Friday, October 28, 2011 ain't for everyone

On Wednesday I touched on five elements that can make or break a book in my opinion.  Authors that get it right consistently find ways to incorporate all of the elements.  They've studied their craft and combined it with their passion for writing to produce an end product that readers love.  And then there are those other people.

You, Tyrese, I'm talking about you and your little friend Steve Harvey, along with a host of others.  Remember when Tyrese was all about this:

Oh how we loved that little chocolate boy.  When he crossed over from singing into acting, we went along for the ride.  Sure, he couldn't act (Baby Boy flashbacks, anyone?), but we were okay with that.  He was exploring new thangs and what not.  Then he crossed over into my territory and started writing books.  It wasn't bad enough that Steve Harvey convinced himself he was an author, Tyrese caught a whiff of the dollars Steve was bringing in and decided he could do just as well, if not better.  No ma'am, no sir!

Writing, or should I say attempted writing, isn't just limited to singers, rappers are also getting in on the game.  50 Cent and TI have thrown their hats in the ring and are now writing for the urban youth.  Never mind the fact that neither of them can enunciate worth a damn and I'm always tempted to turn the closed captioning on when they're on the screen. They're writing books for your children to read! 50 Cent, who strikes me as a long time bully, is writing a book guessed it, bullying.  And TI is writing about, hell, who knows? 101 Things to do Before My Next Prison Stint? 

What I do know is that it overcooks my grits to see celebrities get book deals and put out absolute garbage that the masses will consume while terrific authors languish in the Twitterverse practically begging people to buy their wonderful books.  Is there enough room in the universe for real authors and these other people, sure.  But who gets the press and the big publicity campaigns and appearances on The Today Show?  It's certainly not the authors that eat, sleep and breath their characters.

Anyway, that's the end of my rant.  Since it's Friday, I'll leave you with this for the weekend.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What makes a good book a good book

Brian over at Don't Sweat the Technique approached me about writing a post on what makes a good book to a reviewer.  I'm not a professional reviewer, just a chick that loves to read.  At any rate, I took a stab at it and my thoughts are below.

Though what makes a good book is really subjective, I’d have to say the basis of a good book is well-developed story lines; fleshed out characters; unpredictable plots; descriptive imagery and fluid writing.  Not sure what I mean?  Let’s explore a little further and I’ll give you examples of books in which authors get it right.

1) Well-Developed Story Lines
I want to know that the author has taken the time to think the story all the way through to the end.  Don’t draw me so deep into the book that I’m staying up past my bedtime to finish it, then drop me off a cliff with no warning at the end!  That’s not to say that every story needs to be nice and neatly wrapped with a bow at the ending, but I shouldn’t get a feeling that your editor told you that you only needed to write 200 pages and you quit at page 199. Finish that story.

On the other hand, don’t give me fluff. There are a million ways to say the same thing. Don’t try them all out in one book.

And please remember what part of the story you’ve already told. There’s nothing worse than feeling like I’m stuck in the movie Groundhog Day because the author keeps rehashing the same scene.

Example: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

2) Fleshed-out Characters
If you want me to like, love, hate your characters, you’ve got to tell me who they are. I’m more likely to keep reading and cheering (or booing) for characters if I feel like I know them.

Circle back to the character that you made me like in chapter three and never spoke of again beyond chapter four. What purpose did he/she serve? If she was important enough to add to your storyline initially, why wasn’t she important later?

Get me emotionally invested in your characters and I’m yours forever. However, if they’re forgettable, trust me, so is your book.

Example: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, The Stand by Stephen King.

3) Unpredictable Plots
Readers love twists, turns and what not. If I already know how the story is going to end, why should I bother to read it? We read as an escape from our day to day routine.  Life is, generally, predictable. Plots should not be.

Example: This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park, The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar  

4) Descriptive Imagery
Unless I’m reviewing a kid’s book, there are no pictures included. The author should write in such a way that I can envision what characters look like. A really well written book will not only allow me to see the character, but hear them as well.  And if the setting for the story is magnificent/gritty/etc., I should be able to feel that from what the author has written.

Example: The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber, The Last Empress by Anchee Min

5) Fluid writing
 Journalist and author Norman Cousins once said, “Words have to be crafted, not sprayed.  They need to be fitted together with infinite care.”  

One of the reasons J. California Cooper is my favorite author is that reading her writing is like curling up on my Granny’s lap and listening to her tell a story. Cooper doesn’t get extra fancy with her words.  She simply tells the story in a relatable, conversational, sitting on the back porch kind of way. Her storyline, her characters, her words and her imagery flow together in such a way that when the book has ended, you find yourself wishing she’d give you just one more chapter.

In contrast, some authors write so choppily that you may find yourself seasick a few chapters in. Bumpy writing will have me ready to jump ship in a heartbeat. The goal should always be to tell a story in such a way that the reader doesn’t want it to end.

Example: Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper, 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

I don’t have a degree in English or a MFA in Creative Writing; I’m simply a reader. But if these basic elements are included, I can almost guarantee that I’ll give a book a five star rating.

What makes a good book a good book for you?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Weekend in Review

So I started this weekend's read-a-thon like this at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning:

By 8:30 a.m., I had finished book one and I was still like:

I finished book two with ease around 12:30 p.m.  I felt myself waning and decided to eat lunch and have a Pepsi.  By the time I dived into book three at 2:30 p.m., I was like:

Now I probably could have gotten in a few more books, but I had a dinner invite that I couldn't miss, so I finished book three right around 5:40 and headed out for the evening.  Could I regain my momentum? Uh, no.  I started book four around 11:30 p.m. and halfway through I was all: 

I think I made it to 2:00 a.m. and just couldn't go any further.  With my alarm set for 4:00 a.m., I figured I could get up and have book five read before the 7:00 a.m. end of the read-a-thon.  Let me tell you, when my alarm went off, THIS was the look on my face.

Needless to say, I didn't start reading. I rolled right back over and went to bed.  So I didn't read all five books that I planned to read, but I did get in three books that qualify for the Colorful Chick Lit challenge and a very good historical fiction read.  Look for reviews of those books and more in the next few weeks.

Who else participated? Did you last all 24 hours or did you crash like me? What did you read? Details, details!


Friday, October 21, 2011

Free for All Friday, October 21

I know many of you set reading goals at the beginning of the year and, if you're anything like me, you're behind with your reading.  While I've managed to stay current with my goal of reading 100 books this year, I'm woefully behind on the number of books I'd like to read for the Colorful Chick Lit Challenge.  I'll be spending 24 hours, beginning at 7 a.m. CST Saturday, reading to catch up.  Sponsored by the good people over at Dewey's Read-a-Thon twice a year, I try to participate at least once a year and always enjoy the visits from other readers to the blog.  Stop by Saturday and Sunday for updates here and over on my tumblr.  Details are below.

What is the 24 Hour Read-a-thon?
It’s sort of a reading challenge, only everyone participates at the same time. For 24 hours, we read books, post in our blogs about our reading, and visit other readers’ blogs. We also participate in mini-challenges throughout the day and win prizes.

Do I have to stay up the whole 24 hours?
No, although it’s more fun if if you do. Cheerleaders only need to commit to at least one hour, and Readers can either choose to stay up the entire time or take breaks as they need to. There are some prizes that you’ll only be eligible for if you participate all 24 hours.

Do e-books count?
Well, sure! Also audio books, reading to the kids, etc

Where can I sign up? 
You can sign up to be a Reader in the read-a-thon here and can sign up to be a volunteer here.

An overwhelming number of people that read this blog and follow me on Twitter are women.  I've had discussions with a few of you about whether or not men read and, if they do, their reading habits.  Though the handful of male readers rarely chime in, you'll be hearing from them soon as I launch my "Real Men Read" series.  If you've wondered where the men that read are and what they're reading, you'll have a chance to find out as I feature their thoughts about and comments on books once a month.

That's all for now.  Anyone joining me for the read-a-thon? 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#BookReview: Sixty-7 - Aynoit Ashor

Only available in ebook format for now, Sixty-7 is a novella from Aynoit Ashor's Family Secrets series.  Told from the point of view of a 10 year old boy, it's an account of the abuse of his mother by her boyfriend.  Ashor covers a lot of territory in this short read.

With his father in jail, the young boy is being raised by his mother, but he has fond memories of the times when the three were a complete family.  Even with his father in jail, they maintain a relationship through visits and frequent phone calls.  When his mother gains the attention of a shady newcomer, the boy seeks ways to protect her by any means possible, even if she doesn't realize that she's in danger.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Told in simplistic words, this is a short that could and should be used in schools to educate children on what domestic violence looks like. Too many children begin to think that it's the norm when they see it on a daily basis.  And if nothing else motivates you to share or read this, the author offers an interesting statistic, "Sixty-seven percent of boys in jail for murder are there for killing their mother's abuser." 

Domestic violence is best understood as a pattern of abusive behaviors -- including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion -- used by one intimate partner against another (adult or adolescent) to gain, maintain, or regain power and control in the relationship. Batterers use of a range of tactics to frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, often injure, and sometimes kill a current or former intimate partner.
For more general information about domestic violence, including potential warning signs for emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline's information page: What is Domestic Violence?

Available: Kindle or Nook format
Published: March 2011

Theme: Love is Blind by Eve

Friday, October 14, 2011

Free for All 40 & Fabulous Friday, October 14

So today we take a break from books, literature and what not.  Why? Because it's my birthday!  While you're reading this, I'll be getting a massage or a pedicure or getting my do done.  Eventually I'll have a late lunch with my father and maybe take in a jazz concert later.

I know that most people make resolutions for the new year, I make mine on my birthday.  So here are a few of my resolutions.

1. I'm shedding one-sided relationships.  That includes friends that can't remember my birthday, though I remember not only theirs, but their kids as well.  I know it will come as a shock to some of them.

But honestly, if the only time I hear from you is when you need to borrow money, you need a new gig, you're between boyfriends, you want to vent about your kids or you're selling product XYZ that you'd like me to buy, consider yourself gone, because we're not friends.  Hell, we're barely even acquaintances.  Buh-bye.

2. Toodles Debbie Downers. You can't find something to be happy about ever???  I've known you for years and that scowl on your face is etched so deeply that you've got well defined lines like you're sitting up on Mt. Rushmore.  You're like the piss fairy, just waiting on someone to come along in a good mood so you can rain on their parade.  What is that all about? I know misery loves company, but damn.

 You can hop on the goodbye bus along with One-Sided Sally.  You are no longer a factor in my world.

3.  I plan to enjoy life to the fullest. I've spent  a lot of time and put a lot of effort into raising a productive member of society.  She's off in college getting her party study on and I plan to do the same.

What, if any, changes have you made in your life recently? Are you already thinking about New Year's resolutions?  Was I too harsh?

Monday, October 10, 2011

#BookReview: This Burns My Heart - Samuel Park

Easily one of my favorite reads this year, This Burns My Heart is the moving story of Soo-Ja.  As a young lady in 1960 South Korea, she longed to move to Seoul and become a diplomat.  When her wealthy father forbids her to join the Foreign State Department, she plots, at her mother's suggestion, to marry an easily pliable man who will let her have her way.  But when you try to run game on someone, there's always a good chance that game is being run on you. And while Soo-Ja thinks she's using Min, she finds that she really is not the master of her fate, as she thought.

Why are we asked to make the most important decisions of our lives when we are so young, and so prone to mistakes? 

So caught up in her dreams of escaping her small town of Daegu and becoming a diplomat, Soo-Ja misses out on the warning signs that would have stopped her from making such a grave mistake. Like a weight around her neck, Soo-Ja is forced to carry the decision she makes as an early 20something with her for years.  Bound by duty to her family and tradition, Soo-Ja endures the deceit of her husband's family and disrespect of her own child.  Chance encounters with an old friend with whom she shares a special bond only make the burdens harder to bear.

“Tchamara. What is the word that comes closest to it? To stand it, to bear it, to grit your teeth and not cry? To hold on, to wait until the worst is over? There is no other word for it, no way to translate it. It is not a word. It is a way to console yourself. He is not just telling her to stand the pain, but giving her comfort, the power to do so. Tchamara is an incantation, and if she listens to its sound, she believes that she can do it, that she will push through this sadness. And if she is strong about it, she’ll be rewarded in the end. It is a way of saying, I know, I feel it, too. This burns my heart, too.”

The pain, the sadness, the longing of Soo-Ja all come through in the words of Samuel Park.    While this is a love story between a man and a woman, it's just as much a love story of a mother for her child.  Through it all, Soo-Ja finds her spirit down, but never broken.  I can guarantee you that you'll find yourself rooting for her happiness just as much as I was.

What did you like about this book?
Not only was it an easy read, it was a beautiful read.  Park managed to weave in the student revolutions of 1960 into the story line, providing the reader with a historical aspect.  Readers unfamiliar with Korean traditions and society were also offered a glimpse into the changes within South Korea from 1960 through the mid 70s.

What didn't you like about this book?
I can't think of a thing.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Not a thing.

Published July 2011

Theme: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart by Al Green

Friday, October 7, 2011

Free for All Friday, October 7

In which I pretend that I'm not obsessed with Idris Elba. Oh sure, I glance at other men, but I always come back to Driis. I mean, they're cute. You can't deny that Blair is fine,Michael Ealy's eyes are magical and Lamman Rucker is the business (even though he's lost in Tyler Perry land these days).  But it's always, ALWAYS about Idris. Enjoy.

Michael Ealy
Blair Underwood

Lamman Rucker

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

#BookReview: Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny - Nile Rodgers

Even if you don't know his name, and I can't imagine you don't, but if you don't, you know Nile Rodgers' music.  A writer, musician and producer, you can almost bet that at any given moment, a radio station some place on earth is playing a Nile Rodgers' song.  We'll get into the songs in a just a minute, but for now, let's talk about Nile himself.

Born to a 13 year old mother, Nile's upbringing was anything but conventional.  I would go so far as to say that the phrase, "sex, drugs and rock & roll" accurately describes his youth.  A few years later his mother would go on to marry, not Nile's biological father, but Bobby, a Jewish salesman that wasn't much older than her.  As Beverly and Bobby experimented more with drugs, their surroundings changed, so it wasn't uncommon for Nile and his brothers to live in Greenwich Village one day and Alphabet City or Hell's Kitchen the next.

As his mother tried to get herself together, Nile went to live with his grandmother and began an endless stream of flights back and forth from California to New York as his mother summoned him and sent him away.  The one bright light in all of this chaos was his discovery of a love for music.  It almost seemed like as soon as he felt he was old enough to handle life on his own, he made a break from the yo-yo lifestyle he'd been leading.  Thank goodness he did.

Starting with the Big Apple Band, Rodgers would partner with bassist Bernard Edwards and go on to compose, write, produce, perform or play on some of the biggest hits of the last 40 years.  As Chic, Rodgers and Edwards just wanted to make good music.  Neither was concerned with being the front man, which made them the perfect house musicians for artists like Luther Vandross and Ashford & Simpson.  Their production and writing skills brought us Sister Sledge's We Are Family and He's the Greatest Dancer.  I still bump Diana Ross' Upside Down and I'm Coming Out.  And though Rodgers and Edwards split in the 80s, Rodgers went on to work on albums for Madonna (the complete Like A Virgin album), David Bowie (Let's Dance), Duran Duran (The Reflex), Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson and Prince, to name a few.

What did you like about this book?
I learned a lot about Rodgers.  I guess I'd never really given him much thought prior to receiving this book, but he really has written the soundtrack of my life.  He's lead quite an interesting life and has overcome what would be insurmountable circumstances for others.

What didn't you like about this book?
Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything.

What could the author do to improve this book?
I went into this expecting to get a lot more gossip or back stories of Rodgers' friends.  I guess because they were his friends, he didn't really give up as much as I expected him to.

Published: Oct. 18, 2011

Theme: Dance, Dance, Dance by Chic

Monday, October 3, 2011

#BookReview: One Day It'll All Make Sense - Common

A lot of rappers write memoirs and while I've had no interest in reading most of them, I couldn't resist giving Common's One Day It'll All Make Sense a read.  He's one of my favorite rappers because unlike some that talk about how many cars they have or how many women they've slept with, he generally comes with a message.  I'll forgive him for the foolishness that was Electric Circus (I'm just going to blame that one on Erykah Badu) and Universal Mind Control (and I'll blame this one on Serena Williams).

I'm not sure why, but I fully expected Common to just break down some of his lyrics, tell us about his fancy lifestyle and throw in an occasional motivational message.  Instead, each chapter starts with a letter from him to someone important in his life, alive or dead.  Through these letters, the reader learns what the person he's writing to has meant to him and how they influenced his life.  I especially enjoyed his letters to his parents and to his daughter.

Another thing he does, that not many men are willing to do, is be open about his relationships and the roles he's played in them.  Let's go back to my reference to Electric Circus and Ms. Badu.  Why do I blame her for that horrible CD?  How do you go from Like Water for Chocolate to that?  Other than Come Close, which was written about Erykah, it was the epitome of whack.  In talking about his relationship with her, it's apparent that from day one, Erykah was in control and their relationship was all about her.
"Erykah was my first grown-up love.  Loving her was the first time I had been so caught up in a relationship that everything else seemed muffled and dimmed. ...I loved Erykah so hard that I didn't have any love left for myself."
While his family and friends watched, Common changed the way he lived, ate, communicated, etc.  It almost sounded like one of the Ms. Cleo commercials of the nineties, "I think someone put roots on me!"  Though they started as friends, Erykah decided when they became a couple and also when the relationship ended, calling him while he was on tour to tell him it was over, while her next man sat in the room and listened in on the conversation.  Who does that??? When I say Ms. Badu is stronger than battery acid?!?! I just wanted to cradle Common to my chest as a I read that...purely for unselfish reasons, of course.  And um, have a word with "E."

Common goes on to talk about his other relationships with Taraji "my eyes stay bloodshot" P. Henson and Serena Williams, but it's obvious that Ms. Badu had the most lasting effect on him and some of his biggest life lessons were learned as a result of their time together.  The message that stood out most to me was,
"No longer am I going to dim my light for anyone or anything.  I 'm going to let it shine.  This is what God gave me, so I'm going to wear this.  I'm going to wear my greatness."
And he wears it long as we're not talking about his acting, but that's another story for another time.

What did you like about this book?
I loved the openness and honesty of Common.  Though he's usually portrayed as walking the straight and narrow, his stories of youth quickly dispel that myth.  It's as if he's most interested in giving people the complete picture of himself rather than the manufactured image that most artists have.

What didn't you like about this book?
I enjoyed most of the letters, but some of them were quite lengthy and didn't keep my attention.

What could the author do to improve this book?
I would suggest shortening and/or removing some of the letters.

Published September 2011
Disclosure: Copy provided by the publisher, opinions posted are my own.

Theme: The People by Common