the fear and tension weren't as palpable to me as in the first book. Catching Fire does not have the shock and tension present from the very beginning simply because of the premise of Hunger Games. (More later.)

Do RA librarians generally recommend a series or simply a title or two from it? I know I read somewhere (likely in Joyce Saricks' Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library) that readers' advisors should recommend the best title in the series rather than the first. This seems problematic to me. First, in my personal efforts trying to pick what to read next, it seems near impossible to figure out which book is the best (although librarians do have more knowledge and resources than me). Also, some series can be entered at various points (especially mysteries, I'd think) and others will loose a lot without background. But publishers seem somewhat reluctant to sell things as series titles, probably because they want to attract new readers, which can make finding the first in a series while browsing in a bookstore or library really hard. And, let's face it, not everyone will take the time to ask their bookseller/librarian.

All in all, I'm somewhat baffled. I need to pick up an RA book on a specific fiction genre, which may help. In closing, here is a post on a fun book blog from Entertainment Weekly, Shelf Life, in which the blogger wants to skip ahead in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series (on which True Blood is based). The adamant, exclamatory comments are the best.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

RAview: Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is a character-driven novel that explores six years of Nancy's new adult life as a lesbian in 1880s England.

Although Nancy narrates in past tense, she presents her experiences like she felt them--we only understand her feelings by descriptions of how she felt her throat tighten or her heart beat out of her chest. It's a leisurely paced novel that follows her experiences closely, skipping weeks or months only when she falls into a routine that would pass in one's memory similarly quickly. As Nancy takes in surroundings as she moves to drastically different situations after leaving home for London, readers get all the details of her environment and personal (often sexual) understanding of herself. Nancy is sympathetic but flawed and inadvertently cruel to other people in her life at times. The other characters are all presented through her experiential lens, so they are generally only of temporary interest and not always entirely fleshed out for the reader.

Settings are evoked with rich, descriptive detail--the oyster restaurant/shabby home in which Nancy grew up on the Kentish coastline, London theater life, the poor and filthy Dead Meat Market neighborhood with blood literally running in the streets, wealthy "Sapphist" lady society, burgeoning Socialism and outreach to exploited workers. The language is fairly nondescript, save the evocative use of period vocabulary ("tom"-a derogatory term for a lesbian, "trousers," "gay girls"-prostitutes, "spit black"-eye makeup).

The tone is difficult for me to identify because it changes so much throughout Nancy's story. Overall, I suppose it's nostalgic, a little sad, exciting, feelings of discovery and understanding. Storyline elements include sex (and it's not shy, so this isn't for anyone who is squeamish about gay lovin'), theater, outward appearances vs. reality, coming of age, self-discovery, youthful journey, harsh reality, class differences, discrimination.

Although I read these two books as a teen and don't have a great memory, when trying to come up with readalikes I'd look at Emma Donoghue (I read Slammerkin, although What Should I Read Next? recommends Life Mask) and Lisa Carey (I read The Mermaids Singing and distinctly remember it as one of those youthful "whoa sex!" moments). Maybe Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban, if a little more literary flair or lyrical style doesn't bother you. Other ideas? And tell me if I'm off base because I'm really reaching here!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

RA and graphic novels

As promised, I've given some more thought to Readers' Advisory and Graphic Novels, although I'm still learning about both of those things. I read Skim (Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki) a couple of weeks ago and just finished Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel (Aaron McGrudger, Reginald Hudlin, Kyle Baker).

Lo, in searching just now for a link for Birth of a Nation, I came across this list of Black comics on Reginald Hudlin's site. As good a place as any to start. But the humor and politics in Birth of a Nation are as important as the fact that it features Black characters. The premise: East St. Louis secedes from the U.S. after thousands of Black votes are not counted in the 2000 election. From my own reading and limited comics knowledge, I'd say Ex Machina, which deals with serious political issues with a light touch and some humor, may be a good readalike. Of course, anyone who likes McGruder's Boondocks (TV show or comics) will appreciate Birth of a Nation.

Since my last mention of GN and RA, this awesome article my friend wrote on recommending GNs to adult readers was published. Basically it gives Readers' Advisors license to recommend graphic novels based on readers' prose and/or movie preferences, which should also work vice versa. But I'm at a loss for Black political comedy movies and having no luck with searches.

Skim is a quiet story illustrated in black and white of a high school girl who falls in love with her female art teacher. It's a sad, quirky exploration of the drama of high school friendships and feelings of isolation. The post at Things Mean a Lot that inspired my original venture into GN-RA territory looks for a readalike for Slow Storm, calling it "full of quiet intimacy and longing and loss; books about meaningful but not exactly romantic relationships," and Skim is that. Movies that come to mind are The Squid and the Whale, My Summer of Love, Once, and Ghost World.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

RAview: Kushiel's Dart

I was reading Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart for a long time, hence I've written about it twice before. It was my example for the appeal element language, and language, along with details, is one of the biggest aspects of appeal for this book. Carey evokes a different world with her careful, elegant, and distinctive sentence structure and vocab. The names of characters and places are so beautifully crafted I find myself at random times thinking the words without context for the mere sound of them in my head.

Much of the detail in the book is political-Monarchical intrigue and the history and characteristics of different lands and racelike groups in the book. I found this bogged down the beginning of the book--which is characterized by a distinct but short coming-of-age experience--but some readers may relish it, and the hard work early on pays off in consistent action and surprising turns later.

The character of Joscelin, an oath-sworn protecter of the main character, is established through detail, and his quiet, seemingly simple but surprisingly complex and human portrayal intrigued me and made me want to read books featuring mysterious but disciplined medieval types (I looked into Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies: A Medieval Noir, but haven't read it yet). He has very specific repetitive actions and detailed, distinctive fighting and stance style and accoutrements. I didn't identify with the main character, Phedre, but her life story is epic--this definitely felt more to me like a plot-centered novel, though Phedre is a recurring series character.

Some additional notes on appeal:
Story line (e.g., genre, themes): fantasy, epic, saga, war, sex
Tone: foreboding, inquisitive, proud/loyal, exotic, sexy, dangerous

I won't even attempt readalikes because this is the first full-on fantasy novel I've read.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

RAview: The Hunger Games

I'll admit it: I'm a wuss. The very premise of Suzanne Collins's runaway YA novel The Hunger Games--a 16-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, takes the place of her younger sister (chosen via a lottery that favors the rich) in the Hunger Games, an annual televised competition in which 24 unlucky teenagers fight to the death--scared me, and the only reason I kept with it was because, being a YA novel, I figured it couldn't get too terrifying or gory. And boy was it worth it.

The Hunger Games is suspenseful, with a realistic, no-nonsense, kick-ass girl main character, and a touch of romance (nicely tempered by Katniss's prudence and cynicism). The story is told in first-person present tense, making the suspense palpable. This aspect of the story line is so well executed that I didn't even notice it was in present tense until a friend I let thumb through the book pointed it out to me.

It's not full of nonstop action (if it were, it would be too much for me to handle), but it's definitely a fast-paced page turner. The characters are relatively simple tropes, aside from the well-developed main character. This is the beginning of a series, so the male protagonist, Peeta, will probably be more fleshed out in future books, and this being told from Katniss's point of view, she still has a lot to discover about him.

Language is pedestrian and smooth and doesn't interrupt the story. Setting is well established but not particularly distinctive. It's a near future world (without a lot of sci fi-esque detail), and the forested arena drives the story. When it's rainy, Katniss takes refuge in a cave for a couple of days, and she and the reader get a break from the constant worry of her being killed at any second. Forest bird calls signal that an ally is safe or if trouble has befallen. The so-called Gamemakers can control weather and create "natural" disasters to drive the players together to battle.

I'm mostly at a loss for readalikes. Searches turn up other YA novels, but, from an adult's perspective, I didn't come up with much. Stephen King reviewed the book for Entertainment Weekly and pointed out Battle Royale and his own The Running Man and The Long Walk as similar in premise (which naturally features suspense). But those will probably be too intense for me. In my reading, the two closest things I've come across (which feature a smattering of suspense, a likable, relatable, strong main character, and a quick, easy read) are Jordan Summers's Red and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Maybe even (dare I say it?) Twilight--but only for those who can stand mushy romance stuff, and many argue Bella isn't likable or strong. Looks like I fell into the YA trap, too.

Any suspense-lite for adults you can recommend? Is romantic suspense particularly scary?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

RA appeal elements

Okay, so time to recap because I'm tired of the learning part and want to get on with the doing part. Appeal elements are a way to talk about Readers' Advisory, a way to describe a book. The links below go back to my original discussion of each element. I haven't talked about Setting yet, as it is only important in RA if it is a major part of the book (like how people say things like "In book X, 1960s New Orleans is so vivid it's like a character"). I'll be sure to point it out if I read a book with a strong setting.

So, on to the doing part of RA, which, since I can't accost library patrons to do a book talk, will consist of RAviews, my own term for an annotation about the appeal of a book. In studying Readers' Advisory, one should not only keep a list a books one has read and is reading but also record one's impressions of the books to aid memory, get one used to thinking about books in RA terms, and for future use. Here (and on Goodreads) is where I plan to keep my reading log. RA annotations and interviews are supposed to be judgement free, but reviews express opinions on the quality of the book. The mashup word I invented is basically an easy way out to give me leeway to combine Readers' Advisory with my critical opinions, although I don't intend to be as critical as I would in a review. We'll see what happens with them. Teaser: the next RAview I'm going to post will be on The Hunger Games, which I just finished and loved!

Monday, August 10, 2009


The appeal element Language has to do with the writing style, how important the author's use of language is to the story. A fast-paced thriller, for instance, might have very workmanlike writing that is simply meant to get the story across without distracting from the plot.

In Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey uses language to evoke the class and sophistication of the main character, Phedre, and her milieu. In describing Waldemar Selig, an enemy leader of barbarians, she writes:
He was handsome enough, for a Skaldi, was Waldemar Selig. Tall and hale, in his middle thirties, with eyes that thought in a strong-featured face. His hair was a tawny brown, bound with a gold fillet, his beard combed to two points, both twined with gold wire. He had a sensual mouth, for a warrior. For a Skaldi. But his eyes, they kept their own counsel.
The elegant, lush language will appeal to readers who enjoy more literary fiction or evocative, immersive world-building.

One of the challenges of RA and considerations of language is the importance of avoiding phrases like "well written" "good writer" "good book." These can mean different things to different people, and, although one might think a reader who wants a well-written book is looking for an elegant use of language, the reader could just be interested in a fast-paced book that sucks him or her into the action or a well-developed, identifiable character.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Story line

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a good book to use to talk about story line. Story line is an appeal element (along with pacing, characterization, detail, and tone, which we've already talked about, and language and setting, which are still to come). It encompasses genre, themes, and organization and construction.

The book is layed out as alternating journal entries of the two main characters. Madame Michel is a fiftysomething concierge for a wealthy apartment building who spends time trying to hide her intelligence and interest in philosophy, classical music, literature, and the like. Paloma is a 12-year-old girl so smart that she's already seen through to the absurdity of life and is ready to end hers.

Paloma's sections are made up of "Profound Thoughts" and entries in her "Journal of the Movement of the World," the former of which are much more frequent. Her entries in the latter represent "masterpieces of matter. Something incarnate, tangible," and she writes that if she sees enough or the right beautiful movements, she may not, after all, commit suicide on her 13th birthday. This story line aspect affects pacing and tone. As her "Profound Thoughts" pile up to "No. 15," she only gets to "No. 7" in her other journal, the one that could give her reason to live. I found myself looking ahead, hoping for more entries in the journal of the movement of the world, hoping for Paloma's change of heart.

Also pertaining to story line, the two characters each have their own font, which I found refreshing and helped to keep clear who was narrating each chapter. Yet it's an aspect I can imagine might annoy some readers. Themes include philosophy, art, class divisions; this is a heavily character-centered exploration of life's purpose and the role of culture, and if readers aren't interested in long literary ruminations, this is one to skip. However, it is made accessible, and, as the New York Times review notes, is in its own subgenre of an "accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer." The reviewer notes that the author's "brief carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs." To me, this is a good thing. I did get tired of the literariness at times, but the explanations at least kept me from giving up entirely.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tone vs. emotional reading index

At Things Mean a lot, Nymeth blogged yesterday about wanting to read "more books full of quiet intimacy and longing and loss" after reading the graphic novel Slow Storm. She suggested getting a few bloggers together to create an emotional reading index. This is the RA element tone (the way a book makes you feel), and there's a vocab to describe it (although much of this comes naturally and may not even require a library science concept or an index). A few words from Joyce Saricks in Readers' Advisory in the Public Library: bittersweet, bleak, dark, edgy, evocative, foreboding, gritty, heartwarming, humorous, lush, melodramatic, nostalgic, philosophical, political, psychological, romantic, rural, stark, timeless, upbeat, urban. Reviewers, bloggers, agents, and publishers should be dropping words like this into any review, recommendation, or blurb as appropriate.

I wanted to suggest Nymeth visit her local library for suggestions, but that's not a fool-proof path to a good readalike. I cringed to witness an RA fail at my local branch of the NYPL last week. A woman sitting at the desk labeled "librarian" helped a patron put a book they didn't have on hold. Then, the magic words, "Can you suggest any other good books?" I got so excited to witness my first RA interview! The response? "Not off the top of my head. But you can browse over there in the new books section." This makes the patron and anyone who watched this happen think that's not part of a librarian's job, not an appropriate question, which impedes RA everywhere in a big way. Until there's a librarian (or even a paraprofessional) working at all times that can make suggestions or just engage in a book talk, patrons will never feel comfortable initiating one.

On a final note, Nymeth's blog also sparked my interest because I've been thinking about RA and graphic novels recently. Surely it's possible to apply the same appeal elements in a similar way, but it seems like a huge can of worms. In a quick google, I found many library and library-related sites that suggest GN but don't address the appeal elements. The Graphic Novels in Libraries listserv seems promising, although I can't dip into the archives. Will investigate more later, especially after I start reading Skim (Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Separated at birth? The Giver & Kushiel's Dart

This may be the biggest stretch I've made, but readers' advisory is all about making connections between books. I happen to be reading Lois Lowry's The Giver and Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart at the same time, and, surprisingly, the beginnings of both books struck me as similar.

(Note: I am only about 1/8th of the way into Kushiel, a 700-page book.) (Side note: all my discussions of YA books are geared toward adult readers. I will not look at books from a youth's perspective, nor will I venture to make recommendations or identify readalikes for teens.)

I went into The Giver knowing nothing about it, save that it was a classic, a good book for boys (an impression I garnered at age 9 when it was published and read by my brother), and that iconic, mysterious cover image with the bearded old man. All the background I had on Kushiel's Dart was that it was series fantasy with a female protagonist, and there were BDSM themes (the final notion came as a caveat from a friend recommending it--I was undeterred).

Both books create worlds and detail with a child's nonchalance (naiveté?) the rules, norms, and "politics" of their settings. The main characters of both books, in the beginnings, narrate their coming-of-age (Kushiel in first person, Giver, third person limited) as they wonder about, anticipate, and come to understand through describing to the reader the regulated changes happening in their lives as preteens.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend either book to a fan of the other, but their trajectories are so far quite similar. Kushiel is way more detailed and complex, the language more sophisticated. But, for being adult fantasy vs. YA fiction (surprisingly not characterized as sci fi), the two may be sisters, just of very different maturities.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Joyce Saricks's Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library has got me thinking that a book is either plot-oriented or character-oriented. I can't quite wrap my head around this either-or thing, so let's go with more of a Kinsey-like scale of 1-6, less or more character-oriented.

I'm about halfway through Sophie Littlefield's debut mystery, A Bad Day for Sorry (out Aug. 4). I would give this a 5 for being relatively character-centered but still with a plot that keeps readers going. After a paragraph about protagonist Stella Hardesty "whuppin' ass," the second part of the book's prologue goes like this: "Especially on a day when it hit a hundred degrees before noon. And you were having hot flashes. And today's quote on your Calendar for Women Who Do Too Much read Find serenity in unexpected places."

Stella Hardesty killed her abusive husband and went on to run a sideline working for hire as a very convincing warning to other abusive men. Littlefield writes in third-person, but Stella's vocabulary and voice are clear in the writing style. The secondary characters are well-painted and layered, too, from Stella's busty blond client who ain't the brightest crayon, to the attractive, older, and of-debatable-trustworthiness cop Stella calls in at times, to the punk kid next door who seems to be Stella's only friend.

I'm not sure if Stella is meant to be identified with. The book's cover might attract a younger audience than Stella's age (50). It's what prompted me, at 25, to pick it up. Plus she doesn't have an enviable life or a common one. We're definitely drawn into her life, though, and all the action is experienced through her lens.

A Bad Day for Sorry is a good pick for readers who like character-centered crime novels that aren't cozy (e.g., full of knitting patterns, food recipes, quaint scenes of English towns) but aren't too violent or sexy, either. If I know mysteries, Stella may just turn into a series character, too.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I lied: the next RA element we're talking about is details. I don't have a good example for characterization yet, and I still don't quite understand it completely.

Some readers read for details, and the type of details are important to these readers. Although Lisa See's Peony in Love is good historical fiction, it may not appeal to certain readers interested in 17th-century China settings and details, especially of upper-class home life and customs (foot-binding, holiday festivities, clothing, dowries, etc). The book evokes the time period and details those things mentioned above beautifully in the first 100 pages.

However, once the narrator dies, the details shift to focus on Chinese mythology and the rules of the afterlife and rituals of the living. There is a brief interlude of war details as Peony's grandmother describes the Cataclysm, when the Ming dynasty fell. So, although this is evokative and detailed historical fiction, a reader who reads for historical details and a setting related to domestic 17th-century China may lose interest in Peony's afterlife. It's better suited for readers who appreciate the particulars of ancient Chinese customs, superstitions, and mythology.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

RAview: The appeal of Bonk

I was looking for a readalike for Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex for me to read, and, surprisingly (and some might say unfortunately), found my most promising leads in the "customers also bought..." section.

I think the appeal of Bonk is, in order of importance, sex, humor, science. I stumbled upon a Library Journal article on nonfiction readers' advisory, which sort of confused me more, but gave me allowance to put weight into subject (as opposed to the RA fiction concept that the plot isn't that important). In brief, in addition to the regular appeal elements, nonfiction is also affected by narrative, subject, and learning/experiencing.

Bonk's narrative is nonlinear, but definitely strong. Roach becomes a character, a friendly tour guide, who shares the details of the clothes, work environs, and personalities of the researchers she visits, and even employs dialog. All these help strengthen the narrative. Her self-aware, gently mocking humor speaks to the 13-year-old in us all who giggles when some says "do it". The subject holds the strongest appeal; readers want to learn about sex, and there aren't that many places to do it. The science details and strong narrative will attract those who don't want a straight-up how-to guide to orgasms.

One's first readalike thought may be Roach's previous books, science titles for general readers on dead bodies (Stiff) and ghosts (Spook). I think that would be wrong. Readers will pick up those for the science, but someone attracted to Bonk on the shelf is grabbing it for the good stuff--sex.

Here's my mini-list of nonfiction Bonk readalikes
Pornology by Ayn Carillo-Gailey
America Unzipped by Brian Alexander
How Sex Works by Sharon Moalem
Sex in History by Reay Tannahill

Sex in History is the only one of these I'm seeking out to read--I've already read Pornology, which has less science than Bonk but plenty of humor and sex; the other two on the list received so-so reviews. On a limb, I'll also add in fiction, Chemistry for Beginners by Anthony Strong, which publishes in Sept. There's not much info online yet, but a sneak peek at the 7/15 Library Journal review reveals it to feature science, sex, and humor (although romance is a big part of its appeal, so readers be warned).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Readers' advisory & spoilers

I was in Ithaca for the holiday weekend, visiting the bf's alma matter with him and his friends. For that reason, I forwent Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library for some more bus-friendly reading, Lisa See's Peony in Love. Hence, this post isn't about RA element No. 2, characterization. That's still tk, after I learn it.

So, the blurbs and the description on the back of the book give away the plot point (revealed only after nearly 100 pages) that the narrator is narrating from the grave. She's dead. And, I failed to read the back of the book, having grabbed it at a BEA event last year and deciding then it was worth reading. When I packed last week, I simply thought "Historical fiction. Not too long. Perfect to read on a bus."

The point is, when I found out the narrator died, I was tremendously sad, tearing up and forgetting about the stop-and-go traffic, 7 hours of sitting, and the bus bathroom with no sink or flushing capabilities. The book was way more profound and affecting without knowing for the first 100 pages what was to come.

And I'm thinking, wouldn't an RA talk that revealed the sad mood of this book take something away from it (granted, if this spoiler hadn't already been revealed on the book jacket)? It made me think: Is this ever a concern in readers' advisory? Tones change throughout books, and will telling a reader this is sad color her reading of the beginning of the book (which is romantic, hopeful, and has a character easy to relate to, sympathetic, and likable)?

I'll let you know if I discover an answer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Saricks writes, of all the readers' advisory appeal elements, pacing is the first readers are aware of. Neal Wyatt also noted that it's one of the three elements that are pronounced in every book. So, first I'm going to learn pacing.

The seven elements of appeal (pacing, characterization, story line, language, setting, detail, and tone) don't exist in a vacuum, although I'm going to try to get familiar with them one at a time. Detail, story line, and language especially affect pacing, I would think. RA is a neutral practice of suggesting a book, so we want to avoid words with negative connotations like "slow-paced."

I just started listening to The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin on audio. It's fiction, translated from Russian. Its plot has the guise of urban fantasy (supernatural foxes and werewolves), but not the pace. A. Huli, the main character, slowly reveals herself to be a fox, alive for thousands of years, with the ability to create illusory realities for people (characterization). She gives in-depth explanations (details) about her kind, and there is little dialog in the book (story line). Chapter divisions are also totally absent in the audio version (story line). All these things contribute to its leisurely pace.

For a medium-paced example, I think Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a good example from my recent reading. For a nonfiction science book, it's a fast read, but it is still slowed as Roach meanders through relaying her research experiences. There is no time line, and the book is footnoted (story line), which slow the pace. However, the footnotes are just as hilarious (language) as the rest of the book, bringing us up to a medium pace, along with Roach's encouraging tone; she even writes "stay with me here," at times when the science gets heavier. She also narrates her experiences learning the science, making her the author and a character (characterization), which makes the science stuff easier to relate to and faster to intake.

Red by Jordan Summers is my fast-paced example (and more urban fantasy/paranormal romance than Sacred Book of the Werewolf). It's got werewolves, too, and when the opening scene (prefaced by no background info) is a werewolf lustily devouring a human, you likely have a fast-paced book on your hands. There are multiple mysteries in the book that clearly point toward a resolution (story line) and encourage page-turning. It's told from alternating perspectives of Red and the hero, Morgan, (story line) in serviceable language, only occasionally bogged down by details like the futuristic names of everyday items (e.g., "synth paper," "compunit").

Lay RA: What, how, why

I'm an assistant book review editor at a magazine for librarians, and I've decided to teach myself readers' advisory (RA). I'm not a librarian, and I've never taken a library science class. For those of you who don't know what readers' advisory is (e.g., nearly everyone who isn't a librarian), learn along with me! Any librarian readers out there: any advice, wrist-slapping, or taunting is totally welcome.

What? RA isn't as complicated as it sounds. It's basically a codified way to talk about books. It's what a librarian turns to when a patron asks, "OMG! I loved Twilight/The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society/Outliers/[insert any book title here]! What should I read next?" An idea behind RA is that people don't love books for the plot. People don't love Twilight because there are vampires in it, and those readers won't necessarily like Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. I learned the basics of RA like this. Appeal is the bedrock of RA. There are seven elements of appeal: pacing, characterization, story line, language, setting, detail, and tone. More on all this later.

Why? Why, without the time or money to spend on the adequate training for an MLS, would I use my spare time to read a textbook on the simple concept of talking about books, made even more complicated and given a name most have never heard of? I want to be a book editor, and a big part of that job is pitching a book based on previous well-received titles. Readers advisory vocab may be a great way to codify and improve this process. Readers don't love books for the plots. Publishers need to focus more on appeal.

At a panel at BEA this year, the huge and important distinction between reviews and recommendations was emphasized. Readers' advisors aren't recommending a book they like; they're recommending a book you'll like--a much harder (and more useful) recommendation.

How? I first got interested in RA when Neal Wyatt, a rockstar librarian well known for her readers' advisory innovation, came to speak at my office. Then, I turned to Joyce Saricks's Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library, a classic book on the subject, now in its third edition. There are tons of book lists, reviews, and columns and articles about RA in the magazine I work for, so that will remain a good source for my journey. I hope to translate all this for you...and, soon, we'll be able to talk about books!