Tag Archives: page-turner

Pieces of April

Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Algonquin Books; $13.95; 304 pages)

Deborah Copaken Kogan presents a heartrending story in her page-turning novel, Between Here and April.

Elizabeth Burns is determined to research and share the story of the disappearance of her childhood friend, April.   Following multiple blackout episodes, Elizabeth begins to recall the details of her friend and the rumors that followed her absence decades before.   However, as Elizabeth begins to question April’s family members and neighbors, the heart breaking trauma and the revelation of the outcome causes Elizabeth to reflect on her own life and past and reexamine her priorities.

The riveting storyline overlaps Elizabeth’s journey with the details of April’s disappearance and brings the characters to life, past and present.   The main character, Elizabeth, is challenged with balancing career and family with the probable consequences for indulging in reckless desires.   She must decide what portions of her life are worth mending to protect her own priorities.

She (Elizabeth’s daughter) slipped her mittened hand in mine and squeezed it tight, a gesture whose emotional pull is never diminished.   This is all there is, I thought to myself, self-consciously.   This is why we live.

Kogan examines the challenges of motherhood and how far some women will go to protect their children and preserve their cherished life and memories.   Yet, this is only one of the many overlapping controversial topics presented by Kogan throughout the novel, a few too many for my taste.   And although the story also presents some implausible circumstances (such as coming across actual dialogue of April’s mother presented to Elizabeth by a psychologist’s widow), Kogan keeps the reader intrigued through complex, interesting characters and clear, believable dialogue.

Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “The perfect book club book.”   The Washington Post Book World

Deborah Copaken Kogan also wrote Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War.

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The Matter of Perspective

On Book Reviewing

wangs-vs-the-world

One of the issues that will come up for the book reviewer is the matter of perspective.   From what perspective will the reviewer summarize a book, a novel, for the prospective reader?   In my view it should be a middle-of-the-book perspective.

Let me explain what I mean.   Let’s say that I’m reading a popular fiction novel about a young woman in the Midwest who is bored with her life, hates her parents, and wants to run away to New York City with her artist-musician boyfriend.   One chapter into the story the reviewer doesn’t know enough to write anything.   Fine, but a reader does not actually want a “last page” review – meaning that the person who’s considering reading this novel does not actually want to know “what happened at the end.”   (At the end, she moves to Manhattan, dumps her boyfriend, gets homesick and moves back to Ohio where she meets the quiet guy she marries.   See, you didn’t really want to know all this, did you?)

So I think it often comes down to that middle-of-the-book perspective.   Halfway through a novel I should know whether it’s a page turner or boring, a book filled with surprises or highly predictable, etc.   Most importantly, I should know whether it’s a book I want to finish in order to find out what does happen at its conclusion.

I’m not saying here that a reviewer should stop at the halfway point and write the review.   What I am saying is that at this point a reviewer should be able to see how his/her review will start, and what pluses and minuses are going to be included in the review.   Conclusions are often over-rated.   If you read a book that you love for 399 of its 400 pages, and it ends in a way that you aren’t completely fond of, the odds are you’ll still recommend it to others (“I wasn’t totally happy about the ending but it was really, really good!”).   And a great or perfect ending never saves a boring and predictable story.   One would never say to a friend, “You know, I hated all 399 pages of this book but once I got to the 400th page I realized I loved it!   Those last two paragraphs saved it for me!”

Thus, a reader-reviewer’s perspective reached halfway through a new novel is likely the viewpoint that he or she is going to retain while writing the review.   There will of course be an exception, as there is to any and every rule in life.   On occasion, there’s that novel that starts off like a house on fire and somehow at the halfway point falls off of a cliff.   I hate to name names but, for me, I Thought You Were Dead was one of those stories.   Dead started out funny and unique but once the beloved talking dog Stella died, the story was essentially over.   Hhhmmm.

The reverse situation does not matter much.   If the first half of a story is awful and painful to read, there aren’t many readers who are going to stick with it for what might be a surprisingly brilliant second half.   At least I think most reviewers can assume this and write a review that honestly states, “This book may have gotten much, much better in its second half, but it was almost impossible to get through the first 200 pages of this mess.”

One final point is that a review written from the middle-of-the-book perspective means the reviewer is never writing a review with a so-called spoiler alert.   Remember, the reader does not really want to know what happens at the end; that’s his/her personal payoff for reading the story all the way through.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   

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You Never Give Me Your Money

The Reviewer’s Voice

I have people say to me that writing book reviews is hard.   I would generally agree.   After you’ve spent hours, days, maybe even a week or two reading someone else’s words, organized in their own fashion, it can feel difficult to organize one’s own thoughts and reactions.   Plus, there’s always a sense of self-doubt…  You may have written 80 reviews but there’s the back-of-the-mind thought that you will not be able to put the words together that are needed to finish review number 81.

Sometimes we may need to pretend in order to lessen the self-perceived stress.   There’s a nice story about the Beatles that proves this point.   After the death of John Lennon, Yoko One found two cassette tapes with unfinished song bits (ideas) that John had recorded.   She gave these tapes to Paul, George and Ringo and asked if they might consider working on the bits, to complete the songs.   Paul, for one, responded that he didn’t think he could do this; it would involve too much pressure in a time of grief.

Yoko thought about this and returned with a novel approach.   She said to the three remaining band members, “Why don’t you put aside the fact that you’re doing this because John is dead.   How about if you just pretend that he left for a nice vacation?   He mailed you these tapes, noting that he didn’t have time to finish the songs before leaving.   He’s asked if you lads would help him do so.”   This mind-set changed everything, especially for Paul McCartney.   With the able assistance of Jeff Lynne, two new Beatles songs (“Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”) were released to the world and went to number one.

When I finish a book, I start a review with a game of pretension.   I pretend that an avid reader good friend has sent me an e-mail:  “I am really interested in the new book by John Jones.   One of our friends told me that you’ve just read it.   What do you think?”   My first draft is, in my mind, an e-mail response that’s written quickly and informally.   Yes, I will do some subsequent re-writing and rely on an editor or two to reorganize or touch up my thoughts, but simply getting the thoughts out there – putting them on the screen – helps me to remember that I can do this.

To me, the hesitation of the book reviewer (wasn’t it Jackie De Shannon who wrote the song, “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”?) is due to the notion that somewhere in the Universe there exists an ideal book reviewer voice.   But we all have different ideas of what that voice should sound like:  authoritative, bitchy, humble, folksy, friendly, obnoxious, learned/professorial, artsy, formal, positive or chirpy cheerleader, chippy, negative nay sayer or doomsday crier.   And none of these are the real voice of the helpful reviewer.   That reviewer speaks in your voice or my voice – a voice that expresses an honest opinion that the reader of the review is free to either accept or reject.   But the highest honor a review reader may pass on is to say, “Yours was an honest voice.”

Sometimes it may even arrive in the form of an e-mail message, “I didn’t agree with your conclusions about this book, but I know that you spoke (and wrote) honestly.”   High praise, indeed!   Enough to get us ready to write review number 81, 82 or 182.

Joseph Arellano

This is one article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  You Never Give Me Your Money – The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett, released by HarperStudio on June 8, 2010.   “Peter Doggett’s book about the Beatles’ split is a real page-turner.”   Annie Lennox

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