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.