How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore

If you want an easy way to learn the ins and outs of publishing and doing the grueling hard work of attempting to make writing your prime income source, with with which you clothe and feed yourself, then How to Become Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore in the book for you.  In this 262 page volume, Ariel Gore tells it like it is and takes her readers through the process of first establishing a writing lifestyle and then getting the polished and written work out there.

Written to complete her friend Allie’s dream of writing a book on how to navigate the publishing world, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead is packed with information and affirmations for every writer, and even a few suggestions that just seem like fun.  While the title might seem cheesy and the author may not be as well known as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, the advice offered in this book is advice from a real do-it-yourself type personality that takes the reader through personal experiences, Q&As with other underground writers like Michelle Tea and Margaret Cho, as well as some inspirational exercises to challenge the reader.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ariel Gore (see my review of Bluebird) and at first I have to admit I wasn’t as taken with this book as I was with her psychology text, however I stuck with it and I was very glad that I did.  While the first fifty or so pages didn’t hold any particularly riveting information for me, the back two hundred gave me some keen insight as to how to put together a press kit and press release, find an agent, look at publishers, and most importantly, how to look for a publisher that would be the right fit for my writing.

More importantly, these pages had things that I hadn’t considered. For one, the culture of zines and how useful they can be to getting a writer’s name out there.  One of the challenges, presented after one of Gore’s interviews, challenges the reader to make a zine and distribute it so that the writer gets hands on experience with the whole spectrum of publishing.  This challenge in particular was definitely one that resonated with me and made me want to challenge myself to do something similar.

In the very end, I was glad that I picked up this book and that it turned out to be such an insightful source of information.  It really shows how an author can be self-made and how they don’t have to rely on big publishing houses and large advances to get their name out there.

FINAL GRADE:  B+

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The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace

I came across this title, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace, while loafing around in my local Borders this summer. However, having little cash on me and a paycheck not coming for another week, I didn’t get to read this title until I was at school this year.  Upon receiving the small ivory volume from the library, I opened the book to be immediately drawn in by the exquisite first paragraph that gives a brilliant impression as to the adventure ahead.

Carey Wallace’s novel recounts Carolina Fatoni’s experiences as realizes that she is slowly losing her sight. Set in Italy, during the 19th Century, the book provides a rich landscape with memorable characters that embrace every fashion from the DaVinci like neighbor and love interest Turri to the narcissistic Romeo turned husband Pietro.  The exquisite prose takes place in three primary locations: Carolina’s childhood home, Carolina’s new home with her husband Pietro, and the lake between the two houses, where Carolina and Turri spend most of their time.  The fluffy style of the prose makes for an enjoyable light read but at the same time brings about questions about human nature, marriage, and friendship and begs the reader to answer the question: Does love really conquer all?

It is hard to summarize this book  well enough without giving away the decadent prose and human connection that Wallace is capable of conveying to the reading. Every word of this novel is important and chosen with care and each scene carefully placed and thought out to advance the storyline. While reading this post, if you’re worrying about the fact that I can’t summarize the plot beyond one paragraph, it is because with such a short novel I don’t find it beneficial to write a summary longer then the plot and as such would like to leave those who choose to read it with something to be desired.

The succinct appearance of the book should not be a turn-off for anyone because in the brief . Though the book is only the size of a five by seven photograph and about an inch in width it is a rich text that I found myself analyzing despite the fact that this was supposed to be a book I would read outside of coursework.

When I started reading, I found myself unsure of what to expect but after Carolina’s marriage, when her blindness slowly started to take over her vision, the novel really hit its stride.  Not only was Wallace able to make my sympathize for Carolina but also made me feel ambiguous towards her husband. Depending on the scene she’d constructed I had no idea whether I was supposed to like him or hate him. It wasn’t until I reached the end of her charming narrative that I had formed a solid opinion on him and even then my opinion was turned on his head.

At about halfway through the novel, I also noticed a certain level of Gothic influence playing into Wallace’s plot.  Perhaps I’ve been reading a little too much Jane Eyre, but the Gothic trope of a ghost or inexplicable and unseen presence plays a key role once Carolina completely loses her sight and begins exploring the house.  Between this similarity and Turri’s DaVinci-like proliferation of various inventions, it is no doubt that this novel would be a remarkable and breezy read for history fanatics.

In the end when I finished reading The Blind Contessa’s New Machine I found myself wishing that the  volume was about twice the length. I was hesitant about letting the characters go despite the fact that my opinion kept fluctuating on them from the very beginning.  Upon looking back, however, at it, the novel was perfect in its succinct and tender treatment of a real life situation. I felt as if this story could be set in any day and, while the circumstance would be different, the root of the story would essentially be the same. Saying as much I dub The Blind Contessa’s New Machine as one for those who enjoy a profound love story and would like to come away with a deeper understanding of what love is.

Final Grade: A+

REVIEW: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Last month I concluded the first book in this trilogy called The Hunger Games. Immediately after I finished this book, I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the second and third books in this trilogy.  I received the order while I was in San Francisco visiting a friend, but the minute I came back I pulled the book out of the box and began reading it. For the record, I don’t hold sequels in such high regard, I find that if series go on too long they tend to lose their steam and the characters lose their fire.  However, I was very pleased to find that this was not the case with Catching Fire.

Beginning months after the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games ended, with the surprise of two victors, Katniss and Peeta are preparing to embark on their victory tour with Katniss very aware of the capitol’s anger towards the stunt she pulled during her time as a tribute.  Katniss is not looking forward to the tour as she has to pretend that she and Peeta are happily in love, and shortly before their departure, she is visited by President Snow who challenges her to convince him that they weren’t faking the romance between them. As our two favorite victors venture on through Panem, visiting each Capitol, they are pressed to show their love publicly and to reign in their protests regarding the capitol.  As the tour concludes and they return to their home in District 12,  Katniss comes to realize that as a victor of The Hunger Games her life will never be her own again.

Faced with the prospect of marrying Peeta and hiding her affections for Gale, Katniss begins to plot an escape, going over the fence that surrounds District 12 to a place where the government can’t find them.  However her plans are cut short when a new peacekeeper comes into town stirring up trouble. Meanwhile wedding gifts pour in from the capitol and the Quarter Quell, a twist in The Hunger Games that occurs ever twenty-five years, is drawing near.  On the night that Katniss’s wedding dress photoshoot appears on the television, so does the reading of the predestined twist for the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games, announcing that this year, the winners will be drawn from the surviving pool of victors, and forcing Katniss and Peeta back into the arena.

From there Catching Fire, takes the reader on a wild ride as the game gets turned on his head, making it exceptionally hard for the existing victors. The ages of which, range from teens to senior citizens.  As their second round in the arena goes onward so does the disdain of the citizens of Panem, and the revolution begins.

I mentioned before that I never really like sequels. This is largely because I find that the pace and depth that makes most of the original characters loveable is lost as they try to draw out their storyline for one more book. This is not the case with Catching Fire.  I couldn’t put this book down. Each time I read a new chapter it seemed like there was a new complication and a new face paced problem for the characters to solve.  Katniss’s internal narration lends a lot to the story, showing us her evolution.

The very end of Catching Fire also left me starving for more.  As I got towards the end I was wondering how Collins planned to wrap up the book in just two short chapters, but the way she handled it was just about perfect. One of the twists revealed at the very end is pretty relevant for anyone whose good at predicting plots, but the action sequence written in one of the final chapters does not disappoint and the final conclusion is just as fulfilling.

Another point is this books favor, is the last sentence. Just as important as the first words, the last words are what makes a book stay in a reader’s memory and lets the reader imagine where the story might be going if it’s part of a series. This is something Collin’s does beautifully at the end of Catching Fire. While the reader is aware of the result of the events she describes in the book, she makes us aware of other possible repercussions for Katniss, much like she did at the end of The Hunger Games.  Such is the last impression I got with Catching Fire. Upon reaching the last sentence I found myself hoping that Mockingjay, the third book, would show up at my doorstep the following day, however it didn’t and I am still anxiously awaiting the conclusion of this brilliant trilogy.

Final Grade : A+

REVIEW: Of Bees and Mist by Eric Setiawan

Mothers-in-law. There have been many movies about it and more then a few of us have wished the  life villainous would get their claws out of their marriage. Such a relationship serves as the center for Of Bees and Mist by Eric Setiawan.  Serving as the likable, if somewhat gawky, protagonist, Meridia was born to a critical father and an eccentric mother.  Her life punctuated by the different colored mists that surrounded their house, serving as an indicator of when her father would depart to see his mistress while her mother slaves away in the kitchen seemingly oblivious to the fact that her husband departs every night to see a mistress.  Meridia grows up watching their relationship until she finally meets Daniel, a boy she’s smitten with.  As their own relationship progresses the topic of marriage comes around.  When Daniel brings Meridia to meet his mother, Meridia is charmed by the apparent normalcy of their life and sees Eva as a potential confidant.  However, soon after their marriage it becomes apparent that dynamics in the house are not what they appeared and that Eva possesses a power of persuasion to all members of the house,  aided by the buzzing of bees.  As Meridia gains insight into her mother-in-law’s games,  she attempts to get Daniel to see reason in the hopes of saving their relationship and having a life free of Eva’s persecution.

I took some time before writing this review because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to do this book justice.  For a while after I read it, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the book. Setiawan using many literary devices to provide a subtle symbolism to the mythical world he constructs and all these nuances didn’t make sense until I finally put the book down and thought about it for a few days.

I found Meridia to be a very relate-able character, exhibiting the timely plight of many woman in today’s world.  Through the book we see her relationship with, not just Daniel, but her father, mother, and sister-in-law shift and bend and the way they’re manipulated is so subtle that I hardly realized it was happening until I was almost done with the book.   One of the most notable changes in the book is Meridia’s relationship with Daniel’s sister Malin, who went from scorning Meridia to finding an ally in her.  A reverse transformation occurs with the younger sister Permony, who even though she loves Meridia, suffer falling out down the line in the book.

The way the relationships in the book are broken and mended and broken again presents a very discreet coloration of a domestic drama. The picture Setiawan paints with his words are chosen beautifully.  The novel flowed without excess description, giving the reader enough to imagine the way the characters looked and behaved without dictating every minor detail of their lives for us.  His characters come to life with vivid personality and exceptional quality.  It felt like I was in the room watching the events of the different households unfold as I read  it and that allowed me to engross myself in the story for hours on end.

In the end the only real peeve I had with this book was the plot. While the family drama in that of itself was interesting, the mystical  aspect of the story wasn’t explored enough.  I found the foreboding qualities of the bees and the mist, both ominous spiteful in their own rights,  to be underplayed. Though I could understand the reason for choosing the two metaphors I think that the qualities and reasons they had such power where something that could have been played into a little more.

But aside from the mythical aspect, I found Of Bees and Mist to be a very enjoyable and sentimental novel that accurately explored a complicated family dynamic.  In the end though, I think that the real hallmark of this novel is Meridia and her journey throughout the story, not so much because of her experiences with the bees and the mist, but because of the way she transforms from a young girl to a woman and reinvents herself several times over during the course of the novel. For that reason I consider this a must read for anyone seeking that kind of inspiration to reinvent themselves.

Final Grade: B-

REVIEW: Spooky Little Girl by Laurie Notaro

Stories about angels and ghosts have been a part of my life ever since I could remember.  However, recently I am starting to notice a particular trend in literature where ghosts are the pivotal characters.  Last year I read  Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin in which a young girl gets hit by a taxi and is sent to the afterlife in Elsewhere, where she discovers that she will age backwards and then be reborn as a different child.  My love for Zevin’s account of the afterlife led me to believe that I might enjoy Laurie Notaro’s Spooky Little Girl.

Spooky Little Girl begins when the protagonist, Lucy Fisher, returns home from a Hawaiian vacation to one of the worst final days of her life. Not only has her fiancée neglected to pick her up from the airport but when she finally pulled up to her home in a cab, she finds all her belongings in produce crates and her fiancée inexplicably absent.  If that weren’t enough to deal with, the day before she departed for Hawaii, Lucy forgot to make the daily deposit at the bank. A deposit which, to her surprise, contained a check for twenty thousand dollars.   After being accused of thievery and drug use, Lucy is fired from her job and with no other option moves in with her sister Alice.  The next day, when Lucy takes the bus to the unemployment office,  she gets hit by a bus and flattened into a pancake.

When Lucy wakes up she finds herself in a dormitory style building, in ghost school. She is one of many SDs, Surprise Demisers, who are going to be sent on assignment in their afterlife so that they can accomplish what they never did in life.  Under the tutelage of Ruby Spicer,  Lucy and the other SDs, learn the basics of haunting so they can go back and fulfill their objectives so that they can move onto “The State.”  A heaven that will give them everything they desire but maintains a certain standard for who they let through their velvet ropes.  However, it is also made very clear to the Ghosts that if they terrify their subjects enough to involve the work of mediums and psychics, they will be pulled into The White Light, which turns them into a speck of the space dust in Saturn’s rings.   To avoid this unsavory fate, Lucy must be subtle when fulfilling her objective in order to avoid staying on the earthly plane for all eternity or orbiting Saturn with the other tortured ghosts.

Laurie Notaro is very gifted in humor, a genre that is hard to handle. From the beginning Notaro grabs the reader with jabs about credit card interest and reality show stereotypes while keeping the book fresh and exciting with a certain brand of dark humor that sustains its charm.  Notaro is able to create characters that endear us all, from Lucy the slighted ghost to Nola the vindictive office girl, the humor and tone of this book transcends the depressing subject matter of death.

Though the first few pages of this book may appear to be just a humorous story read for a few giggles, the story progresses to have an interesting and intricate plot that involves an interesting cast of characters and situations. However, in the final analysis, the plots all come together into a delicious and fulfilling plot.   At the end of this book I found myself wanting the story of the other SDs and what they had in their time on Earth.  Yet, the plot was still fulfilling and even if Notaro never dips into this cast of characters again, Spooky Little Girl is worth a read with its refreshing tone and cheeky banter.

Final Grade: B-

REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I have always been a sucker for books with good dystopian story lines and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins delivers on that very premise.  Set in the ruins of North America, in the country of Panem, the story details the lives in the twelve districts that surround The Capitol with. The Hunger Games focuses on the story of a sixteen-year-old girl from District Twelve,  named Katniss Everdeen, who’s life consists of hunting in the woods with her friend Gale in order to keep her mother and her little sister, Prim,  alive.  However, on the day that Katniss’ narration begins, survival is more important then ever. At two a celebration known as “The Reaping” occurs where a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen will have their named picked from a bowl and made to fight for their survival in an arena where the Hunger Games will take place.  Katniss has done everything to make sure Prim is safe, but when Prim’s name is drawn out of the bowl on Reaping Day, Katniss steps up to take her sister’s place as a tribute.  Taken to the Capitol where she joins the other twenty-four tributes, Katniss is disgusted by the pageantry of what, in her mind, equates to an execution, and the politics that occur during her training days. Which is only made more complicated by the male tribute from her district, who may very well fancy her.  As the Hunger Games progress Katniss is faced with morality and survival in this tale of what it truly means to be human.

My first impression of this book was not a good one. I had problems imagining the world that Collins was setting up and I wasn’t entirely sure that I got it straight.  The first likened the world of Panem to an old Victorian village, especially District Twelve, and then later started to imagine a world similar to Equilibrium. Finally when I managed to get the combination of technology with the poverty stricken districts, I found the book quite enjoying and was really taken by the politicking and how Collins was able to weave it into a story that featured children.

Shortly after Part II began I found myself engrossed in the novel. I didn’t want to put it down with each new stratagem that was devised and each alliance that was made.  In fact, one of the biggest successes I found of Part II was making me forget the politics of Part I and involving me in each move that the tributes made.   It isn’t until Part III that the political aspect of the book picks up again leaving the reader starving–I know I can’t help the pun–to read the sequel Catching Fire.

The lasting impression that The Hunger Games gave me was that this is not Twilight. Certainly there’s action and adventure, even a love triangle, but its not the focus of the book. What this book gives readers is the haunting desire to question the motivations of a culture and think about what they would do if such a practice was implemented.  As I approached the end of The Hunger Games, I found myself reminded of The Draft. The practices of Reaping Day reminded me so much of that practice at the very end that I couldn’t help but find myself desiring to read Catching Fire immediately, particularly since Katniss’ transformation is so beautifully written.

Final Grade: A-

REVIEW: The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas

Thinking about a group of writers sitting around discussing their projects might not seem like an interesting premise for a novel, but the members of the  Leopardi Circle detailed in Corrine Demas’ The Writing Circle are anything but static and dry.  The book follows the circle’s newest recruit, Nancy, as she struggles to fathom sharing her latest novel with a group of distinguished writers. While Nancy might be the focus of the book, the five other members of the circle have their own narratives as well, each taking a turn to voice their own chapter with the current goings-on of their lives.  Among them is Bernard, Nancy’s friend, who writes biographies, and Virginia, his ex-wife who remains on amicable terms with Bernard.  Then there’s Chris, a divorced mystery writer in dispute with his ex-wife over his children and Adam, the youngest and most inexperienced of the group.  However one of the most successful and brazen of the Leopardi Circle, is Gillian, a cut throat poet who Nancy is warned to watch out for.  Through her meetings and interactions with the various members of the Leopardi circle, Nancy trudges on, broadening the character she’s built around the memory of her father. Centering this charming, character driven mosaic narrative.

One of the hardest things I imagine an author could do, is write about writing, but Demas does it beautifully and with a wide variety of characters at different stages of their lives and at different points of their career.  There’s different archetypes to be found in each character, like Virginia as the devoted mother, Gillian as the pretentious and manipulative career woman, and Adam as the boy who hasn’t quite grown up.  Reading each character through their different voices was a joy because each voice was clear and distinct, there was no confusion about what character was speaking and each even seemed to have its own driving force.   Many of the characters crossed paths through their children or a friend and in this way it made the narrative complex and interesting.  It was in these moments that I didn’t want to put the book down and found myself begrudging the fact that I had to go to sleep.

Because of the nature of this book I find it hard to comment on particular events without giving away the entire plot.  However Demas’ way of entwining the literary conversation with small talk at the meetings was brilliant.  I don’t think I have ever read a more stimulating conversation on “who versus whom” in a grammatical context.   While the craft talk was certainly not the centerpiece of the novel, it was enjoyable because of the characters.

The way the characters approached their work and their lives and seeing how each of them led a writing life was clever and the friendships formed within the circle added to the warmth and depth.  Though I thought the novel took a couple chapters to hit its stride, it was a fascinating journey.  I believe a large portion of that was because of the different perspectives taken on by each character, particularly as the end of the book approached.

I would recommend this book to anyone who was curious about writing or writer’s workshops and enjoys insightful human stories with different perspectives.   This is one of my favorites books this year and I highly recommend picking it up on your next trip to the bookstore.  The Writing Circle doesn’t disappoint and leaves you thinking to the very end.

Final Grade: A+