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!