So I’ve written a few times about my (mostly happy) love affair with Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books. Most recently, I wrote about the Infernal Devices series, which was completely satisfying and just right. And at the end, you may notice I wrote about my eagerness to see how the movie version of City of Bones turned out.
Here’s what I thought was kind of funny initially, before the movie even started: Since I’m quite a fangirl when it comes to this series (although I refuse to shell out $2.99 per story for the Bane Chronicles; all together, that’s going to be a lot of moolah), I honestly expected to see crowds out front of my local theater when I dashed out to see it last night, right after it opened (but, admittedly, on a Thursday, before weekend busy-ness). After all, Twilight fans were lined up for hours ahead of each show. And honestly, this series is even better: it has action, hot romance, supernatural elements, and wit. But when my husband and I got there, 35 minutes before showtime, there were two other people seated in the theater. Wha? By the time it started, there was a reasonable small group in there for a Thursday night, but I sat there thinking, I hope that audiences do not miss this movie.
So I’m recommending it to everyone.
The movie did not disappoint. It stays true to the story without taking too many liberties but not, however, being so faithful to the book that it bogs down the pace of the action and plot; the action is engaging enough for male viewers to be able to get into it (come on, you know that Twilight the movie wasn’t exactly geared toward the men); the romance is still scorching hot (the great kiss scene in the middle is even better on film than it is in the book, which is saying something); the story and the world building are interesting, as in the book; the sets are great. I loved seeing everything I imagined (and didn’t get around to imagining, apparently) come to big, beautiful life on the screen.
Casting: When it all comes down to it, the most important casting pick was for one crucial character. The actor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who portrays the central character, Jace Wayland, is honestly just about a perfect choice. I admit I don’t think he’s great-looking (and yes, I do think that RPatt is just to die for when it comes to looks, not to mention how funny he is in interviews), but the character isn’t really either. It’s all about presence. Jace is intense, moody, and utterly irresistible because of how he emotes. And Bower nails this. He has screen presence galore. He smolders up there on the screen. His hair looks terrible. But it simply doesn’t matter. His whole body, his face, his eyes show who the character is and what he may or may not feel or believe. And when he looks at Clary, his face near to hers, temperatures rise. Yikes.
Now I did mention in that previous post that my main concern would be the humor. The books are laugh-out-loud funny in the banter between the characters and some of their one-liners. The movie just did an OK job on capturing this wit. There were a few good lines, but still, as I feared, that delicious banter isn’t in constant supply. The action and romance win out, and the wit came in last. Even so, it wasn’t a complete bust. I really felt that the Harry Potter movies suffered in comparison to the books because they really did sacrifice most of what I saw as clever and funny in the books. I didn’t feel that this movie did quite so badly.
Overall, a great adaptation and a movie I’m going to have to watch a few more times on the big screen. I liked it that much. Now pardon me while I get ready to head to the theater, this time with my oldest daughter.
I admit I enjoyed reading the Twilight books. No, they’re not great literature or written with great skill. But they were a lovely escape, and I had fun. There. But I’ll give this to Stephenie Meyer: she has a great imagination and is truly a good storyteller (this comes even from her own mouth: she’s said she’s more a storyteller than she is a writer). She is also a fine judge of other books. Five summers ago on her website, she recommended the now ridiculously popular The Hunger Games. I went out and read it and found it fascinating, thought-provoking and gripping. Most everyone else seemed to agree.
But she also not too much later recommended a fine “duet” of books by Elizabeth Knox called Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I went out and got those at the library and found myself utterly transported. The books had such an interesting premise: in a slightly different world than ours back in the early 1900s, an area appears which only certain people can enter. Those people can go in to this area, lie down and sleep, and “catch” dreams, which they can then essentially “broadcast” to a sleeping audience in a dream theater. Interesting idea in itself. But what became even more fascinating was the mystery of why the Place came to be in the first place, and if it has some kind of purpose. By the time the whole reason behind the Place is revealed at the end of the duet, after two wonderfully rich and complex books that were a little dreamlike themselves, I was absolutely blown away. It’s so satisfying as a reader to see bits of a mystery come together magically and then just be solved. But this also had such a powerful poignancy to it that I felt my heart seize up a bit. And the setting and tone, the whole feel of the books, was superb. Original, so real, so powerful.
So I was thrilled to find out a couple of months ago that a new novel was coming from this superlative author, Mortal Fire. I let myself dip into the waters of this new book and its setting and feel, relishing the opportunity to visit Knox’s world again (this book is actually set in the same general place as the other two but 50 years later, and it’s mostly unconnected with the plot of those books, so it’s not necessary to read them first). But as I continued reading and the plot thickened, I found myself gobbling it, not able to put it down. I just rushed headlong to the end, and it was just as satisfying. What a fascinating premise! What a cool way of weaving the threads of story together and making it all make sense at the end! And the setting: again, just so vivid. I came inside (after sitting outside alone reading for two hours) just babbling about how much I loved the book. And a few days later, I still feel the rush of the thrill of discovery and the power of how it all hit me, not just in how it sent my mind spinning, but how it struck me smack in my chest.
What’s interesting to me is that all these books were recommended by Stephenie Meyer, but I haven’t heard a peep about Knox’s from other readers, whereas The Hunger Games became pretty much ubiquitous, not quite annoyingly so. Sometimes I wonder why these outstanding books don’t get more attention. (I think this is also the case with Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. I am always surprised at just how many of my well-read friends have never even heard of this series, let alone read the five books, either when they came out when I/we was/were young or now.)
At any rate, Elizabeth Knox, you are amazing. I don’t lavish praise on many authors, but you have joined the elite list of authors who really impress me. I hope more discerning readers discover your books.
So as those of you who pay attention to my “reading life” posts know, I review books. I have for years now. I run a website, Rated Reads, that exists to help readers know about the potential offensive content of books they might like to read. I think it goes almost without saying that I tend to prefer and appreciate books that don’t have lots of offensive material, be it vulgar language or sexual situations or even violence. I just clap my hands with joy when I find a book that’s just great in every way AND doesn’t have offensive content. Yay!
There are all kinds of genres and sub-genres out there: sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal fantasy, historical fiction, memoir, biography, young adult, romance, self-help, science, business … the list goes on forever. But certain types of genres sell particularly well overall, and some get extra attention during “fads.” Ever since Twilight, vampire love stories are very of-the-moment. And now it’s Fifty Shades of Grey. No vampires, but the protagonist is still super-hot and super-rich, just like the Twilight hero. In the case of this uber-popular new series, the love story isn’t necessarily about forbidden or supernatural love, but it’s about kinky sex, explicitly detailed in the book.
Um, no thanks.
So while those books are flying off the shelves and, most of all, being furtively downloaded onto e-readers, where no one else can tell what the purchaser is reading, I still say, Publishers and authors, please give me some great clean romance. Men often wonder why in the world so many of us women swoon over the Regency-era books, where the happy couple don’t even necessarily get a single kiss. I’ll tell you why: because the fun of romance is in the chase, in the slow buildup of longing looks and quiet exchanges of meaningful glances and words. It’s amazing to have a man treat us with respect and chivalry. I just don’t want to read about some gallant hero spanking a bound woman. Gah.
She asked me a month ago what books I recommended that would fit the parameters. I pored over all the reviews I’ve written over the past four or five years and posted on Rated Reads and, sadly enough, came up with an extremely short list. This is what I wrote to her:
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful romance about an older English gentleman and a widowed Pakistani woman. I rated it mild for some language.
I really enjoyed all of Carrie Bebris’s books continuing the story of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. They’re mysteries, but they’re love stories as well in Austen mode. I like that she does a good job with them and feels true to the originals.
I loved Erin McMahon’s I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, a sweet YA book that I rated moderate for teens but mild for adults. Nice bonus: main character is saving sex for marriage, and she sticks to it.
I did enjoy Edenbrooke, the first in a new set of books that will be published by Deseret Book called “Proper Romances.”
Flipped is a very charming middle-grade book about two eighth-graders. Very cute.
Of course, I liked Austenland, but I’m sure other people know about that one by Shannon Hale.
What’s striking is that three of them are either Regency/Austen-type books or are patterned after them. Two are written by authors who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though they aren’t the Christian genre, their authors are going to decidedly keep their writing fairly clean because of their religious beliefs. So, sure, it might be easy enough to find a decent enough clean romance because it’s either a classic or patterned after a classic or because it’s in the Christian genre, but finding just any other romantic books out there in general fiction that aren’t some type of genre that demands or expects clean content is a tricky task.
So, yeah, authors and publishers. The dirty stuff apparently does sell. But so does the clean stuff. If you’re going to hop on a bandwagon, can you please hop on the latter one? ‘Cause I’m not riding the dirty wagon or patronizing it in any way. Thanks.
Yet another day when I’ve been thinking about a topic and I end up reading something closely related. Some of the hottest books flying off shelves (or e-shelves) are romances. The latest is not just a romance; it’s erotica: the Fifty Shades of Grey books are at the top of the e-book bestseller lists and feature not just loads of sex but bondage and domination, apparently (nope, I am not going to read them).
And it would be crazy to even discuss this topic without mentioning the insanely popular Twilight saga (which, apparently, in some way is how Fifty Shades was inspired). Not erotica, at least, but heavy on the romance, lust, making-out, etc. Sure, there are action scenes dealing with the bad vampires, but it’s really about intense teen love. The very interesting series I’m reading right now, Outlander and its many sequels, is historical fiction that has lots of great characters in many settings, but the primary focus is the intense attraction between the heroine and her 18th-century husband.
I think many people concentrate on TV and movies when they consider the effects of mass media, and they are right to do so. But books can be overlooked in the kinds of effects their messages have on readers. This Deseret News article, for instance, focuses on film: romantic comedies, specifically, and how viewing them can affect real people in real relationships. I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that relationships and love are not portrayed terribly accurately in movies, and I can say as a reader that there are plenty of books that fit that pattern as well. At least in literature, there are many more genres and many more books to choose from, and many can be found that do portray life much more realistically than film, in part just due to their length, honestly. But there are lots of books that are just print versions of rom-coms or trite romances (Nicholas Sparks, you’ve done damage in both print and celluloid!).
I’ve thought many times as I’ve read books that feature romance how so many skirt realities most of us experience. I don’t know about you all, but after 19 years of marriage, I don’t feel the same intensity of nonstop attraction to my dear husband as I did at the very beginning. In fact, I probably never felt the same way as some characters I read about. I remember reading The Time Traveler’s Wifeand thinking, Good heavens! These people have sex all the time!Do they not do anything else when the husband isn’t popping off into other time periods? And as much as I am thoroughly enjoying the Outlander series, really: does anyone (or everyone) feel like having sex with their spouse all the time? I’m not saying that isn’t a great thing between husband and wife and vital to a good relationship, but it isn’t the ONLY thing or even 50 percent.
The other main issue, I think, with some of these books is that they often posit that there is one “true love” out there for everyone, that love is destined, fated, that each of us must find THE ONE, our soul mate. This can cause a number of problems; for instance: if a relationship isn’t going smoothly, then our partner must not be THE RIGHT ONE (and we ditch a perfectly good partner and move on to find that elusive person); we might be fooled by temporary chemistry that someone we are crazy about is perfect for us (and we ignore all the signs that show he or she truly may not make a good spouse); we may never find someone who fits the supposed characteristics of a soul mate and end up alone.
One of my church’s leaders, Spencer W. Kimball, said something very wise but not what anyone might consider easy or exciting or the basis of a swoon-worthy story line: “‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”
Still, it’s hard to resist the siren song of these romance stories. They just make everything seem so intense, so easy, so larger-than-life. They’re fantasy. But we like fantasy. We like to read about things that aren’t like real life. At the same time, does reading these unrealistic stories do damage to us as readers as we go about our regular lives once the book is put back on the shelf? Do we end up with unrealistic expectations from our relationships? Research seems to show that the answer is yes, at least in film. I dare say the same is true for similar messages in print.
Real life is harder, messier, more boring, more frustrating, more mundane, more work. Children can bring joy to our lives, but the work and the commitment involved can easily take away from our relationship as a couple (not that this is a good thing, but it happens easily if we don’t work to stop it from happening). The pressures of just making an everyday living and going about our usual day-to-day business can strip the thrill from our relationships. And time has a way of changing how we relate to each other, mostly for good. Love is a complex, wonderful, deep, multifaceted animal, and romance is only one of those facets. Sexual attraction is just a part of the romance. Infatuation and attraction occur strongly in the early stages of a romance, and real love develops past those, even though it is still desirable and a wonderful thing to still be attracted to our spouse 50 years after those early stages. My husband can still kiss me and make my legs turn to jelly, even 19 years into our relationship. But he doesn’t do it 10 times a day, and … well, I won’t go into any more private details. I don’t always look at him and think, Kiss me! I may just think, Thank heavens he’s home. Or I wish he’d do the dishes. After he’s home, the kids are in bed, and the dishes are done, then I am more disposed to think, Man, I wish he’d kiss me and jelly-fy my legs.
I think I have appreciated Anne Tyler’s books because they feel so much more real. They’re not romances, but they are about love. I was so profoundly moved by The Amateur Marriage, for instance, for its look at a less-than-ideal or smooth relationship. I love how Tyler can just dig right into real life, excavate some broken and dirty old shards, and hold them up to the light for our inspection. Yes, we think, this is how people lived then.
I couldn’t possibly write enough here about all the truths of relationships and longtime marriages. I certainly don’t have it figured out; 19 years is just enough for me and my husband to get in and get serious and tweak some rules so they fit us better. All I know is that media don’t often enough reflect real life. And that’s too bad. The shiny, glittery stuff that’s reflected to us off of film or the pages of books is too often easier for writers to portray and more desirable for us consumers. It’s just nicer or more appealing to consume a quick, too-sweet product than one that’s more subtle and layered. We want escape, all too often, not more of reality. But reality can be wonderful; in fact, it can be much better than the intense but one-sided stuff that comes at us from various media. I thank those amazing writers who have not just transported me to intriguing new places but those who have taken me right back to where I started and made it seem new and interesting in all its reality.
As much as I’ve loved reading for almost 40 years now, and other people know how much I have read, I’m still astonished, and other people are astonished, at times to discover that I have not read certain classics. I haven’t read these books, for instance: A Tale of Two Cities (though it’s on my Kindle now and I’ve started it), Les Miserables, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Don Quixote, Walden, or The Canterbury Tales. Glancing at lists online that various people and organizations suggest as the top-40 or top-100 must-reads, I am even surprised to find there are some books I’ve never heard of! (I didn’t think that would happen for me on a “famous-classics” list.)
Frankly, since I’ve been reviewing books for so many years, I’ve tended to get skewed toward reading mostly new books. This has been especially true since I started Rated Reads in 2008: I’ve wanted to focus on new works that wouldn’t have gotten as much word of mouth as older books so the site can be more useful to visitors. So the upshot has been: fewer classics.
Even so, I think I’ve done a fairly good job over the years covering quite a few classics. And I’ve discovered some new books that should qualify as “new classics” because they’re so well written.
But I’m OK with not reading the classics or the classically literary newer books that are deep and filled with meaning. I don’t see it necessary to be a book snob. I’m perfectly happy just reading fluff sometimes. I will admit, for instance, that I did eat up the Twilight books, before they got really popular and that’s all anyone who was female, ages 13 to 55 or so, was talking about. I hadn’t planned on reading them (Stephenie Meyer is a fellow BYU graduate, and when I read in our alumni magazine about her book about a vampire who falls in love with a great-smelling girl, I thought it just wasn’t up my alley), but when a trusted reading friend handed a copy of the first book to me and said, “I want to see what you think about this,” I indulged and got hooked. Sure, they’re basically female brain candy, but it’s sure nice to have some tasty Hershey’s kisses to indulge in sometimes, isn’t it? (I say this deliberately because there are also great books out there that are still kind of indulgent but I’d consider more the equivalent of Godiva or Valrhona.) The Twilight series has provided a whole bagful of kisses. I do like a good romance and clean(ish) love scenes. I did get tired of hearing about Edward’s marble chest, though. I just don’t care about muscles and finely chiseled chests, apparently.
Given that I enjoy fluff now and then, I do have standards. I think now might be a good time to share authors I do not like. Yep, I’ve written about some of my favorite books and authors, but now I will write briefly about authors I detest.
James Patterson, at least as part of a writing duo. I read Sundays at Tiffany’sbecause I thought it was such a clever premise. The writing stunk. It was short and unmemorable and childishly written. I suppose I should try one of his mysteries, but I’m skeptical after being burned with his ridiculous prolific co-authoring. Actually, now that I think of it, I suppose my entire list of “hates” is of authors who churn out books to a loyal fanbase who will fork over $28 for any new tome from their favorite author regardless of the quality of the writing. Me, I’m not that loyal, I guess.
Nicholas Sparks. Another prolific author who writes what I consider to be formulaic crud. I firmly believe that if the only way a writer can elicit an emotional response from readers is by using death as a tool to pull relentlessly on heartstrings, he doesn’t have much talent. I generally appreciate nuance. (OK, I did already say I loved Twilight. I can’t explain that.) I read two books by Sparks, I believe, as a reviewer and have seen a few movies based on his books, so I am pretty sure I can say I don’t need to read/see anymore. SOMEONE ALWAYS DIES. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but it must be said. I figure, you read one Sparks book, you’ve read them all.
Richard Paul Evans. I think he’s a very fine man and has done some real good, and I love his success story. But his writing is sophomoric. Sorry, but it’s true.
It’s fairly safe to say that any author whose writing I find sophomoric or whose plots are formulaic will make this list. Obviously, I make a few exceptions, but in most cases, I’ll avoid this bunk and stick to writers who craft three-dimensional characters, create fascinating worlds, who have amazing imaginations, who can just put together the same old words in the English language in ways that somehow seem new and fresh.
Even when it comes to fluff, I have some standards.
As a newspaper book reviewer for more than a dozen years, two of which I was the editor of a book page, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, as well as having my own book review website, I think I could say I’m an expert on books. At the same time, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, so I hesitate to call myself much of an expert on anything at this stage of my life. I know how little I’ve read of so many things and would like to read more, but there’s only so much time, isn’t there? I’ve read a number of classics that have enriched my knowledge and understanding of all kinds of topics, but then I’ve missed out on a lot of them as well. So, that being said, I’ll talk a bit about what I enjoy reading, what moves me, enlightens me, inspires me, opens my mind, and just entertains me.
I read a bit of most everything. I like fiction and nonfiction and young adult literature. I still have a great fondness for the award-winning books I loved as a child, and it’s been a true delight to share those with my daughters as they’ve gotten old enough to appreciate them. I don’t think I read a lot of genre books, like science fiction, and even though I did get caught up in the Twilight books, I didn’t just jump on the paranormal bandwagon. I try to be selective about what I read, checking with friends and now GoodReads, for instance, to see what other people have said before I invest time in any book. I’ve collected quite a few books over the years I’ve been reviewing, since reviewers get free review copies, but I’ve also gotten rid of most of them except the ones I truly loved.
Sometimes I enjoy a book not so much for the story but for the way it’s written — poetic, lyrical, lovely, clever, full of great metaphors — and sometimes I just like it because it has fun characters or a super-clever or engaging plot. I love to be surprised, so I adore books (and movies and TV shows, too) that are able to pull off a great plot twist that I don’t see coming (but it has to make sense). I suppose that’s why I adore gothic stories; one of my absolute favorites is The Thirteenth Tale. Wowee. There just aren’t nearly enough good twists like the one Diane Setterfeld pulls off in this one. I don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi, but I have enjoyed a few good science fiction tales over the years (I do quite appreciate Orson Scott Card, even though I’ve still never managed to read what is by all accounts his best book, Ender’s Game). I like fantasy better than sci-fi, so I’ve read more of that (I loved Card’s Seventh Son series about Alvin Maker).
Sometimes I’m in the mood for a hefty tome that digs in deep to a topic, and sometimes I just need some good fluff. I’ve found that YA love stories satisfy me well on that latter count (I found Anna and the French Kiss to be delightful, for example, as well as I Now Pronounce You Someone Else). I like to learn about all kinds of topics, particularly science and health and different places (this book on memory research was fascinating: I didn’t realize just how complex it is to figure out biologically and chemically how our brains create memories), and I appreciate good memoirs (especially if they combine science and humor, like Richard Feynman’s wildly entertaining Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!). Any book that includes passages on grammar or punctuation earn points with me, as did one character’s two-page riff on a comma error in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a great book even without that hilarious-to-a-copy-editor segment, and once I read Jon Krakauer’s riveting account of disaster on Mt. Everest (I was skeptical when a friend suggested I read it), I’ve found myself attracted to other mountain-climbing books.
I still have all the books I acquired as a child and teenager, and I’ve shared them with (sometimes foisted them on) my daughters. It doesn’t get better than Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. The latter especially has held up for me as an adult reader: the books are complex with lovely storytelling, great vocabulary and legend.
Ah, I could go on and on. But that’s what more posts are for. So stay tuned.