Thursday, June 22, 2006

My current reading life

I talk a lot about reviewing because most of the books I've read lately are ones I've written about for some publication or other, this blog included. In fact, before this past weekend, the last time I read a book which I didn't review in any form was back in early March. That novel was Ann Elizabeth Cree's The Venetian's Mistress - a Regency-style romance with some gothic elements thrown in, but set in Italy rather than England. It's a Harlequin Historical from 2006, and the only reason I didn't review it was because I neglected to do so right after finishing it, which is a necessity these days. I tend to forget little details if I wait too long (learned this the hard way).

And now that I've mentioned this novel, does it count as a book I've written about? Nah, two lines isn't a review, and besides, I don't remember what I read before that one...

Not that I'm complaining; I've read some terrific books over the past three months. Margaret George's Helen of Troy is one (the 600-page tome I carted around on my New England vacation); Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale another; Mary Sharratt's The Vanishing Point another (in preparation for an interview, not a review per se). Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces is one I wouldn't likely have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I read it. Not to mention Eve Trevaskis' Piers Gaveston novel, which would have sat unread on my shelves for another five years, otherwise...

The problem, though (if indeed it is a problem): After a long stint of very concentrated reading, I don't think I'm capable of reading a novel without pen and paper nearby. On Saturday and Sunday, I found myself with some time when no deadlines were immediately looming, so I picked up a newish historical romance set in the post-Civil War South. But while reading, phrases kept forming in my mind, ones I might possibly want to use in a review. I was tempted to write down character inconsistencies, details on the 21st century dialogue, the author's emphasis on accurate detail despite her characters' modern speech... but I didn't. And it kind of frustrates me that I didn't.

The end result: I'm much more critical of a reader than I used to be. At the same time, I don't think I'm enjoying the books any less. Even more, when I write about books, I find that details on the plot, character, writing style, etc., stay in my memory a lot longer than they would otherwise.

Now, back to my latest pile of review books - three more to go...


  1. I often find myself writing reviews in my head before I finish reading a book!

  2. How many books do you review in a year's time?

    With apologies if you've stated this elsewhere on the blog.

  3. Marg, I do the same. If I don't write my ideas down right away, I forget them, so I'm always jotting phrases down on pieces of paper I carry around in my purse.

    I review 50-60 books a year. Most are historical novels. A few are reference books, though, and I don't necessarily read those cover-to-cover.

  4. I'm interested in your comment about '21st century dialogue' and 'modern speech'. What sort of words and phrases make it sound modern? Any chance you could post some examples?

  5. Sure. Phrases like one person saying that someone else will "bulldoze the competition" and characters saying "yeah, okay" and "yeah, right" a lot. The dialogue is very casual, even in more refined social settings. Generally, the novel reads like a contemporary although the time period's supposed to be 1860s-70s.

  6. Thanks, Sarah. I quite like casual language for informal speech between friends, but those would irk me. Wonder when the bulldozer was even invented, let alone made it into the language?

  7. The OED says that "bulldoze" was used figuratively as a verb circa 1945. Re: the piece of equipment with that name, OED lists as 1930, though "bulldozer" was used in the connotation of "a large pistol" in the 1870s.

    (How pedantic of me to check! I have online access to the OED and use it fairly regularly.)

    This particular novel was an odd mix, because the historical detail (apart from the characters' speech and behavior) was well researched as far as I could tell.

  8. I find myself slipping in railway terms like "sidetracked" if I'm not careful.

  9. The words that get me while reading are "orientate" and "irregardless." The former's in the OED (grrrr), but not pre-19th C. The latter's one of those fake words that will probably make it in there eventually because it's used so often.

    I'm sitting here in my office till the tornado warning passes, so I can finally go home. There's a tornado in the southern part of this county. I love the midwest.

  10. Oh Sarah, I can sympathize on so many levels. Bulldoze the competition...yikes! Anachronism, especially in dialogue, is a throw-the-book-across-the-room story killer for me in historical fiction. When it's really blatant then the book is nothing but costume party for me -- a bunch of modern characters in fancy dress. And count me in as a compulsive OED checker.

    And after two years in a writing program, it's been a real challenge not to read everything citically. What I'm learning to do is let the ever-present workshop in my head fade to a background clatter -- like reading in a train station.

  11. Yes, that about says it - a costume party.

    Sarah Park, do you find you're more picky about what you read after going through your writing program? I think I would be.

  12. I'm not sure picky is the right word. When reading for pleasure, I still head straight to mysteries and historical fiction. What I did learn, though, is that I like to read and (I hope) write fiction with strong character development, strong sense of time and place, an interest in examining the relationship between personal and cultural experience and/or history, and concise, precise language that doesn't overwhelm the story.

    I really don't like the typical lit mag sort of short story -- too bleak, no plot, too narrow a focus, no sense of place, self-conscious language -- and I was afraid that any other sort of writing would be discouraged or looked down on. Luckily, that was not at all the case for me.

    Now I realize that mysteries and historical fiction most often embody what makes good fiction for me. I'm not sure I'm any choosier than I was before, but I do think I'm better at figuring out what does or doesn't work for me and why.

    In terms of contemporary literary fiction, I'll take E.L Doctorow or Geraldine Brooks over Mary Gaitskill any day!