Category Archives: Book Review

2014 – The Year In Books

Dec 29, 2014

A-Storm-Of-Swords_novelOne of my favorite parts of the end of the year is all of the retrospective lists that people make about the year that was. Yeah, I know, I know, but I am such a sucker for that kind of stuff! I like to do one myself when it comes to the books I read during any given year. And this year I ended up reading a LOT of books!

Now, the first half of my year was mostly taken up reading books as a judge for contests. I’d never judged contests before, but I have to say, I really enjoyed it! Not only did I get to read some really good books, I felt as though I was giving back to my writer community. That’s as good as any books I could read. And it also pushed me to read outside of my comfort zone. I discovered some gems by doing that. So for 2015, I recommend that you volunteer to judge a contest. Good stuff. Continue reading

2014 Book #5 – Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb

May 06, 2014

Okay, I’ve wanted to post more about this book for a long time and to recount some of the history lessons I’ve learned from it, but I’ve just been so busy lately! So what better way to talk about the history behind my inspiration for Somebody to Love than to do a book report on Strangers. And yes, you’ll notice it’s book #5, even though I’m currently reading book #23 of 2014 right now. I started this way back in January and only recently had time to finish it.

Strangers

The thing that struck me the most about Strangers is how different the landscape looked to 19th century gays and lesbians than we would think that it looked. Judging by today’s standards, I’m sure the first reaction one might have is to assume that life was haunted, fragile, and tense for 19th century homosexuals and that they were badly persecuted. Ah, but the very first lesson people should learn about history of any kind is that you can never view it with the standards and commonalities of modern life.

In today’s world, homosexuality is a hot topic. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, everyone knows what it is and has an opinion about it. It’s in the news, in pop culture, and a solid part of life in 2014. Not so in the 19th century! In fact, there was a great deal of ambiguity in the minds of your average 18th and 19th century person as to how to define someone who was outside of the norm. The 19th century was all about classifying and naming things scientifically, and it wasn’t really until this time that homosexuality was even defined. In fact, the term “homosexual” was coined in 1868.

Think about that for a second. 1868. There were other words in use in various languages to describe men who had a passion for other men—Uranian, invert, sodomite (which was a pejorative, whereas the other two were merely descriptive)—but the label came much later. Sure, sodomy was considered a crime, and (if I’m remembering this correctly) from The Buggery Act of 1533 until the first half of the 19th century it was a crime punishable by death, but that was the act, not the state of being homosexual.

Robb does an incredible job of piecing together the story of a state of being that was barely classified and certainly never spoken of openly through what historians call primary source material. He studied diaries, letters, journals, and other private communications to piece together the lives of men and women who didn’t fit into the traditional 19th century definition of masculine and feminine. It’s fascinating stuff! Even he admits that it’s incredibly difficult to state anything definitively, because the record of all of these lives isn’t necessarily there.

What was there, once you dig beneath the surface of genuine lack of knowledge on the part of most people and angst on the part of the men and women who knew they were different, was a rich tapestry of relationships existing without the umbrella of a label. There are cases that were hugely public, like Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and James Pratt and John Smith (the last two men hung for sodomy in England in 1835), but far, far more common were men and women living their unusual lives under the hush of obscurity and the fear of being caught out.

Now that’s not to say that their lives were a big secret. Some people, like Emily Dickenson, for example, were known to have “extremely close” relationships with a member of the same sex, but in this time before people had a firm handle on what exactly that meant and entailed, these known relationships sailed right over people’s heads. I got the feeling that Robb was saying if people in the 19th century knew more about what was going on, they would have disapproved. This was not an age of acceptance and tolerance by any stretch of the imagination. But a lot of things could be swept under the carpet and kept behind closed doors in the name of Victorian morality (no one talked about ANY kind of sexuality in public) or in the spirit of a deeper masculine camaraderie than we generally have today.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about this subject, and I would really like to learn more about it. The gist of Strangers is that there was, in fact, a thriving LGBT subculture in the 19th century that looked far different than we would imagine it to look. People lived happy lives outside of the scrutiny of “normal” folks simply because their passions weren’t on the radar of your average 19th century citizen. Which makes me all the more adamant about my character Phin’s solid place as one of Cold Springs, Montana’s finest citizens, in spite of everyone knowing he’s a little “off”.

I would love to take what I learned from Strangers and write more m/m romances with it.

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2104 Book #20 – Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, by William Guarnere and Edward Heffron

Apr 22, 2014

In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve been on a bit of a Band of Brothers kick lately. I finally read the book that the series was based on, and that led me to start reading the memoirs of the guys from Easy Company. I almost wasn’t going to do a book report on Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, the combined memoirs of Bill Guarnere and “Babe” Heffron because I didn’t want to bore people with my obsession, but as I finished it I realized I had a lot more to talk about than just the experiences of Easy Company.

brothers in battle

Now, I’ve read biographies before. I’ve read a few books by living celebrities about their lives and early years. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a straight-up memoir before. Bill and Babe’s book is definitely a memoir, and it was a whole new experience to me. I believe this is the first time I’ve read a book penned by a pair of old men (or at least narrated by them and recorded by a writer). Let me tell you, it was awesome!

As a fiction writer, I really appreciate the way these two characters were developed, from their childhoods growing up poor in South Philly to their experiences of war to the way they lived the rest of their lives after the war. It was a fine example of how even the lives of ordinary people (not that these two are ordinary) provide a gripping narrative.

What I absolutely adored as a reader was the voice of these two men. Each section, be it Bill’s or Babe’s, felt as though I was sitting in the living room listening to my Granddad’s friends talk. You could practically see the guys as they talked. Their tone was conversational and no-nonsense. The grammar was what they would have used and the words were the ones you just knew they would have bandied about on the street corners or in the bars of South Philly. It was like being with them.

I was completely sucked in! And let me tell you, I was particularly taken with Bill Guarnere. I’ve always sort of identified with him in the series because he was from Philly, my hometown, but man! He was awesome! His mindset and attitude toward the war and toward life was remarkable. He really got in there and did what he had to do, diligently and effectively, to win that war. He was a leader in so many ways, even more than the series portrays.

He was also a total character! He pulls no punches as he relates the pranks he pulled, the vast quantity of women he entertained during the war, and the single-minded love that he had for his girl back home (even as he was “entertaining” all those women). His reflections on the battles he fought are sharp and moving, and the way he talks about losing his leg and everything that happened after that is awe-inspiring. The man was a crackerjack. Judging by the photos from his personal collection that he included in the book, he was pretty darn hot as a young guy too! I think I have a total crush on him now.

I have a whole new respect for Babe too. I felt like I didn’t know him as well just by watching the series, but Babe was a man with heart. And it’s heartbreaking to read the way he talks about some of the things he experienced in the war: losing friends, nearly killing (but not) a young German family, the girl he fell in love with in Austria. It’s all so moving!

Reading Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends has given me a whole new appreciation for memoir as a genre. It’s also given me a much deeper understanding of the generation that fought WWII. I’m really beginning to see why they’re called The Greatest Generation. They’re certainly tougher than my generation and the current young generation because they had it much harder. I look forward to reading more memoirs now, about these guys and beyond.

2014 Book #17 – Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose

Apr 10, 2014

Well, I kind of read Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose accidentally. How do you read a book accidentally, you ask? I wasn’t supposed to read it. I’m still deep in the middle of reading as a judge for various contests and scoring the entries. I need to get all of those books—you know, the ones I’m not allowed to write about here—read before strict deadlines. But then I watched the miniseries Band of Brothers a few weeks back, realized I could get the book second hand on Amazon for a penny, and, well, the rest is history.

band-of-brothers

And you might think I mean that literally. Band of Brothers is a history book, after all. It’s non-fiction, the story of Easy Company of the 506th regiment of the 101st airborne and their exploits in WWII. It follows the men from the day they signed up and went through basic training through Normandy and Holland and the Battle of the Bulge, on to Germany and beyond the end of the war to where their lives all were in 1990 when Ambrose originally wrote the book. So it’s a history book, right?

No, folks, this is a love story! It is perhaps the greatest love story I’ve read in a long, long time. The bonds that were formed between the men of Easy Company go far beyond the closeness of romance or what we think of as love in fiction. As Ambrose so eloquently explains, the connection that forms between soldiers in combat is something that can hardly be described to people who have never experienced it. It goes beyond just friendship, beyond the feeling of being brothers. It is deeper and more meaningful and soul-felt than the connection between lovers. This is love in its purest sense.

The thing is, even though Band of Brothers is a non-fiction account of three very specific years in our history, it actually unfolds like an epic novel. You have a glimpse of what normal is to start, then a call to action, then preparation for the hero’s journey followed by the journey itself. You have great triumphs and heartbreaking set-backs. The story contains suffering and unimaginable loss. Some of the best characters get killed off. Ultimately, though, our heroes triumph, not only in the war, but for almost all of them, in life after the war too.

As a novelist, there were so many things in this account of Easy Company that I can learn from to improve my craft. If nothing else, Ambrose has shown that amazing stories and epic events can and have happened to ordinary, real-life men. He shows that brilliance can be crafted from well-chosen sentences and that the words of the characters themselves (letters and diary entries by the men) can paint as vivid a picture as any narration.

But mostly, as when I watch the HBO series, I come away from this book with a profound sense of respect and awe for these men who gave so much to this country. I’m not at all patriotic, I’ll admit, but I do believe in GOOD and doing what’s right. These men exemplify everything that I esteem. And honestly, even though he served in the Pacific as a Sea-Bee, these men remind me of my beloved Granddad (who passed away far too soon when I was only 8). Reading about these guys brought home the sense of dignity and righteousness (the good kind) that I always felt when I was around my Granddad.

I would have loved to have met Dick Winters, who passed away I think two years ago January, and Bill Guarnere, who died just this past February and was the reason I started watching the series again. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are only 18 Easy Company men still with us, all old men now. But, holding to the religious beliefs I have, I imagine that the guys are all slowly coming back together again in the Hereafter…and throwing one heck of a party each time another one joins up on the other side.

Read this book! You will not regret it!

 

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2014 Books #8 – #12

Mar 14, 2014

red bookYes, I have continued to read books this year, even though I haven’t been able to talk about the books I’m reading. I’ve been reading almost exclusively as a judge in more than one contest involving published books, so I haven’t been able to tell you what I’m reading. But like last time, that doesn’t preclude me from telling you some of the things I’ve learned from these books I’ve read. So here goes.

Of the last four books I’ve read, one was surprisingly good and one was surprisingly horrible. The one had me looking forward to when I could find a few seconds to sit down and read it and turning pages at lightning speed as I did. The other had me dreading having to sit down and slog my way through it. In fact, if it wasn’t a contest book, I would have given up after a few chapters.

So what makes a book un-put-down-able and what makes it un-pick-up-able?

In the case of these two books, the answer is in how the ideas of the author were presented. Both were romance novels with unlikely pairings. You know, the kind of pairs that on the outside should never get together. Without giving anything away, these were both cultural and idealistic differences.

What I loved about the book that I liked was the way that the author presented a culture and viewpoint that was unfamiliar to me. Yes, that’s a reality for some people, but it isn’t mine. That meant that the author had to sell this different lifestyle to me in a way that I could both accept and be interested in. She didn’t do it by glossing over details or beating around any bushes. In fact, a lot of the facts were, as they say, cold and hard. It was enough to make me truly root for the one character to get out of that place.

By contrast, the thing that I found so odious about the book that I didn’t like was the way that the author tried so hard to drive her point about which culture was “right” and which was “wrong” home. The author’s bias was right out there on the table, and any of the characters that disagreed with it were all black and the ones that did were all white. The message of the book was bold on the surface of the story the whole time, and I felt as if it reached out of the words to beat me over the head in each chapter.

The book I liked definitely had a message and I believe the author had an opinion about the values of the different cultures involved. I am pretty sure she was driving at a particular moral stand. The way she did it, however, was so subtle and so well-crafted that I felt coaxed along instead of overwhelmed by it. And it’s not a viewpoint I would have naturally come to on my own. She took an issue I only know the tiniest amount about and made me see it from several points of view before honing in on her opinion about it. I appreciated that.

The other big difference and major lesson I learned from these books was in the way that secondary characters are presented. It’s so easy to paint secondary characters with one or two colors. They aren’t the movers and shakers in the story, so we can fall into the trap of making them walking clichés. The book I didn’t like had about a hundred secondary characters, and every one was a cookie cutter. The book I liked had a few key secondary characters in pivotal roles, and for the most part they were all multifaceted. I truly appreciate that. I like reading a book and wondering if the author is going to write an entire story for one of the secondary characters.

I still have about half a dozen more contest books to read before I can once again start doing book reports with the names of the books included. I’m having fun thinking about what I want to read once I’m able to choose for myself too. I recently watched the Star Trek reboot movies, and now I want to go back and read some of the Star Trek books I read in high school, or maybe some other science fiction. Any suggestions? It doesn’t have to be sci-fi either.