Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the category “Reading”

Conflict in fiction

 

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Book vs Movie: The Amityville Horror – What’s the Difference?

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Because some people are obsessed about the official candy holiday based upon on former harvest festival, Halloween brings about the discussion of the horror genre. This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix covers the movie based upon a hoax, The Amityville Horror.

One great thing about horror novels is the ability to go wild with creepy ideas that will scare people. Blood suckers, flesh eaters, scary clowns in the closet, demonic possession, crazy inbreds, mild mannered fathers who go crazy and murder their family: all great ways to scare people and haunt their dreams.

But it is always hilarious to see the line “Based on a True Story” or similar at the start of a book or movie. Any time that has to be stated up front you can guarantee that the tale is pure fiction. It’s like how smart people don’t go around having to tell people they have a high IQ, or people who are successful don’t have to go around telling people how rich they are.

Needless to say, The Amityville Horror has long been known to be a hoax cooked up by the Lutzs and their lawyer, and then sensationalised in the “totally non-dramatised” book by Jay Anson.

To this day, the fact that The Amityville Horror story was an admitted hoax is still not widely known — as we often say, the truth never stands in the way of a good story. Though the story was made up by the Lutzes and further sensationalized by Anson, there were real victims of The Amityville Horror (the film, not the demons). In addition to the murdered DeFeo family, the subsequent occupants of the Amityville home have suffered a continual stream of harassment by curiosity seekers, horror fans, and gawkers who want to photograph and tour their infamous house. Then there are the people who, fooled by the films’ and book’s tagline, think they are partaking of works based on true events. (Source)

Book Reviews aren’t about Book Promotion

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It is no secret that I like to write book reviews. Except when I’m sleepy. Or if I’m busy. Or if I get distracted by… Where am I?

Anyway, I wrote this blog a year or so ago addressing an example of people conflating book reviews with book promotion. I’m reposting it because of a recent discussion I had where several people were angry that a Mythcreants article failed to mention the authors of books being used as examples.

The issue that people seemed to have with the names being omitted was that it “wasn’t how reviews are meant to be written”….* Apparently the important details of a book review are listing the Title, Author, Publisher, Publication Date, etc, so that people can find the books easily. Yeah, an article on the internet referencing well-known books isn’t making it easy enough to find the books. Their irony meter must have been lost with the demise of Altavista.

Let me state up front: to my mind, book reviews are about helping people find good stuff to read and promoting authors whose work you’ve enjoyed. Of course some reviewers use it as a an opportunity to break away from the internet commenter stereotype and be jerks to others. This can be frustrating for authors and readers, but about par for the course as far as internet comments goes.

Fortunately an author has written a blog post advising people how to properly review books. Because you’re doing it wrong…

As a reader, reviewer, and occasionally sober writer, I don’t think authors should be telling readers what to do or how to do it, so the post doesn’t sit right with me. Actually, a lot of things don’t sit right with me, especially if they aren’t single malt and well aged.

Who are book reviews for?

You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book.

Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did. 

The first major point is one I agree with: book reviews are for readers. But maybe not the readers the author thinks. Reviews are primarily about that reader and their thoughts. Sure, they may be trying to communicate with other readers and make recommendations, but let’s face facts, it is mostly just about sharing an opinion. Or is that shouting into the void? I can never remember the difference.

My philosophy on book reviewing – helping and promoting good stuff – is probably shared by many, or not, I haven’t checked. But I see it as an important aspect of being a reader and writer. Thanks to the wonders of technology we have access to more books than we’ll ever be able to read, and some of them are worth reading. Sharing your opinion of a book can help others find stories that will entertain them. Personally I’m not a fan of sharing reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed, just the ones I think others will enjoy reading, but negative and positive reviews are both helpful.

But, that’s just me. Readers aren’t obligated to say nice things about a book, nor promote it, nor make sure there are links to anything (except references, those are damned important I tells ya!).

The next points:

What to include:

The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!

You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points:

Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page?

Did the structure of the plot work for you?

If it’s a mystery, was there one?

The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?

The author’s writing style. How was it for you?

The first point on this list is, frankly, rubbish. A book does not exist in a vacuum. Well, unless it was taken into space, but why would anyone do that? Unless they are an astronaut, but they’d want the book in the ship with them.

Anyway, all art/media is a product of the space it was created in, it has cultural and philosophical underpinnings that are part and parcel. And following on from that, the cultural landscape changes over time and individuals consuming the art/media are going to evolve as a result. So you can’t just write only about the book in a review, you will always bring baggage with you. Want an example? Try watching the original Ghostbusters movie without thinking Bill Murray’s character isn’t just a tad rape-y by today’s standards.

The next points about the story and how it is written are fair enough advice on things you could include. But you could include all or none of those things and still write a good review. The review has a subject and you only really need to include the stuff relevant to that subject – which means you might never mention the author, publisher, publication date, major or minor characters, etc.

The next part is where this blog post gets juicy:

What not to include:

Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.

If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.

Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars!  I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?

I don’t know about the last point, I’ve read Dan Brown’s Inferno; I’m not sure he knows how to cringe.

There are two points to unpack here: the first is the idea that your relationship with the author doesn’t have any bearing on a review; the second is the idea that you’re trying to help the author sell books. To suggest that there is a way to refer to an author or that you shouldn’t mention conflicts of interest is wrong. If I like someone I will naturally be inclined to think their book is better than someone whom I don’t know or like. Similarly, if I already like someone’s writing, their lesser works are likely to be viewed more favourably than a new author’s work.

It also irks me that the blog is implying that the author is off-limits for criticism. That is rubbish. If I know that the book or author is controversial, then that will also colour my review and is worth raising. An example was James Frey’s Lorian Legacies series published under a pseudonym. During my reading of I Am Number Four I noticed several very lazy factual inaccuracies and wanted to know who the author actually was. It was then that I found out that Frey had scammed a bunch of writing students to produce the series. Not only did that colour my (lack of) appreciation of the novel, but it was information I felt other readers should know. Because screw that guy.

This links nicely into the next point about reviews helping to sell books. It is true that book reviews help sell books: who’d have thunk? It is also true that if you want to see more great material from an author one of the things you can do is make sure people know you enjoyed the book. But since when is it the reader/reviewer’s obligation to help sell books for an author? Shouldn’t an author be happy that you bought and enjoyed their book? Well, unless you borrowed the book from a library, friend, or got a freebie. I understand the desire of authors to encourage people to review their book/s, and what it can help do in terms of recognition and thus sales, but a review isn’t about selling a book. The review is about the reader sharing their thoughts on a book they have read. Book store clerks get paid, readers don’t. Worth remembering.

The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly, there’s no need to mention the weather…

How long the book took to arrive in the post, or that it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book.

Likewise, problems with your Amazon account: It won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.

These next few comments are mainly about Amazon reviews and how people talk about the buying of the book in their review. While it is completely understandable for an author to be frustrated with comments in a review that are unrelated to the story they wrote, this recommendation is not only self-serving drivel, it forgets who the review is for.

If someone orders a book from Amazon and the shipment is not filled quickly, or won’t download, or the pricing is ridiculous, or the bonus “massager” didn’t arrive with the romance novel order, then that is a legitimate gripe. Other readers on the Amazon store will want to know this stuff. But even if this wasn’t on the Amazon store, there is legitimate griping to be done. For example, in Australia several major publishers price their ebooks based upon the currently available paper version’s price.** So if the hardcover is out, you pay hardcover prices for an ebook. Where else but a book review are you going to express your consumer discontent on this? Well, aside from in a blog post like this one. Or if you are talking to one of the publishers at a writers’ festival. Or if you know someone, who knows someone, who is related to a publisher.

I’d agree that there needs to be a distinction made been the store’s service, the publisher’s pricing, and the novel itself, in site reviews. Having those categories un-lumped would be something I’d support. Along with free hats. Everyone loves a free hat. But that I can’t go along with blaming the reviewers for not making that distinction.

Spoilers: giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers, e.g. I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.

Copying and pasting the entire book description – please dont.

And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?

Some people really hate spoilers, others love them, others still are ambivalent, others still still will hunt you down and kill you with your own keyboard for posting them. As such there is an etiquette to posting spoilers in a review. If you are an undefeated Muay Thai fighter with a decent ground game, then you can post whatever spoiler you like. If you are anyone else, you can post spoilers as long as you warn people you are going to do it. Then people can read or skip the spoilers to their heart’s content, assuming the Muay Thai fighter hasn’t ripped their heart out of their chest for posting a spoiler.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone post a book review that includes a copy and paste of the book description. If this actually happens then it is either a compliment to the blurb author for capturing the book perfectly so as to act as an appropriate review, or someone needs to learn how to type their own thoughts.

The final point is about the dismissive one star review. Now some people, such as the blog post author, complain that these sorts of reviews are not legitimate. Nonsense. Books have a cover, a blurb, the reader might have read other books by the author, etc, all of which can be more than enough information for the reviewer. For example, let’s say that someone has written a book – fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t really matter – that claims climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, NWO, Zionist Bankers to something something profit-gravy-train. Do I really need to leave a long and extensive review once I’ve read the book? Or can I just point out that it is nonsense? Is that not legitimate comment?

Now these have all been relatively minor gripes to quibble with. Fun fact: Quibbles are the Earth equivalent of Tribbles. Bonus fact: the most famous Quibble currently sits on the President of the USA’s head.

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Tribbles: your reward for reading this far.

Quibbles and Tribbles aside, let’s talk about complaining about book reviews not being done the way you want, when you yourself don’t review books. There is that inspiring – or is that insipid? – quote about being the change you want to see which applies here. The author of the blog post has exactly zero book reviews on their site, not counting the promotion of reviews of their own novels. The author’s Goodreads page has no books listed as having been rated or reviewed. Do as I say, not as I do. I mean, sure, that isn’t demanding at all.

In summary, it’s best to be thankful for readers writing reviews, even the bad reviews.

See also: https://bookstooge.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/i-will-make-them-cry-indie-rant/

*Let’s just ignore that the article in question wasn’t a book review but an article that was using famous books as examples to make a larger point. The poor dears are having enough problems with conflating reviews with promotion.
**Not sure this is still the case in 2017. It was the case for many years though.

Pet peeve: Reading interruptions

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You’d think people would take a hint. If they were as interesting as the book we’d be talking to them. Kids are the worst for this. Second worst are the people who have left their book at home.

Book review: The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

The Seventh Plague (Sigma Force, #12)The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the first nine plagues, is the tenth plague free?

A missing archeologist reappears out of the desert in a semi-mummified state. With him he brings a biblical disease that threatens to yadda yadda the world. A brilliant businessman has designs on using the disease for his own ends. Only Sigma can uncover the ancient McGuffin to you get the idea before ticking clock.

I’m going to preface this review by saying that I’m a long time fan of James Rollins’ blend of pseudo-science, mythicism, and tehcno-thriller. His Artefact McGuffin Adventures are usually very entertaining reads.

Here’s the but. I don’t know if I just had a lower tolerance for the narrative this time, or if Rollins has introduced a bash the reader over the head style to his writing now. Regardless, it is annoying and hackneyed, and something I’d expect from Dan Brown, not James Rollins. It makes you notice the other problems, like the factual errors in the story. The suspension of disbelief is always high with these sorts of novels, so to have Dan Brown-ified the writing lowers my enjoyment and rating.

An example of what I’m talking about was an exchange early on between the Sigma members about disease categories. We’ve just been told that this is a super deadly disease with X% death rate, and we’re then told the disease death categories, which again states this is super deadly. Okay, so us dumb readers need to be informed that this disease is really bad. But to imply that the Sigma team of science experts who deal with this sort of problem semi-regularly would have to be bashed over the head with the explanation the way they were is silly. I immediately had in mind four or five ways to write that section that weren’t out of character, repetitive, and mind-numbing to the reader.

That all said, this was still a reasonably well paced thriller, with decent tension, especially into the final act. If you like Artefact McGuffin Adventures, then this is an okay instalment.

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Book review: Afterlife by Marcus Sakey

AfterlifeAfterlife by Marcus Sakey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you kill enough people you become a god. Still makes you a jerk though.

Agents Will Brody and Claire McCoy are hunting a serial killer. But he is unlike any serial killer who has ever come before. He is always a step ahead. He has power. And he has help. I could give more away, but the title gives you the idea.

Afterlife is an intriguing book. The ideas underpinning this supernatural speculative fiction story are as original as you will see. And mixed with this are two interesting characters and their relationship. It hangs together nicely whilst not becoming bogged down with the sort of world-building that spec-fic can bore readers with.

That said, I almost gave up on this book. The first chapter didn’t grab me at all. It isn’t until later in the novel that you understand why that chapter is there at all. Similarly the semi-ambiguous ending may also throw some people given the setup prior to the penultimate chapter. These points, particularly the first one, could discourage people. Normally I don’t say this – since I’m big on giving up on books ASAP to make room for good books – but stick with this for a few chapters. Don’t be put off by the opener, it will make sense soon.

NB: I was provided a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population, and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010…. Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data, since respondents were filling in a daily dairy and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

Lower your standards

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Certainly explains the popularity of several TV shows…

From SMBC Comics. Great stuff there.

Book vs Movie: Blade Runner – What’s the Difference?

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Since Blade Runner 2049 is coming out soon, CineFix have dedicated this month’s What’s the Difference? to breaking down Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I can’t remember the first time I watched Blade Runner. I do know that it sucked. So that early experience was of a version of the movie that was about shooting androids rather than about empathising with them. I later watched the director’s cut and the Ridley Scott preferred version and concluded that this was a classic movie. I know, how prescient of me.

The novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was something I read a long time ago. I have a very poor recollections of it, in fact the only bit I can remember was the section where Deckard hooks himself up to the Voight-Kampff machine. The idea of humans not really being able to empathise with others, that we are just playing a meaningless game of life, whilst other beings would love to be human, is an interesting idea I should probably revisit. I’m sure I’ll get a chance before 2049.

I also read the sequel, Blade Runner: Edge of Human, which was more a sequel to the movie than the book. Again it has been a long time since I read this. I have more memories of borrowing this from the library than I do of reading it. This sequel was a gritty crime noir that was all about hunting down androids, double crosses, and absolutely nothing deep and meaningful.

Blade Runner is a good example of the “inspired by” version of movie adaptation. Very little of the book remains in the film and you could be forgiven for thinking they were unrelated. Yet neither the movie nor the book suffer as a result. Kinda like the Bourne films. And like Bourne, you honestly wonder why they bothered licensing the property when the screenwriters took so little material from the book.

The two motives for reading a book

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Book review: A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of PhilosophyA Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If by doubting your existence you prove that your doubting thoughts exist, what happens if you then doubt your doubts?

A Little History of Philosophy is pretty much summed up by its title. It spends a chapter on each famous Western philosopher or movement (e.g. Aristotle gets a chapter; Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir share one) and takes a shallow dive into each. Nothing more, nothing less.

After recently reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy I thought I’d read a book that covered the same topic with less of the surrounding history and more of the philosophy overview. Nigel Warburton does this well in a brief, clear, and accessible manner. A strength of the overview is how he ties theories and influences together (e.g. Brentham to Mill, Mill to Russell) so that you can see how thinking has evolved. A negative is the sometimes tenuous segues Warburton uses to end a chapter. Seriously, you really start to notice it and laugh.

This was a great way to dip my toes into philosophy. Between Russell and Warburton I feel I’ve been given enough to start the journey down the rabbit hole. Made me think.

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Book vs Movie: Stephen King’s It – What’s the Difference?

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With the release of the new movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, unsurprisingly this month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix is covering the book vs the 1990 mini-series.

The It mini-series come out on video – yes VHS, yes I am old – when I was just at the start of my teenage years. The adolescent characters facing the genuinely scary Pennywise was too much for me. Tim Curry’s portrayal of the demonic clown left me sleepless for a week. It is the only movie to have ever had this much of an impact on me.

I mean Pennywise is already a scary clown. But he turns into a giant nope. In Australia we’re wary of tiny nopes. A giant nope is a ticket to nightmares.

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So guess what book I refuse to read and which recent adaptation I won’t be watching.*

Although, apparently the new movie is genuinely good:

*Yeah, I know, I probably wouldn’t find it scary now. I probably will eventually read the novel and watch the new movie. Maybe.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes by James SA Corey

Babylon's Ashes (The Expanse, #6)Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take my love, take my land.
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don’t care, I’m still free.
You can’t take the sky from me.
No parallels at all.

The Free Navy have demolished Earth. They’ve taken over the system with their surprise attack utilising the latest Martian technology. Now Earth and Mars are fighting back. Cracks are appearing in the Free Navy’s plans, like the fact that they have wiped out food production and have 3 years left before humanity collapses. Great time for Marco – hubristic leader of the Free Navy – to pursue his grudge against Holden, Naomi, and the rest of the Rocinante crew.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Babylon’s Ashes since finishing Nemesis Games. The staging of a war, the political conflicts, the host of interesting and complicated characters; this was set to be a ripper of a novel. So I was a little disappointed and found myself plodding through some of the story.

This was partly my own fault, as I have less concentrated reading time currently. When I did get quality reading time the book was as entertaining as anything in this series. It was also partly that the character of Marco Inaros was fully revealed for a narcissistic authoritarian populist who is more intent on punishing minor sleights than running the galaxy (gee, wonder if he’s modelled after any particular political leader). It didn’t help that there was a tinsy bit of plot contrivance – albeit one that has had quite a bit of setup – in the final moments of the plot.

Despite these points, I did actually enjoy Babylon’s Ashes. It wasn’t the strongest instalment in The Expanse, but this still remains a stellar series.

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Reading is good for the brain…. d’uh

I may have mentioned it before, but I am a science nerd. It may also be painfully obvious that I like reading. And before you ask, yes I do wear glasses and own a lab coat. I can fancy dress as anything from a doctor to a scientist.

What I love about science is the way it goes about trying to understand the universe. In fact science even came up with a few studies on how reading is fantastic for you. Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that ‘‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative”. The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways – although that’s hardly surprising nor unique.

Nicole Speer, also from Washington University, utilized brain-imaging to look at what happens inside the brains of participants while they read. She discovered that as people read, they are constructing a virtual reality inside their heads every time they read. That’s a fancy way of saying they imagined the stuff they were reading.

A reader’s brain in action.

So. The book is better… Who’d have thunk?

It is good to have some evidence that our brains get more out of reading. Without evidence, claims are not worth the air they consume. Just ask anyone who has tried to get conspiracy theorists to provide evidence for their claims.

Another study scanned readers’ brains to see how reading compared to web browsing (reading plus).*

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users. (Source)

Brain activity in a personal not used to using the web while reading

Brain activity in web newcomers: similar for reading and internet use
Surfing the net brain in action.

The researchers said that, compared to simple reading, the internet’s wealth of choices required people to make decisions about what to click on in order to get the relevant information. So not only is reading good, but exploring and interacting with what you are reading is even better. Surfing the net, getting lost in a fictional world…. wait that is the same point twice. Anyway, it leads to even more brain activity.

Now before you all go in search of internet porn to enlarge your brain, remember that you’re meant to be reading the porn sites for the articles.

 

* It took me a bit of searching to find the original journal paper for this study. The BBC article and original press release were easy. A personal gripe of mine is when press releases and news articles fail to link to the original article so that we can fact check the claims. So as part of growing your brain with reading and internet browsing, please spend some time searching for and reading the original scientific papers that are reported. And if it wasn’t peer reviewed, then it could have been made up, like that rubbish about us only using 10% of our brain.

Book review: Gridlock by Sean Black

Gridlock (Ryan Lock, #3)Gridlock by Sean Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That moment when you recognise an actor/actress but can’t admit it.

Adult film star Raven Lane has a stalker. Not the leave flowers kind of stalker, the kind that leaves bodies in the back of your car. The police are only mildly interested in catching someone killing people in the adult industry, so Raven hires Lock and Ty. Ryan Lock reluctantly takes the job, sensing that something is off about it all. There is. In the worst way possible.

It has been a while since I’ve read anything from Sean Black. His first Lock thriller novel was recommended to me by thriller author Matt Hilton, and I loved it. Sean has since branched out into writing a mystery-comedy series – Malibu Mystery – that I’ve got on my TBR (at some point I’m going to have to admit I have a book buying problem). Reading another Ryan Lock novel was like putting on a comfy pair of shoes. Sean keeps the narrative interesting, keeps the pacing fast, and isn’t afraid to land plot punches most authors would avoid.

Although, when Sean says he loves to do hands on research, I kinda wonder what he did for Gridlock.

Highly recommend this novel for thriller and crime-thriller fans.

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Valuable reading time

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I love this bit from Family Guy. This isn’t the first time I’ve posted this pic. Last time I used it in a post musing why I hadn’t read more Dean Koontz novels.

Koontz acted as my archetypal author whom I haven’t read. We all have more books to read than we’ll ever have time to. So there will be some authors who we’ll gloss over or miss. I also made a point about not wasting time on bad books and mediocre authors. Being a nerd I used some math:

  • Let’s use two averages 50 books per year and 100 books per year.
  • Assume average reading lifespan is between age 10 and 80 = 70 years.
  • Assume you only read any one novel once.
  • Assume that you aren’t tragically hit by a car and can’t read.
  • Thus, in a reading lifetime you can read between 3,500 and 7,000 books.
  • There were over 300,000 books published in the USA last year. Over 8,000 in my home country of Australia.

If we do waste time on bad books then the list of authors we’ll gloss over will be longer. We may miss out on something we really love just so we can trudge through something we don’t.

But the best part of posting the pic last time was an author friend sending the post to Dean Koontz. And I still haven’t read Odd Thomas…

Book vs Movie: Logan vs Old Man Logan – What’s the Difference?

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Nothing like a comic book movie to analyse for differences. Much less reading. This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix looks at Logan and Wolverine: Old Man Logan.

Logan was a rare treat for me this year. I’m not saying it was a fantastic film that blew me away, more that I actually got to see the movie in the cinema for once. The film itself was okay. Probably one of the better X-Men films, if not the best. The strengths of the film are in it taking on the aesthetics of the Western genre. It’s weaknesses are the not unobtrusive plot holes.

The comic that inspired the movie is vastly different. While also enjoyable, the source material was never going to be adapted to the big screen. Just the number of superhero name rights they’d have to license would have made it an expensive two-hour name dropping session. But it would have been cool to see Wolverine get eaten by The Hulk and then suffer a few digestive problems.

So rather than this being an adaptation, it is more akin to thematic borrowing. Or to put it another way, they looked at the cover and thought that grey and scarred look would be a good idea for Hugh’s final outing as Wolverine. The film has more in common with Shane and Unforgiven than it does with the comic, in a good way. And I suppose if that is the sort of adaptation the movie goes for, it is a better idea than some of the others covered in this series.

And now for a philosophical take on Logan:

Book review: Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot, #8)Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you try to kill someone five times and fail, does the intended victim have to at least feign injury?

Hercule Poirot the world’s best detective thought he had retired. Then a bullet intended for Nick Buckly lands at his feet. He can’t very well continue to modestly claim the title of world’s best detective if he doesn’t solve a case that literally lands at his feet, now can he?

I’ve not previously read any Agatha Christie novels, so it was interesting to galavant off to 1930s England for a mystery. It is hard not to be familiar with the Christie tropes, what with the countless plays, radio, TV, and movie adaptations, not to mention the imitators. But seeing the tropes in their original form was entertaining in and of itself, whilst also grounding a lot of the other works.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing The Play That Goes Wrong. Probably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, and one that wouldn’t have worked without the influence of Christie. That alone probably added to my enjoyment of this novel. And the mystery itself was actually quite well layered. So as long as you don’t mind the slight quaintness of the characters (rich English people from 1930s high society) and the tropes (let’s go to the drawing-room, sit around the log fire, and I’ll slowly reveal who did it) this is well worth a read.

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Book review: The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

The Water's EdgeThe Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre fiction is all about escapism, said no crime fiction fan ever.

A young boy’s body is found in a remote park. It is clear he has been abused and then dumped. The only lead Inspector Sejer has to go on is the man a young couple passed before discovering the boy. And then a second boy goes missing.

This was an incredibly hard book to read. There’s nothing quite like the lurid details of crimes against children to really make you squirm. Karin Fossum doesn’t just make you squirm from the crime itself, either, she seems to want you to be disgusted with humans, as she peels back the layers on all of the characters. Goal achieved.

While this was a tough read, it was still a good solid crime novel. Unlike many other crime authors, Fossum seems to be able to poke at the reader. This is both a good and a bad thing, as it makes The Water’s Edge hard to recommend to others – especially if you have kids – and to give 5 stars to. One for hardened crime fiction fans I’d say.

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That isn’t literature too

Paradox - another word for idiocy

I recently reblogged an article from The Conversation about how awesome the Harry Potter books are, but how snobby (some?) literary people are about them. The vitriol and chastisement of the Harry Potter books reminds me of a time when I too was not on the Potter bandwagon. Oh how wrong I was.

Stupid kid’s books. It’s just The Worst Witch with a Chosen One narrative. That’s not literature!

And once again we come to my favourite book chest thumping topic. How worthy is Harry Potter and how wrong have the snobby people been about it?

I think it is worth addressing a few of the arguments that are levelled at JK Rowling and genre fiction in general. Let’s use Rowling as a stand in for all genre authors. Because all genre authors are just as successful and beloved…

Mostly the arguments revolve around Rowling not having the correct goals in her writing. Of course, these supposed goals are rather arbitrary and change depending upon who is deciding what Rowling’s goals should be. Because apparently writing an entertaining book series that sells hundreds of millions of copies, has devoted fans, promotes laudable social principles, and got some kids reading books who wouldn’t have otherwise isn’t enough for some people. They also tend to expect the world from the Harry Potter books, something that I’ll delve into further below.

Take for example this piece by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian:

Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you’re one of the many adults who don’t have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn’t make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. Source.

Ugh. I’ve got two words for you, Nicholas Lezard, and they are what your mum should have said to your dad on that fateful day.

There is so much to unpack in that small quote. Lezard starts by insulting fans of the books, then says he isn’t insulting them, then insults them again. Someone who could write a paragraph such as this is self-evidently someone upon whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. He’s insulting the use of speech identifier verbs whilst failing to understand the audience and style being utilised. If you expect YA to be using the same style as the Man-Booker winners you’re gonna have a bad time.

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But why insult fans, young and old, of the series? Why insult Rowling? Although she is probably insulated from such lowly criticism in her gold-lined money castle. He didn’t like something, he can critique it, but he is forgetting that a literary critique stands on argument, not insulting people for disagreeing with him.

This speaks poorly of Lezard and other such critics. In a previous post I discussed literary people defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. But this is Lezard leading a charge against the peaceful village inhabited by the Lesser Works. He has marked himself the despotic bigoted scourge of Fiction Land, seeking to crush all those who would dare be different from him.

Other critics of Harry Potter have argued that the series didn’t do enough to change the world. This piece comes from the unsupported opinions at The New York Times:

But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, U.S. statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along. Source.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that it requires one series by one author to change the lives of all kids worldwide… The article itself cites the series as having sold 325 million copies worldwide in the decade since the first book’s release (a third of that in the USA alone). Out of the 1.9 billion kids and 7 billion people in the world that means only 17% of kids, or 4.6% of people have bought a Harry Potter book (because nobody ever bought the whole series, or two copies of one of the books, or saw a copy in a library). To put that 325 million copies for the entire series in perspective, roughly 175 million people paid to see A film in the cinema that was tenuously about cars. A similar number paid to see the final Harry Potter film. Let’s face it: reading isn’t that popular.

Let’s break this amazing phenomenon down a bit further. There have been several studies that have looked at readers, particularly kids, and how many of them have read the books.

Percentage of kids reading each Harry Potter book

Source

This is a small survey of children (N = 233) looking at Harry Potter fans, but is consistent with other studies and with a Waterstones reader survey the researchers used to validate the small study. You can see that most kids had read the first book, but that quickly dropped off as the series continued. The studies showed that only 25-35% of kids had read all 7 books in the series, with the average fan reading 3.98 books in the series.

Another thing to note is that studies have also found that 46% and 49% had read a Harry Potter book. Or to put it another way, over 50% of kids hadn’t read any Harry Potter books, and many had only tried one (usually the first one). The most popular book series of all time still isn’t read by a majority of people.

But what about JK Rowling’s influence on reading?

This study was of only 650 kids, but it does illustrate that particularly amongst secondary school kids that they were inspired to read. More books, more difficult books, and more fiction – and if someone can point out the difference between non-fiction and fiction I’d much appreciate it.

Another study of a similar size found supporting results:

Many, though not all, of our enthusiasts consider the Potter books a major contributor to both their self-identification as readers and their wider literacy development. Perhaps the most striking change they reported was the confidence and motivation to try more challenging books or more books in general. Thus, the Potter books—particularly the thicker ones—acted as a “Portkey” or “gateway,” transporting readers into the world of more mature fiction. Source.

The increasing complexity and length of the books was cited in both studies as giving people confidence to grow as readers. But it was also noted that one of the reasons given for not reading all of the books in the series was also the increasing complexity and length. In other words you can’t please everyone, especially not kids. Unless you have ice-cream. And the kids aren’t lactose intolerant.

So the problem isn’t that the books are second-rate, nor that they aren’t encouraging people (kids are people too) to read. The problem is that even the most popular book series ever is going to have a limited impact. Rowling has managed to connect with a huge audience – for a book – which has had positive impacts on readers, such that they are more likely to go out and read more books, even the more complex books that keep the literary snobs in a job.

It is a big ask to expect one book series to have improved literacy rates. At the risk of labouring the point – any further – most people don’t read, and most people who do read won’t have read Harry Potter. The problem isn’t Rowling failing to inspire people enough. It isn’t that she wasn’t a good enough writer. The problem is that people love to make lazy attacks on genre fiction. They don’t want to admit that reading is not that popular and that what we have been doing is probably not encouraging new readers. At least Rowling was on the right track.

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