Category Archives: Books for Readers

What’s best-selling or should be

Historical Fiction

As the summer draws on, unhindered by the constraints of class assignments or camps, I’ve been visiting the library on my way back from work. I have a habit of grabbing random books from the “new release” shelves, which I think gives me a better idea of where the market is. One such book was A Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.

The British version calls it a “Novel of the Plague,” but I think that’s a little misleading. The historical background is little more than a setting in what is essentially an old formula of strangers traveling together, only to be gruesomely knocked off one by one, and turning against one another in the process.

I’d give it about a B-. I still really like the cover and title. The style was engaging and thought-provoking (such as quip about the English not having blood, but rather rain running in their veins) but the plot didn’t really stand up to closer scrutiny. After a surprising twist, the book opted to end with a vagueness that felt unfinished.

What A Company of Liars did do was remind me how much I like historical fiction. I’ve always been a history geek; there are so many dark stories that inspire the imagination. There are a couple stories in particular that have stuck out to me, but I feel too intimidated to tackle them as premises:

The Etruscans: This advanced civilization predated the Romans in Italy. There’s so much we don’t know about them—but their tomb paintings are hauntingly beautiful and amazingly advanced.

Byzantium: Like the Etruscans, the Byzantines were a paragon of culture. They had the misfortune of getting caught between a rock and a hard place—namely, the crusaders and the Ottomans.

Eleonore von Schwarzenberg: The strange circumstances surrounding this princess served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The woman herself wasn’t half as interesting as the mass hysteria she inspired.

Geli Raubal: There’s a saying that as soon as you bring up Hitler, you’ve effectively brought conversation to a dead stop. However I’d never heard of this particular aspect of his life, namely his half-niece and rumored lover. The dysfunctionality just boggles the mind, but I could envision a terrifically dark and powerful piece told from the perspective of this woman.

Nauru: An island that nobody has ever heard of, Nauru is an incredible testament to the fact that human ingenuity and avarice are two sides of one coin. It was made habitable by men that then proceeded to sell out the land beneath their own feet (literally– it was cut away to be used as fuel).

For an example of great oral storytelling, try this great “This American Life” feature on Nauru:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=253

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Twilight. Yes, Twilight.

Love her or hate her, Stephanie Meyer has rocked some preconceptions in the writing world. While this isn’t a “fresh” topic, if you’ve spent any time with other teen writers, you know that Twilight has left some bite-marks in a lot of teen would-be writers.

I swear Ive seen that pose on Americas Next Top Model...

Before you get out the rotten tomatoes (or

“Team Edward” Fangs), this is my personal position:

1. It is impossible to conclude whether Twilight is a “good” or “bad” book.  From a marketing point of view, Stephanie Meyer zeroed in on a powerful demographic only slightly less adeptly than J. K. Rowling (I say that because Meyers harnessed a wave that earlier Young Adult Fiction novelists had started.)

  1. That being said, there are a lot of flaws in the books. A lot. These are recognizable because their ilk will be repeated again and again in bad Twilight fan fiction—that is, there are some pretty amateur pitfalls.
  2. And that being said, I found the books absolutely addictive.

I’m not going to stalk Robert Patterson or get “lion and lamb” tattoos, but I could not put those damn books down. My only comfort was knowing that I wasn’t alone. I witnessed more than a few super-achievers beat themselves up over it too. Empirically they recognized its many flaws and thought themselves above tweeny-bopper obsession, but their heart still went all-a-patter during scenes like this:

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen” he answered promptly.

“And how long have you been seventeen?”

His lips twitched as he stared at the road, “Awhile”, he admitted at last.

I’ve read plenty of analysis about Meyer’s use of classic bad-boy characterization, but here’s my thesis on how and why the books succeed when they failed:

Con: Bella is a Mary Jane character.

Pro: Bella is vague enough that the female reader can easily substitute herself in to Bella’s situation. She is a stand-in, like one of those cardboard cut-out photo-ops at a fair. Her character displays some of the “acceptable” female flaws; like a quirky clumsiness (see: helplessness) and aloofness (see: utter superiority), but not enough substance to get in the way of a reader looking for a personalized fantasy.

Con: There is hardly any world outside of Bella’s interactions with vampires and werewolves. The students at the Forks High School are unbelievably bumbling and two-dimensional as they fall over their feet to please a girl (Bella) that they hardly know.

Pro: Meyers can devote paragraphs and paragraphs to the close intra-personal scenes the reader craves, and that she displays subversively decent skills at rendering.

There are also some twists which, in my mind, have no excuse:

  1. Glittering. To her credit, Meyers took a bit of a risk with the diamond-skin. It was a gamble at being original, but I didn’t buy it.
  2. Renesme. Really? I had to cringe. The name-moshing reminds me of one of those times when you pull out a journal of old writing only to find a character name Princess Sunshine Aerie’lla, because it  seemed so exotic at the time.
  3. The ending. Spoiler alert for those of you who have been living under rocks: Bella doesn’t die. Every single preparation is made for the fact, not to mention the weird conviction Bella previously had that she would give birth to a boy. Neither of these pan out, in what is the plot equivalent of a short-circuit: ultimately, the path of least resistance is to ignore the implications.

Lessons for a Writer:

1. Sometimes people really do just want to regress to their reading habits in happier days. Personally I read the Twilight series during a super hectic period in my life, and it reminded me of being a tween and having all the time in the world in which to read fluff.

2. If your characters are good, you can get away with murder.

3. A combination of humor and suspense can be a breath-taking mix. Part of the reason the Twilight movie turned out badly was the fact that the humor had been surgically removed. Don’t believe me? Check out the scene where Bella reveals she considered supermen and Kryptonite.

On a side note, if you want to read some excellent Twilight satire, check out Cleolinda’s book summaries. My favorite part? It’s a tie between FURSPLOSION and “Horrify the Twilight N00b”

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