Friday, February 22, 2013

On the nature of appeal

A large part of my job is helping readers find their next book to read ("readers' advisory" in the jargon). My patrons and I talk about authors and books they like and don't like, and based on those conversations I'll try and pick out some books that they'll enjoy reading the next time around. There are lots of great tools out there for this (from Readers' Advisory databases to review web sites and book blogs), and I've learned (and am still learning) to ask certain questions when a person tells me about a book they did or didn't like, and to hone in on certain appeal factors when they do.

Immersed as I am in this discourse on books and stories (which, on a side note, is basically my favorite part of my job hands down), I am frequently struck by the wide variety of tastes among readers, and the difficulty sometimes in really honing in on what it is that a person finds appealing and enjoyable about a certain book. Sometimes you have to learn to read between the lines -- to listen to what a person means, not just the words they say. For example, I heard two of my patrons discussing 50 Shades of Gray, by E.L. James. Ms. B asked Ms. A if she'd enjoyed the book. "Yes, I'm really enjoying it," Ms. A said. "It's very well-written." My brain froze for a moment. Really? I thought. How interesting! Because, while I haven't read the book myself, everyone else I've talked to and every review I've read pretty much says the same thing: not well-written AT ALL (from a purely objective perspective, regardless of if that type of story is appealing). So in this case, I'm reading between the lines. Other reviews offer a more obviously objective and critical approach: this book is poorly written because of X, Y & Z factors. But Ms. A's review offered a more subjective, appeal-oriented approach: she enjoyed this book and enjoyed the writing style. TO HER, it was well-written because she enjoyed it.

Book appeal is so nebulous...unfixed and changing. I had a patron tell me once that as a retired English teacher she spent a lot of years reading books that made her think...and now she was ready to read some books that required no thinking at all! Even her personal appeal factors had adapted (although I'm pretty sure that because of her background, that person would particularly enjoy light, fun, easy-reading...but still objectively well-written books). Appeal can change from day to day, week to week, and year to year. Appeal is affected by your background, education, personality, mood, and current life situation. I did a paper once on the original appeal of Ian Fleming's James Bond books and the enduring appeal of the James Bond character today. James Bond's stories and adventures were so drastically different from the day-to-day lives of the post-war English men and women. But see...that was part of the appeal, to believe, even for a moment, that there was "life" beyond rations and rubble. My friends and I discussed this just the other day in light of the ever-changing interpretations of James Bond. Everyone's got their favorite...Daniel Craig, for example, exemplifies our more modern desire for a rough-around-the-edges-bad-ass-masculine hero.

When picking a "next read" for someone else or even for yourself, there are a lot of factors that inform that choice, either consciously or unconsciously. And sometimes it's as much about what a person doesn't say, as it is about what they do.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reading A Memory of Light

A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time Series #14)
So, this isn't really anything close to a review, and promises to be even more rambly than most of my book discussions. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.
I finished a Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the final volume in the mega and epic Wheel of Time series. I spoke a bit about the series a couple of weeks ago, so I'm not going to try and summarize much. Suffice it to say, this last book is the final showdown...tyng up loose ends, making some final plays, and the gathering together of people and nations and armies to fight The Dark One and his followers. 
Yeah, that about sums it up: pretty freaking fantastic. Here are some thoughts in list form (to keep them semi-coherent): 
1. So many times I've yelled at a character and questioned their choices and wanted to smack them repeatedly. Many, many characters in fact. But you know what...they've grown and learned and you really see that in this book. And it's awesome. 
2. The important loose ends get tied up, but with a surprising amount of open-endedness as well. I mean, part of me wants a "flash-foward twenty-years" type epilogue, but the other part of me firmly believes the ending was just right. I saw enough to get a vision of what could be...and to feel that these characters I'm so fond of still have life after the book is closed.
3. Brandon Sanderson makes me want to read battle scenes. That is no small feat.
4. One of the things I love about this series is the overarching theme of Hope, and you really see that in this book.
5. This book was quite an emotional roller coaster I spent a lot of time stressed out, crying, or fist pumping. 
6. Lots of twists and surprises. Lots of moments with me going "what?! what?! what?!"

Slightly Spoilery Section:
7. Ogiers!!!
8. Oh became such an awesome amazing leader. And the true definition of a badass. I will miss you. (although...I won't miss Gawyn, sorry. Not that I wanted anything to happen to him! But seriously...that guy is so. dense.)
9. Lan!!!!! Seriously, this guy...
10. Loved that Mat and Rand finally got to see each other. Loved their interaction
11. Talmanes! Who knew you were so cool. (and I seriously enjoyed the firing cannons out of a cave with no entrance. Genius!
12. Oh're the best. Seriously. You really proved (once again) in this book that at your core you care about people and about doing the right thing. Like Rand said -- you're a hero who will deny it to his last breath. I so much loved that memory Egwene had of you jumping in to save that child's life when you were a kid. And I hope you can somehow manage to completely undermine the crazy Seanchan society (especially that whole thing with enslaving women who can channel).
13. Min....finally, you grew on me. 
14. Moirane, I wish we'd gotten a little more time with you, but I'm so glad you were around. One of my first fist pumps was when you showed up at the fastly deteriorating meeting and completely schooled everyone. You're my hero!
15. Olver! 
16. Loved the father-son interaction.

So, those are some of my thoughts at this point. Well done, Robert Jordan and well done Brandon Sanderson. I feel I will be talking about this book to anyone I can in the next few weeks.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reading...Days of Blood and Starlight

Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #2)Christmas was good for me this year book-wise, and the first gift I picked up to read during the first days of January was Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor, the sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I LOVE these books. Immediately upon reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I passed it on to all my reader friends. Laini Taylor's writing is gorgeous and evocative. She has created a unique mythology, layered characters, and a story that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

I won't say too much about Days of Blood and Starlight so as not to spoil it, but it's a seamless sequel. I'm not going to lie: there's not a lot of happiness or "good" in this second book -- but my husband is of the firm opinion that the job of the middle part of a trilogy is to present the case that all hope is lost (his classic example - Empire Strikes Back). The characters and plot continued to move forward, and we got to delve more into the world of the Seraphim and Chimaera. Karou, especially, went through a difficult transition in this book. At the end of the first book, she's faced with an epic betrayal by someone she loved fiercely and passionately. She has to come to grips with a whole bunch of conflicting emotions: grief and anger and the rememberance of love and hope all wrapped up in a package of guilt. I particularly enjoyed the character development of more of the secondary characters: Akiva's brother and sister, as well as some of the Chimaera. This book really explores the ideas of redemption, vengeance, atonement, consequences and how life isn't always black and white, especially in war. Like , Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight is a slow build to a pretty climactic ending and I can't wait to see how book 3 plays out.

Bottom line: why haven't you read these books?

Friday, February 1, 2013

In the Middle of The End

I'm currently in the middle of reading A Memory Of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. In case you're not a reader of fantasy-fiction, this is the 14th and final installment in the epic fantasy series A Wheel of Time. It's a pretty comon set-up: meet Rand Al'Thor and his friends -- Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nyneave. They all live in a small village in the Two Rivers, figuring they'll live their lives out like others in their village. Enter an attach by monsters, a mysterious woman and her guard, and an ancient prophecy. One person destined to fight The Dark One in The Last Battle and save the world, and the others destined to play a pretty big role in this journey as well. There's intrigue and politics and war and evil and good. Along with these teenages who've never left Emond's Field, we get to discover a huge, amazing world with unique and varied cultures and an intricate history. The story explodes (as you might expect giving that there are 14 volumes clocking at at around 900 or more pages each), and man is it a fun journey.

Like I said, I'm still working my way through this last volume -- torn between devouring it and savoring it, like the last piece of Nicole's chocolate-caramel pie. Jordan published The Eye of the World in 1990. Before publishing the 12th book, Jordan passed away after suffering from a rare disease. But he left behind notes and outlines and the final chapter of the final book, along with instructions for his wife and editor to pick someone to finish the series. Enter accomplished-in-his-own-right fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

My husband began reading these books in junior high (early 90s), so by the time we'd met he had a pretty established relationship with the series. Although I've been an avid reader since grade school, I'd never really read fantasy. Over one summer when I was between cities and jobs and had a lot of time on my hands, my husband talked me into trying out The Eye of the World, and I was hooked. The series has its flaws: the dynamic between men and women is pretty stereotypical, and after a while the descriptions and turns of phrase get repetative (how many times can Nyneave tug at her braid, am I right?). There's one story line that starts about book 11 that really could have been slashed by at least half, and at one point I thought -- you're introducing a whole new character and story NOW? (it seems to me at one point that Jordan was writing like he could have just happily spent forever exploring the world he'd created).

But the thing is...these books sucked me it. I believe in this world -- from the tough-as-nails Shienaren to the island dwelling Sea Folk and everyoen in between. It's practically tangible. And I believe in the characters. Sometimes I get so. frustrated. But would I get that frustrated if I weren't completely invested in them? For every storyline or point or character trait that's eye-rollingly stereotypical or as blunt as Perrin's blacksmith's hammer, there's a plot twist or characterisation that's nuanced and just. so. perfect.

The Wheel of Time series reminds me that the best books aren't necessarily the most perfect books, but the ones you can develop a relationship with. That's why your best books aren't necessarily my best books, and vice versa. But for me, when it comes to epic fantasy, The Wheel of Time is one of my first loves.