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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Our Book Review Rules

Some book review bloggers with more experience than I have strongly suggested posting a set of book review policies, so here are my Lucky 13 rules.   Fair warning!

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; business books; inspirational stories (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.   In fact, I’m a sucker for true animal stories!

2.   I am not interested in science fiction; vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books laden with philosophy (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear: yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice ripers or old fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paperbound galleys or ARCS, even if they are subject to final review, corrections and editing.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded consumers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is more painful than dental work – I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been edited by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book; but my receipt of your book does not equate to an automatic positive review (I just try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   I have a full-time job and a part-time one and family obligations, and these must take priority in my scheduling.   Please do not send me e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.  

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to also include a link to their website, or their Twitter or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search. 

10. I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.

11. I love audio books on CD, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher or publicist can supply me with an audio book copy it’s a big plus.

12.   Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P.R. sheet with some basic information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contract P.R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will make sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.   New authors – especially of non-fiction or self-published books – please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!  

Note:  I will not be reviewing any self-published books between now and August 2, 2011.

Photo:   flickr (electriclibrarian)book rules (electriclibrarian)

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