Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Topical Topic = On Not Finishing Books

For a long time, I did a lot of guilt over books that I didn't finish. I think this reaction came from the way books are presented at school, where it is a mortal sin to leave books unfinished, no matter how much you dislike them. You get bad marks for that kind of thing.

As a result, leaving books unfinished left a stale taste in my mouth, one that drove me to such guilt that, yes, I often balked at reading for fear I would be stuck with a book I didn't like, but HAD to finish. It was a little like never loving for fear of heartbreak.

After starting my MFA, I think my feelings have shifted quite a lot. First, let me say that I have read more books that I've disliked or even hated, in the last two years than at any other point in my life. But I've also been exposed to some new favorites I never would have known to try otherwise. When you're studying literature, for every Howard's End there will also be a The Chocolate War assigned to you. (Yes, I hated one of those books) That's just the subjective nature of reading.

Obviously, I had to finish the books I loathed, but all the same, I've found my perspective shifting around the topic of leaving other books unfinished. During the summers, I am much more likely to get a few chapters into a novel and then ditch it. Permanently. I do this for a few reasons, upon which I shall expound.

1) I will read enough books I don't like during the school year to more than likely make my quota.
This might sound snarky, but I mean it truthfully. There IS a lot of use to occasionally reading books I don't like. From those books, I learn what I don't want to do in my own writing. They force me to work the part of my brain that wants to "fix" plot problems, pacing or word choice. That's a useful muscle for me to use. Also, these books will usually still have some strong elements, and those can be worth learning from. All the same, I think I learn more from reading books that I DO connect with - the ones I want to emulate. The bulk of my time should go into reading those. Even in the summer, time is limited, so I don't waste it on filling the "bad book quota."

2) If I'm not occasionally tossing aside a book I don't like, it means I'm not reading widely enough.
As a child, I went through phases where all I ever read was Brian Jacques's Redwall series or Rowling's Harry Potter. I knew I would like these books and I wasn't wrong. In general, I can usually bet that if a book is a Young Adult or Middle Grade Fantasy or stars animals, I will probably like it. Sure there are exceptions, but these are safe choices.

But reading shouldn't always be safe. It should challenge us emotionally and intellectually and often that is best done with books outside our comfort zones. Last summer I made an effort to read more YA contemporary, not really my area or my "thing." One book I hurled across the room at chapter 5, but another was John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back and that made me sob happy tears. It stretched me as a reader and as a writer. Reading deeply and widely is an important part of developing a voice. But outside my usual genres, I know I'll also find more things I don't click with. There's a reason that I love animal and fantasy books and a reason why I write them. Some books will be good enough to transcend those barriers of personal preference. Others will be returned to the library early amid rants of disappointment.

3) Just as you can learn a lot from a bad book, you can learn a lot from an unfinished book.
Last year, I read one book that wasn't bad or outside my genre and it... lost me. The pacing dragged and I just couldn't be bothered with finishing it. That was when the importance of editing for length in an adventure story REALLY hit me. At over 120,000 words, this book had too much bogging down the story. I had a hard time imagining it ever picking up to a satisfactory clip and so eventually I returned it to the library. As a long winded author, it was a hard lesson to learn. Other books I've put down because their openings were confusing or contrived or uninteresting. Others lost me with an uneven middle or bothersome content choices. All valuable lessons.

But the number one reason I don't finish books is...

4) The library thought they owned the thing or something.
Seriously, guys. My library does this ALL THE TIME. They let me take away a book but then they seem to think they still own it or something and start sending emails asking for it back. But in all seriousness, this is an interesting category. Sometimes these books are the ones that show the difference between a 4 or a 5 star book in my rankings. No matter how little time I have, I will always finish a 5 star, even if that means facing late fees. A 4? Well, I may check it out again. I may not. Generally, it's yet another reminder of how subjective this whole reading business is.

So those are MY reasons for leaving books unfinished. What about the rest of you? Any others?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Reviews: Ship Breaker

Whew! So time for another book review. Despite the quiet on the blog, I've been reading a lot and doing a ton of writing lately. Actually, the silence on the blog is probably RELATED. More on that some other time.

For now, let's take a look at Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Nailer works in the cesspool that is Bright Sands Beach, a ship breaking yard where old oil rigs are broken down for spare parts and whatever scavenge is left on them. The polar ice caps have melted and most major cities lie drowned, leaving the world in a panicked, resource deficient state. 

Nailer himself is little more than a statistic - a skinny kid who can still just fit inside the ducts of old ships where he cuts off lengths of copper wiring in order to make quota. But when a luxury clipper washes up on Bright Sands Beach during a storm, opportunity arrives, both in the wealth on board and in the swank girl who owns the boat. Opportunity that could prove to be just as deadly as it is lucrative.

What Makes it So Good: 
Ship Breaker has been on my radar for a long time, as it's one of the few Science Fiction Novels to win the Printz Award. For those who haven't heard of the Printz, it's kind of like the Carnegie or Newbery Awards, only for Young Adult literature as opposed to the Middle Grade books that the other awards tend to focus on. 

Like a lot of award committees, those in charge of the Printz tends to favor fiction placed in a contemporary setting, but luckily, that favoritism is't as rigid in children's literature, of which YA is still considered a part, as it is in Adult Lit where book genres are kept separated and in different sections of your local bookstore. So sci-fi and fantasy get a slightly better shot at being recognized for their contribution to the wider scope of literature. Naturally, I was curious about this post-apocalyptic tale (a genre often portrayed as tired and over done in YA today) that got the Printz voters all a titter. It seemed like a book that would have to fight one heck of an uphill battle in order to get recognition.

Really, I think what it boils down to is that that the text is beautiful and lyrical. The world Nailer inhabits is grim and potentially overwhelming with its violence and despair, but Bacigalupi has a tremendous command of language, which he uses to shape the mood of the book. Executed poorly, this book could have been a slogging, muddy wallow, but even at its darkest moments, something about the way the landscape and Nailer's emotions are described keeps a rim of hope surrounding the story.

The pacing is also quick and satisfying. There's a good balance between Nailer's reflections and the high stakes adventure the book sells itself on. The world is also interesting and well executed. Many of the post-apocalypse tropes one might expect from knowing the genre are in play, but they're well done and have twists that make them interesting. For example, Ship Breaker's take on humans mixed with dog DNA made me wish The Hunger Games could have been so successful when they used the same idea at the end of the first book in the trilogy. I was much more afraid of Tool the Half-Man than I ever was of the dogs chasing Katniss and Tool isn't even a villain. The characters were enjoyable too, Nailer in particular. He's the right blend of sweet and tough, something a story like this needed in order to stay balanced.

What Might Make it Better: 
"Sounds like your basic D.I.D. Damsel in Distress." - Phil, from Disney's Hercules

This is a rescue the damsel book, 100% plain and simple. While the book has great characters, atmosphere and world building, it could have used a more interesting plot. 

Nothing really complicates this rescue story either. From the moment Nita arrives, you know she can't be responsible for her own salvation, because THAT would impact Nailer's ability to prove himself. All you're left guessing at is whether or not Nailer will be successful in saving Nita, because Rule-of-Fiction dictates that she can't do it on her own. Nita herself isn't a bad character, she just isn't able to be interesting because that would interfere with Nailer's growth. Her use to the story as a plot-trinket is too great to let her be a character that controls her own fate.

Now let me be clear that I am not opposed to all "rescue the damsel" scenarios, but I think many of the ones that do that story well complicate it some way. Take Princess Leia, for example. At the beginning of the first Star Wars film, Leia transfers the plans to the Death Star into R2-D2 and effectively turns R2 into the plot-trinket necessary for advancing the rebel cause. R2 becomes the target of numerous "save the droid" moments in the movie and the object of pursuit by the empire. Leia's rescue is a reckless after thought, and for Han, the decision to save her is entirely driven by greed. She also plays a more formative role in their escape, blasting open a path into the trash compactor and alerting them that the empire must be following them when their escape is easy because, once again, it is R2 and the plans on him that are the empire's target, not her. Once at the rebel base, she takes a leadership role independent of Han and Luke and for the rest of the series, she's never rendered totally helpless again.

Star Wars  is not often a good example of how to tell stories with compelling female characters. Ship Breaker is certainly miles ahead as far as its diversity of well-rounded female characters, so I'm not criticizing the book on it's ability to portray an interesting female character. The issue is that standard issue "rescue the princess" scenarios don't make for interesting plots. They're too well known and force other characters to perform predictable, specific actions within the narrative. 

Comparing to The Hunger Games again, here would be the place where Hunger Games edges out Ship Breaker. Peeta certainly gets his chances to be a man-sel in distress, but the plot is about other things too. It's about winning the games. It's about sticking it to the Capital. It's about putting on a good show so that they can get sponsors. And those other goals, coincidentally, often conflict with each other. Ship Breaker's side plots are never at such compelling odds with each other. True, Nailer's choices aren't easy, but they're not as suicidally hard as Katniss's either. 

Despite these critiques, however, Ship Breaker is a fantastic, lovely book, and a reminder that plot isn't often about originality, but about execution. The book is beautifully executed and well worth a read. I wouldn't review it if I didn't like it. Just... ya know... don't expect too many surprises in the plotting department.