The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no…..best to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time…..page by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the http://www.bookoutlet.com site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles

  

   

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gothic Read for Halloween

Here’s a spooky book to read while handing out the Halloween candy….and a link to last years blog on decorations, Come In For A Spell

(I had not intended on doing a Halloween post other than this short book recomend, but the opportunity arose for A Visit with the Paranormal – so stay tuned for Fright Night at the Museum early next week). 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had  enjoyed British Crime Writer, Ruth Ware’s earlier books (In a Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10) but found this one very slow going at the start, to the point where I thought I might abandon it altogether, but I am glad I stuck with it because the ending was brilliant. The stage must be set, but I don’t know if we needed seventy or so pages to establish the protagonist as poor, cold and alone, and then the next seventy pages to establish the Gothic mansion as decrepit, cold, creepy and full of magpies…and well Gothic. I noticed she used the same descriptions over and over……her breath huffing in the frosty air……the cold draft at the window…..shivering in the rain etc……it made me long for a cuppa hot tea. But once the story got going, it took flight just like those menacing magpies…..and I couldn’t put it down. Even though I had guessed part of the ending half-way through, there was still a surprise twist.  Jolly well done.

Add the soundtrack from some classic Hitchcock….

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach Books Blog

Beach umbrella

With only a few weeks of summer left there’s still time to get some good beach reads in and often the best time for beach reading is September when the crowds have gone back to school and work.   Here’s my annual list with links to my Goodreads reviews plus a link to last summer’s Beach Blanket books, (a bonus if you are a library patron like me is there won’t be a waiting list for last years).

My number one favorite award of this year goes to The Perfect Couple – by Elin Hilderbrand……set on Nantucket it was the perfect beach book…..so engrossing you never want it to end and you won’t even notice the waves sweeping that dead body out to sea.

waves
The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Here’s another good domestic drama.   I had grown tired of Joanna Trollope lately but this one definitely held my attention.   
An Unsuitable MatchAn Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought provoking novel about late-in-life marriages, complete with spoiled millennials, an attractive but penniless suitor, and a divorced people-pleasing protagonist who attempts to keep everyone happy but herself. It’s an intriguing premise, and like the title, a totally unsuitable match. If the book had ended any other way I might have been tempted to boycott all her future books. Fortunately, although love is blind, with age comes wisdom. I used to be a big fan of Joanna Trollope but have found her books lately to be a bit of a struggle, I couldn’t even read The Soldier’s Wife, but this restores her to what she does best, a nice Jane Austen-like drama about the tangle of family relationships.

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?     Mary Higgins Clarke never disappoints.   Can be read in one sunny afternoon.  

I've Got My Eyes on YouI’ve Got My Eyes on You by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not as suspenseful as her usual, I guessed who did it and why about a third of the way through, but it was still a good read from the  Queen of Mystery.    She is still churning them out at age 91 but lately I have been preferring her Under Suspicion (fall) series with Alafair Burke.

For a more in depth psychological thriller, Clare MacIntosh is a good choice.    While I enjoyed her spring release LET ME LIE  it wasn’t as good as I SEE YOU, which I read last October and which had me deleting all the personal pictures on my social media accounts.  
I See YouI See You by Clare Mackintosh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A murder mystery thriller perfect for reading on Halloween night in those lulls between handing out the candy…..ok maybe not such a good idea. Guaranteed to have you double checking all the locks before you go to bed, and I personally ended up deleting all personal pictures from social media. I liked the fact that the characters were flawed, which made the ending so much more delicious – a real treat.

You’re at a cottage and it’s raining so you browse the bookshelves for gems other people might have left behind.    SLEEPING MURDER,  Agatha Christie’s last book written in 1976, is the reason why they call her the original Queen of Mystery.   (80 books, over 1 billion sold).   Miss Marple may be a bit dated and the descriptions tame by today’s standards, but it’s still a masterful plot.   While I had never read much AG, other than Murder on the Orient Express where I already knew the ending, this kept me enthralled on a rainy afternoon and I finished it the next day at the beach in brilliant sunshine.

Beach Book

These are all by female writers, so here’s one for the guys.     A thought-provoking read about the origins of the universe and the future of artificial intelligence.     Dan Brown always tells a good story – book contains the usual steady stream of chase scenes where Professor Langdon is on the run from the bad guys and accompanied by a beautiful much younger woman.   Dream on Dan.
Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read – Professor Langdon is back, the usual cloak and dagger, church versus science, fast paced suspenseful affair. But why does he always seem to be running from danger, in every chapter, usually with an attractive much younger female? I guess it makes for good movie rights. The book got off to a great start, but then kind of sagged in the middle, but I had guessed the ending by then. The plot line was simpler than some of his other books, but I learned some interesting facts about artificial intelligence and the big bang theory – see title.

Lighthouse

A Canadian find and locale.   The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol  (plural – not be be confused with similar titled books).     I can’t remember how I stumbled upon this book, but it was mesmerizing.   A five star read.   Good for a trip to a cabin in the northern wilderness.  
The Lightkeeper's DaughtersThe Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In her acknowledgements, this first time author thanks her writing group for encouraging her to take the giant leap to send her work out there. I’m so glad she didn’t keep the manuscript in her sock drawer because this is a marvelous book, by far the best novel I have read in awhile. Somewhat reminiscent of The Light Between Oceans, but with an Ontario locale as the lighthouse island is set in northern Lake Superior. The author who lives in Thunder Bay, grew up sailing in the area, and has done extensive research to keep the story authentic for the time period – it is set in the 1930-40’s. It is a beautifully crafted book, wonderfully plotted, well written, good characterization, with a perfectly satisfying ending. Why doesn’t something like this win the Giller prize? The author also thanks a ninety-four year old light-keeper’s wife who said wistfully after reading the book that she felt like she was back on the island. That was how I felt too – totally immersed in this other world, and really like the author acknowledged, there is no greater compliment than that for a writer.

So put your toes in the sand, open a cold drink and start reading.    Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Toes in the sand

On Books and Reading

           I am writing this in the waiting room of the Eye Institute watching the computer board for my mother’s cataract surgery to be finished.   Hospital technology has advanced to the state that you can now track the patient’s journey from pre-op to OR to recovery room, and then a volunteer will come and kindly escort you to your loved one’s bedside.    I suppose it saves the nurses time not having to answer all those pesky questions.   My mother has a particularly dense cataract which has been interfering with her ability to paint.   (Most of the paintings on the website are hers, she is also under The Artist on the main menu).   Claude Monet had the same problem in his later years, as his vision loss progressed his colors became more muted.  (If you look at this paintings after the surgery the blue green colors are so vibrant).   As a painter her eyes are important to her, as painting is her passion, while mine is reading.   Both our hobbies are dependent on clear vision.    A cataract is easily fixable, but some other eye conditions such as macular degeneration, are not.  I hope someday medicine will have progressed to the point where they will be able to implant stem cells into eyes and restore vision.   What a miracle that would be for those facing vision loss.    You hear a lot of tragic stories in the waiting rooms of eye clinics like these, but these doctors, they are the unsung heroes.

           Not being able to read would be the worst nightmare for me.   I know there are audio books but I want a book in my hand.   I don’t remember ever not being able to read, although I have a vague recollection of taking one of those Dick-Jane-and-Sally-see-Spot-run books to my mother and proudly showing her I could read by myself.   The letters made sense, they were words!  It was a momentous discovery.

           I read vicariously and from an early age.   I started school in a rural one room school house, and as there were only three of us in grade one, I listened in while the very frazzled teacher taught the older grades.   It seems archaic now but I suppose it isn’t much different than home schooling, all ages together.   Our farm was within walking distance of the school but after it  closed in grade two (it was archaic even then), my parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus service was started a few years later.   One of my earliest recollections is sitting at the dining room table while my mother helped my older siblings with their homework.  I  would sit and soak it all in.  To me learning was fun, a whole new adventure.     

          I always loved books.   My maternal grandmother immigrated from Holland so English was a second language for her.   Her verbal English was good, her reading not so much, and I, a precarious four-year-old, would correct her if she strayed too far from the story-line or the ending wasn’t the way it normally was.    When the teacher assigned a short story to read in the grade five reader, (a Stephen Leacock tale about Mother’s Day),  I took the reader home and read the whole book.   I read the usual children’s books, Black Beauty, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, a series called the Borrowers which involved tiny people living in a big house, and the rare treat of a Jack and Jill magazine once when I was in the hospital for tonsils, which was full of puzzles and activities.  Around age ten I went through a Trixie Belden girl detective phase, (no Nancy Drew for me, it was the sixties, who would wear a twinset even if they did get to drive a convertible).  Trixie Belden  Living on a farm with few playmates, I read for entertainment.   It was something to do in the summer, and as I was not good at sports and hated the heat, you could usually find me on a blanket in the shade of a tree reading.  As a middle child I was accustomed to being on the periphery, but I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.  When the library opened my mother would take myself and my younger brother every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few air conditioned buildings in town and I still remember the blast of cool air that hit you when you entered the vestibule, and the musty smell of books.   The librarian would often comment on my choices, because while our little library stocked picture books for kids and adult fiction, the selection for Young Adults, if that genre even existed, was limited…. perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics, Dickens, the Brontes, my mother’s copy of Gone With the Wind, what ever I could get my hands on.    Occasionally, when I would come across a Young Adult book, I would find it fascinating reading about teens my own age.  Several of those books stand out clearly in my mind, although I can’t recall the titles, one in particular about a young girl going to work at a summer resort.  I’m picturing bonfires on the beach right now.   If you lived an isolated life without a driver’s license, those literary ventures into a normal teenage world (parties, boys, jobs), can seem memorable.  Once I was in high school I discovered Seventeen magazine (50 cents an issue), and it became my fashion bible, and then later Mademoiselle and Glamour.  Although I read it for the clothes, magazines used to publish short stories back then and I read my mother’s Good Housekeeping and Redbook magazines for that reason as well as her condensed Reader’s Digest books.   

Seventeen Magazine

Vintage June 1970 Seventeen Magazine – from farmhouse attic

 I was one of the few students who didn’t groan about doing book reports, because it gave you an excuse to read a book.   I would read on the bus ride home, although often I would get all my homework done then too. 

       During my university and early work years, I hardly read at all, only scientific stuff – it was hard to keep up with the sheer volume of information, between work terms and school.  I only picked up reading again as a hobby at around age thirty, and then it was mostly vacation/beach reading. Throughout my working years I read at least a couple of books a month, mostly before bed instead of watching TV, or after I got home if I was working evenings and needed to wind down.  (There are entire decades of TV I have missed, although lately I have developed a taste for anything Masterpiece).   I am still an avid reader but now that I am retired, it’s more like one per week, and reading has crept into the daytime hours.   Reading outside on the swing in the summer is pure bliss.    I used to have a hammock where I read but the trees had to be cut down due to ash-bore disease. 

           My taste in books runs to more mainstream with a few eclectic choices.  I tend to haunt the best seller and new release lists, and recommendations from friends with similar tastes.   I avoid the Danielle Steele romance genre (romance is okay if it’s part of the story, but not the whole point), sci-fi fantasy, most Canadian prize-winners (too weird), and the majority of Oprah’s book club selections.    I don’t like too light and fluffy but I don’t want depressing either.   I enjoy fact as well as fiction, lately my choices have ranged from First They Killed My Father, a Cambodian refugee memoir, Quiet, a fascinating must-read for introverts, to The Sleep Solution (see Counting Sheep blog), and I still love a good medical book such as Five Days at Memorial, a tale of evacuating a hospital post Katrina.  

        I often try to work a book I particularly enjoyed into my blogs if it suits the theme, and sometimes it serves as the inspiration.   Lately I have been reading a lot of mystery thrillers and a few months ago I discovered the bookoutlet website, wandered into the travel section and never left, (see April Paris and Italy blogs). book outlet  I have my favorite authors, Jodi Piccoult, Cathy Kelly, Elin Hildebrand, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Clare MacIntosh, and often pre-order from the library so I can be number one on the list.    The bookoutlet is a discount website (both US and Canadian sites), for remaindered or overstock books with very cheap prices.  Recently I ordered eleven books for $102, (free shipping over $45), which came Canada Post.  There’s nothing like getting a big box of books in the mail – and isn’t there something wonderful about opening a brand new book and inhaling the scent of newly cut paper.  book outlet

 There have been a few times in my life when I have been too stressed to read – I could not concentrate on the words on the page, but luckily those were few and far between.   Reading can be a distraction, a solace, a balm for over-stressed minds, a portal to another universe, when this one is too hard to bear.   That is why one of the most often requested items in a refuge camp is a book.  It passes the time and takes you away to some other universe, if only for a few quiet hours.    

                A book journal is a lovely way to keep track of your reads, although I am not always diligent about recording the authors and the dates.

Old Book Journal

Old Book Journal

  The editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, wrote a book about her book journal (My Life with Bob – my Book of Books – click here for my review).   I used to keep my own BOB/book journal but lately I have been recording my reads on my Good-reads profile.    It you aren’t familiar with it, Good-reads is like a candy store for bookaholics.  To quote L.M. Montgomery, “I am simply a book drunkard,” with no wish to recover.   

           Recently I found a new book journal with a lovely lavender cover on a remainder table, a bargain at $2.99.   A lavender pen would be just the thing for writing in it.   There is something about holding a book in your hand… New Book Journal 

Quotes of the Day:  “I opened up two wonderful gifts this morning – my eyes.”

“Oh for a book, and a cozy nook, Oh for a quiet hour.”                                                                                                

What was your favorite childhood book?  What are you reading now?   What is the best book you read last year?  Please leave a comment if you wish.  

 

In Praise of Second-Hand Books

   The Rotary Club is holding its annual second-hand book sale, 27,000 volumes are up for grabs, and I am a bit grumpy today because I’m missing it.   A snowstorm descended upon us about the same time the venue opened at 8:30 and as every book lover knows, the best ones go fast.  Normally I’m content to stay inside on such a blustery day, but I’m regretting the bargains I am surely missing, at one or two dollars a book.   But no use crying over lost volumes.   I have resigned myself to going on Sunday, when the remainders are five dollars a bag, but the selection poorer.   Last year I went both Friday and Sunday – the stuff-a-bag day was to stock up on travel/photography/coffee-table books for my mother, the artist AMc, to use for inspiration for her paintings now that she is too old to travel.  (She has an extensive collection of over-sized volumes of Canadian scenery if anyone wants to know what Canada looks like).   We also have a second-hand book store in town, but the hours are erratic and the prices higher, nor have I had much luck with garage sale castoffs, which tend to be mostly romance or paperbacks or both.    Admittedly book sales are always hit and miss, but other people’s discards can turn out to be treasures.   

                 The beauty of book sales is you never know what you might find.  Last year’s haul included a Loonyspoons Low Fat cookbook, (which I had always wanted but have not used),  a medical manual of Cardiopulmonary Emergencies, (my dysfunctional heart valve will need repairing some day and I might want more info than WebMd can provide, also not opened),  a thesaurus, (somewhat obsolete but the online version has limitations), a slim volume of pioneer Christmas stories with a pretty cover and a red ribbon, (because I’m a sucker for a book with a ribbon), two novels, The Lake House by Kate Morton (already read but might re-gift, I like to share good books), and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (not read, but I enjoyed her latest), Victoria – A Shop of One’s Own, (I collect old Victoria books as well as the decorating magazines),  a calendar day-book of art by Maud Lewis, 

(a Nova Scotia folk artist whose life was recently portrayed in the movie Maudie, because my mother’s paintings have been compared to hers), and an apprentice textbook from U of Toronto 1934 (which I found fascinating because it was full of old chemical formulas and my profession has evolved way beyond how to sterilize bottles), plus three quotation books which turned out to be absolute duds, (I would really like Bartlett’s Book of Quotations, as it would be useful for the blog).

         Book sales are good for travel books if you are an armchair travel like myself.   I scooped up a travel guide to Provence and two books on Italy,  one of which I had already read, Elements of Italy, and the other,A Month in Italy, because it’s my dream someday.   If you can’t go yourself you can enjoy reading about someone else’s adventures and avoid the jet lag and lost luggage, and in the case of Italy, the weight gain.   Speaking of good food, there always seems to be a profusion of cookbooks at book sales, as well as diet fads from years past.  The children’s books always go quickly I am happy to see.  It’s nice to see parents starting a library, and the book-on-every-bed Christmas project is such a good idea to inspire early readers.   

            Last year I came across a young adult book, Robin Kane, The Candle Shop Mystery, which I did not buy because I have the exact same copy in my basement.   What were the chances of that happening, as I don’t remember that series being as popular as Trixie Belden, which I also still possess. 

          I always got a book for Christmas, usually a Trixie Belden, the Nancy Drew-like girl detective of the 1960’s, (here she is searching for dead bodies),

otherwise we went to the library.   I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be prohibitively expensive to buy them all, and our local library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such lovely helpful people.   Generally, I only buy what I would re-read, but this year as one of my New Year’s resolutions I decided to start to add to my library again, which is currently three shelves in the basement and den, (see decluttering blog Jan), but only those books which I truly love and would re-read.   When I end up in a nursing home some day I want to be surrounded by my favorites, and not dependent on some volunteer lady bringing around a cart full of Harlequin paperbacks.   

          Now, I haven’t actually opened any of those books I bought last year, (some may end up being recycled), but it gives me comfort to know they are there if I am desperate for something to read.  I once spent a week on Turks and Caicos with a selection of bad books and no store in sight, only a strip mall with one lonely souvenir shop, this was before the island was developed and long before e-readers, which are wonderful for travel, but I would much rather hold a book in my hand.   I am such an avid reader, that I always want to have something in reserve or I get antsy.   What if nothing comes in from the library – it’s either feast or famine – although sometimes having too many books out can be a strange form of retirement stress.   That stack on your bedside table can start to feel like pressure when they are all non-renewable best sellers, and if you return them unread there are sixty-five people ahead of you again.   Buying them solves that problem, as you can read at your own leisurely pace. 

        It’s amazing the weird and wonderful things you can find at book sales, ancient volumes from estates, such as yellowed cloth-worn sets of Poe or Kipling, or outdated encyclopedias.  Did people really read such wordy tombs?  Does anyone want them now and what do they do with them when they don’t sell?  Although it can be interesting to see what people were reading a hundred years ago and to read the inscriptions inside the books.   I have a few old books from the farm attic, but many more got thrown out in the moving process.

farm attic books

A Trapper’s Son was a gift to Lillie from Grandfather, Birthday Sept 14, 1900. L.M. Hewitt is written inside the flyleaf, as well as my aunt’s name at a later date.   I have no idea who Lillie was but I googled and The Trapper’s Son, A Tale of North America, was published in 1873 and deals with the conversion to Christianity of a boy brought up in the wilderness.   My ancestors were Christian folk, so any religious book was a keeper.   Opening A Chestnut Burr, was inscribed to a Miss Lori Dody, and was published in 1874.   Surprisingly there were two reviews of this book on Goodreads, the first one, a female, said, “A deeply Christian story with a thoroughly delightful ending.  There’s a good bit of romance and outdoors.”  The other reviewer, a man, said, don’t bother.   The romance factor must have far outweighed the outdoors part.   I couldn’t find anything on The Recluse of Rambouillet, (pub.1896), but it appears to be a translation from French about castles and kings.  As my grandmother’s name is inscribed inside, Dec 1899, 3rd prize, 4th class, it was probably some kind of school prize.   Poe’s Tales, (Xmas 1904, from Henry), can join it’s many brethren on E-Bay, but it is nice to know that books were welcome Christmas presents back then too.   Some day I may tackle them, but they seem like relics from some long ago world, full of purple prose as L.M. Montgomery called such grandiose language.   Opening sentence from Poe, “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis.  We appreciate them only in their effects.  We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment.”   Perhaps there there is something to be said for being concise, what would Poe think of Twitter’s 140k limit and texting.   Times change and so do tastes.  

             Books can be a portal to another universe, especially if the one you are currently in is snowy and white.    I’m going to read now…happy hunting!

 P.S. What is your favorite book sale find?  

Quote on Reading: “Reading is one of the few things you do alone that makes you feel less alone, it’s a solitary activity that connects you to others.”  (even in the middle of a snowstorm)  Will Schwalbe – Books for Living, author of The End of Your Life Bookclub.  

PS.  This years treasures included, 

The Christmas book jumped out early, whispering, buy me, I will come in handy for next year, the beloved Bartlett’s only revealed itself late in the hunt in a discarded bin under a table, and the Little Women collector’s edition 1994 caught my attention, because even though I still have my childhood copy, it had a ribbon and such pretty illustrations. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA