Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Entries in reading (6)


It's that time of year again!

Next week is Banned Books Week, in which we celebrate books that have been challenged, restricted, or banned by moralizing busybodies and narrow-minded idealogues who think it’s their job to dictate what everyone else can and can’t read, believe, and think.

This year is the 30th anniversary of BBW. It is to weep that we even have to have this discussion at all, nevermind that we have been celebrating BBW for 30 years. This beautiful timeline highlights the books featured each year during BBW, including the typical objections to that particular book. It includes the usual suspects — The Color Purple, Catcher In the Rye, The Satanic Verses — and others that boggle. (In the Night Kitchen…really? Really?? And don’t even get me started on To Kill A Mockingbird being on that list.) And it’s an insight into how much further we have left to go in tolerance, open-mindedness, and enlightenment before we can call ourselves a civilized society.

So strike a blow against censorship and read a book next week. Even better: read a banned book.


Delivery is everything

More research for Book 2 as I push through another difficult section. Lots to learn, lots of tiny decisions to make that will make or break the conclusion I want, so that it’s like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded.

But in researching The Battle of Carrhae, I learned about the Parthian Shot, which I am delighted to now know.

The Parthian Shot was an archery maneuver performed on horseback by the Parthians (who lived in part of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), wherein the archer, at a full gallop, turned his body back to shoot behind him at the pursuing enemy (usually as part of a faked retreat, to lure the enemy into a flanking trap). You may remember that scene in The Two Towers, when the Rohirrim raid the Uruk-hai camp in the middle of the night (when Merry and Pippin make their escape into Fanghorn Forest)…there’s a scene where one of the Rohirrim raiders gallops by, turning and firing on an Uruk behind him as he gallops past. (One of the coolest scenes in the movie, IMO.)

It takes considerable skill to perform this maneuver, both as a horse rider and an archer, as you would expect. The horse must be guided strictly by the thighs, since both hands are otherwise occupied, and of course you must be able to sight and shoot from a very unnatural position while in motion, very quickly. When the Parthians perfected this maneuver, they did it without the benefit of saddles or stirrups, as neither had yet been invented.

The “Parthian Shot” also became a metaphor for delivery of an insult as the speaker departs:

    “With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.”
    —Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1886)

We know it now as the “parting shot”.


Reading recommendations

I don’t review books much even though I read a lot. I don’t know why, it’s just never been something I’ve been compelled to do, I guess? There’s a certain skill to reviewing things, especially books, and it’s not one of my strengths. Or I’m just too lazy, that could be the reason.

Anyway, I received several books for my birthday, two of which I was excited to read right away, despite my tottering To Be Read pile that they really ought to have been queued to instead. But you know how it is, when you’re in the mood for something and it grabs you just right? That’s when you say defiantly to your TBR pile that it’s not the boss of you and you can read whatever you damn well feel like.

I may be somewhat henpecked by my TBR pile.

I enjoyed these two books quite a bit so thought maybe instead of a review, I’d give a couple of recommends instead. In case you, like me, are in the mood to read something but nothing in your TBR pile is immediately compelling you to pick it up. These are both quick and diverting reads, suspenseful enough to keep you entertained but won’t sit heavily with you for weeks afterward.

John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.

He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—-and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

An interesting premise coupled with a compelling protagonist kept me turning the pages fast and furious. A little bit Dexter, a little bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a whole lot of something else entirely. Even though the story’s POV character is a sociopath, it’s not hard to empathize with him. Which is ironic, since he can’t empathize at all.

Also, even though it’s about a potential serial killer and an actual serial killer, it’s not as gruesome as you might imagine. Sure, there’s some blood and guts, but this is as much a character-driven story as a plot-driven one, and there wasn’t anything in the story that gave me nightmares. (Which should say something, since I have a legendarily vivid imagination and can freak myself out pretty easily.)

She says she’s a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil. She says she’s working with the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons — aka “Bad Monkeys.”

Her confession lands her in the jail’s psychiatric wing and earns her countless hours of poking, probing, and questioning by a professional. But is Jane crazy or lying?

Or is she playing a whole different game altogether?

I could not turn the pages fast enough for this one. The story wastes no time immersing you in the world of the Bad Monkeys and its witty, imaginative world coupled with non-stop twists and turns had me saying out loud, “HOLY CRAP WHAT” multiple times throughout. And who doesn’t love an unreliable narrator? It also reminded me somewhat of The Subheroes, an online serial story by Sarah Bunting that she posted years ago on her website, Tomato Nation. I loved, loved, loved The Subheroes, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this book scratched that itch for me.

The weakest part of Bad Monkeys is the ending — or more accurately, the last 30 or so pages just before the end — which felt somewhat unearned. But the actual ending itself was satisfying and the rest of the read more than made up for the weaker part.


On talent, and the subjectiveness thereof

Have you ever read a well-regarded book with slight bafflement as to what all the fuss is about? I don’t mean a popular book that takes the reading public by storm but proves to be embarrassingly hacktastic (I’m looking at you, Bridges of Madision County), but one which wins a respectable award or three, is highly-rated on Amazon, GoodReads, etc., and you see or hear recommended from multiple sources. Not even necessarily a “best of the year” sort of book, nothing that’s going to win a Pulitizer, but just, you know, a well-recommended-by-those-whose-opinions-on-such-things-you-trust sort of book?

Yeah, I’m reading one of those right now. It’s genre fic*, has won a notable genre award or three, and I’ve seen it on many recommended lists, everything from The Onion A.V. Club to the people on my f-list who have a good record of interests that dovetail with mine. I read the author’s blog regularly and admire his/her boggling prolificacy. I in fact had sort of started to develop a complex as this author has continued to churn out one book after another, posting daily word counts that simply exhaust me, and announcing new deals and short story submission acceptances that make me suspect this person is either superhuman or has access to some sort of time suspension device. (To keep myself from getting too discouraged and developing a full-blown complex over it, I just remind myself that every writer is different, and we all have our different paths. Different, not better, not worse. I am not prolific. My stories take a long time to develop, are complicated and require much research, planning, and layering, and are subject to competition with the fifty trillion other demands on my time. I am not this author, and that’s okay — the world doesn’t need two of us.)

*I make the distinction not because it matters to me, but simply to differentiate that no, this is not the sort of book written by an MFA blowhard and lauded by a bunch literary critics at The New Yorker who pride themselves on recommending shit that’s not in any way an enjoyable read. Lit fic gets caught up in its own importance as often as not, too busy shoving its intellectual whatever in your face to get on with the business of the story or the characters or both. I’m all for the transcendental story that transforms us, but those stories are rare, lit fic or otherwise. There’s plenty of good, terrific, and even life-changing lit fic out there, and plenty of it that emphatically isn’t, and the only bad thing about it is that it’s championed over genre fic as if it’s somehow better. Oh, how greatly I beg to differ with that opinion. I’ve read my share of just about everything you want to throw at me, lit fic or otherwise, and let me tell you, there are just as many good, terrific, and yes, even life-changing stories told under the genre umbrella as under the literary one, and the entire publishing world would be well-served if they would stop with the haughty disdain for all things mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or romance.

ANYWAY. I’m enjoying this story, don’t get me wrong, and it has many things to recommend it. It deserves to be on those recommended lists for being an engaging, interesting, and imaginative read (I think — I haven’t finished it yet). But there are plenty of things about it, particularly about the writing, that I find mediocre. It’s chock full of exposition, for one thing, and only thinly-disguised (or not disguised at all) “as you know, Bob” exposition at times. There’s a dismaying amount of telling rather than showing, and far, far, FAR too much description of mundane action that’s utterly irrelevant. Doors closing, putting on seatbelts, taking a drink, whatever. You put some of those details in to enhance the story, provide detail or color (or even to drop in as throwaways that become important later), but I don’t need to know that a character opened the door, walked through it, and shut it. Most of the time, I don’t really give a shit that the character went through a door at all. As a reader, it does nothing but pull me out of the story or bore me or both. Unless it’s important to the story or the character, it’s a distraction. Make the action count, make the dialogue count, make the scene count.

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of these sins. I totally am. (Oh my god, my verbosity, let me show you it.) Even good, well-respected writers are guilty of them. But it’s the kind of thing that you fix during revisions. You need to be one ruthless SOB in revisions, and you hunt those weaknesses down and kill those suckers dead, dead, dead. I’m no paragon of writing ability, and obviously, I haven’t been published, so I don’t claim to have all the answers. But at the very least, you’d think this kind of stuff would’ve been tightened during the editorial stage. (The editor in this case being a good one with a sound reputation.) So I’m left scratching my head saying to myself, “Really? Nobody redlined this in a draft somewhere?”

It’s not a dealbreaker for the story. I am, as I mentioned, still enjoying it. But it’s disappointing and instructive that even the stamp of approval that publishing gives you doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of room to improve. And it’s a reminder that even for an author who’s getting a lot of buzz and generally making it big may not be as big of a talent as you let yourself believe.


Random Friday

Well, writing-related random, anyway.

First: porn for the book lover slash interior decorator in all of us. Or is that only me? No, porn is for everyone!

Second: if I had an agent like this, I would send her cookies made by Sal every week. (Seriously. If I got an acceptance letter from Agent Kristen, it would be almost as good as getting a letter of acceptance from a publisher.)

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone!


Won't someone think of the zombies??

Libraries in communities across the country are facing devastating budget cuts or even closure. To say that this is bad is to call the Gulf Oil spill “unfortunate”. Thanks to some amazing people, a great grassroots advocacy organization, and some truly hilarious and talented folks, there’s a clever new campaign to raise awareness and donations: Zombies for Libraries! They’re the brilliant minds behind this terrific and hilariously awesome video:

(Check out their site for more great videos featuring zombies, libraries, and brainnnnnsssssss. I love their motto: ”Libraries Feed Brains! Brains Feed Zombies! Help the Zombies Help The Libraries!”)

Without libraries, people of every age and income bracket — but especially low-income kids — lose a vital link to the best, most valuable resource anyone has: information and knowledge. For some, it’s their only access to online facilities or information or both.

Without libraries, yours truly couldn’t have read the hundreds of books she burned through in her formative years. Books were my haven and my escape, and there were and are a lot of kids just like me who probably couldn’t even function if they didn’t have a way to feed their book hunger.

The librarian at my public library growing up granted me an exception to both their checkout limit and age rule because my reading level was higher than the children’s and young adults’ sections (though I did read most everything in both of those sections) and I read so much that I was basically checking out a new book every day when I was limited to only six books at once. The summer I spent in an even smaller town that my own hometown would’ve been seriously impacted if not for the twice weekly trips to the little library up the street (partly because I was recovering from a broken arm that summer); the librarian there waived the limitations for me, too, after the first three weeks of visits.

It was librarians who first introduced me to Jane Austen, Robert Heinlein, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ursula K. LeGuin, S.E. Hinton, and others well before any high school or college literature class. Kids like I was aren’t rare, and all over the country, librarians are some of the most important figures in a young person’s life.

We have librarians to thank for some of the best books for children and young adults, because their word-of-mouth recommendations and networking are considered better and more powerful PR than any book review or NYT list appearance. If librarians support a book, publishers are known to expand their push for a particular book or even reconsider the marketing budget a book initially received.

And it’s libraries and librarians we have to thank for keeping the most commonly censored books, the ones that regularly appear on book banning lists, alive and well and available for everyone. They are staunch activists against censorship — including internet censorship — and they stand up to some pretty frightening machinery of anger and hysteria and ignorance.  Because of them, libraries truly represent the idea of “freedom of information”, and if that concept has any importance to you, then you’ll consider doing something to save libraries.