Book Reviews

I am a big proponent of book reviews and try to encourage readers as well as writers to leave reviews.

Book reviews help potential readers become familiar with a book before reading it; it gives them an idea of how they might react to it and allows them to determine whether the book will be right for them. As often as I can, I try to leave a review for most of the books I read. Whether it’s a few words, or a lengthy dissertation (just kidding), I try to share my thoughts, so that the next person looking at the reviews has an idea of what they’re getting. They can decide from there whether they want to read the book or not.

Book reviews also provide the author with greater visibility and a greater chance of getting discovered by more readers. Your number goal as an author should be to build your audience and this is a great tool to help do that. In addition, it also opens the door to more sales, enabling the author to write more.

Writing a review is a win-win situation for the reader and the author. So write a review today!

#ruthegriffin #studiogriffin #reader #writer #publisher #selfpublisher #writingtips #publishingtips #bookstoread #readmore #bookstobetteryouyself #writeareviewwednesday #writeareview #writeareviewchallenge

A Bit of Nostalgia This Week

I started listening to audiobooks to fill my almost three-hour daily commute; and for last month, the  service I subscribe to offered a 2-for-1 deal. I jumped on that, of course (because deal) and while their selections were outside of my normal reading range, I chose two books that mildly piqued my interest: How To Train Your Dragon (Book 1) by Cressida Cowell and Redshirts by John Scalzi. I wasn’t totally sold on them, but hey, a deal is a deal.

I was familiar with How To Train Your Dragon from the film series and started with that one. The story was was different than what I remembered from the film, but I enjoyed the book, nonetheless. I don’t normally read the YA adult genre, but this book was fun, especially with the talented David Tennant doing the reading.

Then I started Redshirts. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond the synopsis (the story follows a group of crew members [red shirts] on a military/research spaceship that suffers an unusually high number of deaths from hostile alien attacks during “away missions.”), but I recognized the Star Trek reference and figured I might like it. I was wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was funny, well-written and extremely well-plotted. It was just plain enjoyable. I like most of the books I read, but this is one of the few that I know I’ll be reading again.

I think what I liked most about the book though was the feeling of nostalgia it inspired in me. I grew up watching the original Star Trek with William Shatner (in syndication, of course – I’m not that old). It aired on network television on Sunday afternoons and was one of the few shows I watched with my dad. The time we spent together watching this show wasn’t anything intentional, I don’t think – I probably just wandered into the living room, saw the television was on and sat down with him to watch. But that action inspired a life-long love of Sci-Fi shows and films: all Star Trek shows; all Stargate shows and the movie; The Orville; Saturday afternoons on SyFy; I even liked M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (admittedly, though, I never got into Star Wars). This book reminded me of that time, when life was simpler and could be made more enjoyable by disconnecting from everything else and getting lost in a strange future. Even now, when I want to relax, I make my way to the couch, find a Sci-Fi movie or show to watch and zone out for an hour or two.

So, to recap, Redshirts was a worthy read. If you enjoy science fiction, Star Trek, or just want something light and funny to read, check it out. This is definitely one book I’ll be rereading soon, if only for the trip down memory lane.

American Dirt

I’ve been waiting for the controversy to die down before writing about it, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to, so here’s my two cents about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. In the book, Lydia, a bookstore owner, is forced to flee Mexico with her son after her husband and family are killed by a local cartel boss (at a quinceanera). She joins the migrants moving north, hoping to find refuge, but also learning about the people she travels with.

The book received high honors and praise; and was chosen to be the next pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Ms. Cummins also secured a film deal out of it. So with all that, American Dirt must be great, right? 

Not according to Myriam Gurba, an American author of Mexican descent. She was asked to review the book and had some choice words about it … none of which were good (her review, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature, is worth the read). This is her best line:

“The nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this seems to be the general consensus amongst Latino writers, who say that despite the author’s claims that she spent five years researching the book, Ms. Cummins’ depiction of Mexico/Mexicans is insensitive, flawed and stereotypical; perpetuating the ignorance around ‘the faceless brown mass at the border’ she claims she is trying to serve. Also complicating the issue is Cummins’ ethnicity: she identified as white in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, but now (conveniently) has Puerto Rican ancestry.

The internet, of course, exploded with offense (because the internet does that). The arguments went something like this: if the book brings attention to the immigration issue and gives a face to the people trying to find refuge in the United States, isn’t it worth the flaws? Also it’s just a book, a fictional story with no bearing on real life … what’s the big deal? The other authors are probably just hating because they didn’t get a book/film deal. Or they didn’t get picked for Oprah’s book club.

This, however, was the argument that hit home: only people of color can write stories of color. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I think people of color can probably tell their stories better than someone who hasn’t had the same experience. But I don’t know that I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think conditions have to be met. Actually, let me rephrase that: an investment by the author has to be made, an investment that includes research, but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You have to live that life, in the same way Jane Goodall lived amongst the apes she later became a conservationist for. If you can’t make that level of investment, you can’t represent the people or cause you’re trying to present.

This made me think about the stories I plan to write. Most of my main characters are Latin women, because it’s my experience. But reading all this has made me question whether I have a right to tell any story from the standpoint of a character who is of another race, or culture. Even as a Latin woman: I am of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent – am I qualified to tell the story of someone who is Mexican? If I am not mindful of the stereotypes I might be perpetuating, and if I haven’t done my homework on the culture, then the answer is no. My representation would be irresponsible.

That’s something I think is lacking in this book. Research doesn’t equal experience. And sometimes it’s better to walk away than hurt someone else with the pictures we paint.

I’m not one to tell anyone else what to read or what not to read, but I’m happy to recommend books: here, here and here are a few lists of great books to read instead of or in addition to American Dirt.

Changing Tastes

I love books. I have over five hundred in my Kindle library. I don’t say this to brag, because the truth is, I’ve only read about twenty percent of them. Before I got a Kindle, I would make a trip to the library every three weeks to get books, bringing the kids with me, hoping to instill the love the love of reading into (only my oldest daughter caught on–I guess one out of three isn’t bad). I would check out a stack of books that caught my interest and try to get through as many as possible in those three weeks. I might read two at the most, then the rest of them would get renewed until I could read them, or returned if I found something more interesting.

It’s a little easier now with the Kindle, but it’s also made me a bit of a hoarder. I have every intention of reading all five hundred books, plus all the ones I will be downloading, because, let’s face it, I’m not going to stop at five hundred. But I discovered a potential problem with this plan: my tastes are changing.

1 Corinthians 13:11, When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

Change is inevitable. So it stands to reason that you’re not going to read the same things you read as a child. I don’t have the patience to read Young Adult books anymore. I enjoyed them as a child, but when I could finally move to the adult section of the library without reproachful looks from the librarians, I stopped reading them. As an adult, I began reading romances, action/adventure and paranormal and have been reading them every since. Those five hundred books in my Kindle are mostly romances, action/adventure and paranormal; and of the ones I read, I enjoyed most of them. I’m not going to lie and say that they were all great. But for the most part, I’ve been happy with my choices. And I was planning to be happy with those choices for the rest of my literary life.

But then I started rereading Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom by Julie Kenner last week. Kate is a mom of a two-year-old toddler and a fourteen-year-old daughter, who balances motherly and wifely duties with demon-hunting. What’s there not to love about that synopsis? I read this book a few years ago and enjoyed it enough to read the five sequels. This time though, I found my attention wandering off. I was no longer interested in it. Don’t get me wrong, the book is good. So what had changed? Perhaps the fact that I am now an empty-nester? Or maybe that my time is limited now that I’ve started my own business and am too busy to read? Maybe it’s simply that I want to read something new outside of the genres I’ve been reading. I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific, only that my tastes are changing. This isn’t the ‘change’ we as women go through in life, but it might as well be. The books I’ve been reading and hoarding have been a constant. They’re my go-to when I want to read something but nothing new strikes my fancy. They’re like watching a favorite movie, or visiting close friends. They’re like replaying a favorite memory. They are a part of me. And I share them with anyone who will listen, who shares my tastes.

But change is inevitable. None of us remain the person we were even a year earlier. It only makes sense then that as we change, as we grow older, as we continue to live, our tastes continue to change. What do we do then? We flow with the change and get another five hundred books…okay, maybe not that many, but the prospective new worlds, new stories, new characters has me excited about the possibilities.

Hope For Something Better

I decided to give the ‘classics’ a break (see my previous post to understand why My ‘Wokeness’ Has Ruined The Classics For Me) and listen to something altogether different on my daily commute – The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin.

I first read the book in the late eighties. My stepdad must have owned a copy of it, because it wasn’t something I would have picked up from the library. I also must have been bored, because I was about fourteen at the time, and though I was a reader, it wasn’t the coolest thing to do at that age. But I read it anyway and I remember being enthralled by the subject matter – the Holocaust/WWII. Now that I think about it, it may have been the catalyst for my lifelong interest into this topic (along with a history teacher who was a WWII veteran). Of course, saying the Holocaust is my favorite subject feels like the very worst thing to say, but some of my favorite books, and certainly the most inspiring books I’ve read, are Holocaust diaries and novels. They have become my go-to, hence, why I opted to add this book to my audiobook playlist. 

For those who haven’t read it, The Boys From Brazil is about a Nazi hunter who discovers a sinister and bizarre plot to rekindle the Third Reich. I won’t add anything to that description because it’s worth the suspense to discover what that plot was (yes, no spoilers, even though the book is almost fifty years old). And here too, like the other classics I’ve been reading, the book was quite dated. Written in 1972, well before the advent of the internet and cell phones, Yakov Liebermann, the Nazi hunter (a conflation of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and Serge Klarsfeld), relies on newspaper clippings and returned phone calls to gather and disseminate information. It’s interesting and certainly makes you wonder what would happen if the story took place today. But since I remember those days (though I was born two years after the publication), it wasn’t such a stretch to set my natural desire to see the story through twenty-first century eyes and go with the flow. 

It was different reading the book this time around though. It was less about the thrill, the science fiction, the story and more about the reality we face today. That’s the mark of a good author – they leave you thinking about what they wrote, even days after you finished the book. And I had a lot to think about this time. At one point, the Nazi hunter was faced with ethical dilemma that mirrors the actions of the Third Reich. His response to this (and to the person trying to persuade him otherwise) was:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make [the resurgence of Nazism] happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions…and the people to follow the Hitler.”

“And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing…Some he’d find, yes; but no more, I think—I hope—”

This passage made me stop and think, more so than it did when I read it the first time. The author, Ira Levin, was optimistic enough to write the last part (‘no, not enough of them’), but that was almost fifty years ago. Would he say the same now if he were still alive? And would I agree with him? Because sadly, I don’t think I do. I think we are dangerously close to his criteria for this social order. You take news stories these days with a grain of salt, as most of them are about ratings, but when you actually consider the current political climate and the social conditions, you can’t help but wonder where it’s all heading. You want to hope there are enough people out there to stand up for what’s right, to stand up for their neighbors, to fight for one another…but you wonder.

My husband and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC several years ago and the exhibit that remains etched in my mind is one about the people who gave up their Jewish neighbors, though they had lived side-by-side for many years. Was it jealousy, the narrator asked. Was it hatred? They didn’t stand up, they didn’t fight. They just let them go. Is that where we are today? We can hope otherwise. After all, that’s the note that Mr. Levin left us with – Some, he’d find, yes; but no more, I think-I hope – even as he left the possibility for more open in the final chapter. But that’s life, isn’t it? The possibility for good and evil exist in all things. The possibility of a Fourth Reich exists (God forbid). But so does one of a united people, a united world open to fighting for one another. We just need to work towards it. We can’t just let things happen, we have to be intentional in our actions. We have to love and act and continue hoping, because ultimately, that’s what’s going to get us through times like the ones we currently live in – hope for something better.

And that, I think, was the true message of the book. It was a science fiction thriller that was heavy on the science fiction fifty years go, not so much today. But it was also a social commentary, a vision of hope that the atrocities of a past generation could never happen again.

* * *

Hello everyone! I am trying my hand at something new: a weekly newsletter. I will be packing it full with news about my projects, tips on writing and publishing and updates on the new streaming show, Authors Up, that I am co-hosting with Andrea Hines and Victoria Henderson Poole. I will be posting the main article on my blog, but the extra content will be available by newsletter only. You can add your name to the mailing list here.

My ‘Wokeness’ Has Ruined The Classics For Me

I’m not sure which word I dislike more – woke or classic. The former implies being aware of racial and gender disparities I was previously unaware of (which, as a woman of Latin descent, I really don’t think I was), while the latter suggests something worth venerating by virtue of its age alone (which is not always the case). You can’t really apply both words to any one book, much less make a blog post about it, yet here we are. Because that’s what I found myself contemplating recently.

I’ve mentioned my love of classical novels (the adventurous types) before. Forget Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte and give me Mark Twain, Bram Stoker and Edgar Rice Burroughs books (we’ll save the obvious imbalance in the sexes for another post). Well, I have been making the most of my three-hour daily commute by listening to audiobooks; and a few weeks ago I decided to reread Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I first read the book about twenty years ago and was amazed then at how much I enjoyed the story (this seems to my default reaction to these older novels). I never got to read the first sequel, nor the subsequent ones (twenty four total). But I enjoyed the book enough to start on Mr. Burrough’s Barsoom series, John Carter of Mars (I may be one of the few people who enjoyed the Disney adaption with Taylor Kitsch). Yes, both novels had their issues, but nothing so jarring that I couldn’t enjoy them.

Ah, what a difference two decades makes.

Image result for tarzan of the apesFor those who haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes or have somehow missed the hundreds of adaptations throughout the years, Tarzan was the son of a British Lord, who along with his wife was shipwrecked on an African coast. They died in Tarzan’s infancy, leaving him to be raised by apes. As he grew, he began to see himself as something other than the hairless ape of the tribe, but he didn’t understand what he was until he found the cabin his father built; and in it, the books his father brought with him from England. There, Tarzan learned he was a man.

A white man.

A white man who was supposed to be culturally superior–to animals, to everyone who wasn’t British, but especially to the blacks who shared the land with the ape tribe.

So at this point into the book, I reminded myself that you have to suspend your natural desire to read the classical books through the lenses of the twenty-first century to truly appreciate the story as the author wrote it. And more than that, I firmly believe EVERYONE should have a voice. Each writer, each person is entitled to their own opinion and each vantage point is important. I continued reading (or in this case, listening), stuck on the irony that even as Mr. Burroughs described the blacks as savage, primitive and violent, Tarzan was taunting and killing members of the tribe to appropriate their jewelry, dress and weapons.

You didn’t see that in the Disney adaptation.

Then Jane Porter entered the story with her servant Esmeralda, who was described as a large negress from Maryland. The two end up on the same coast as Tarzan and seek refuge in the cabin. And while Jane bravely steels herself against the circumstances, Esmeralda, a two-dimensional, secondary character who has no bearing on the story, is portrayed as infantile, easily given to hysterics, almost like she is mentally incapable of understanding or bravery.

I had forgotten about that. And to be honest, it didn’t sit well with me. Yes, this book was was a reflection of the day and age it was written in, but because racial stereotypes and gender disparities still permeate every aspect of our society, listening to something that reinforces them is difficult. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s voice, because even if their view point is marred, there’s still a wealth of cultural information to be gained. But to what degree do we continue venerating these older books? Tarzan of the Apes is a classic story, written by a prolific author who changed the world (he popularized serials, went to Mars before we got to the moon, and revolutionized the science fiction genre. AND who doesn’t know Tarzan?), but at what cost? This is why the debate continues about whether Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain should be banned by schools, or why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were stripped of a children books award over her depiction of Native Americans. Are we being too sensitive? Or are we finally waking up to the reality that what we believe to be traditional or trivial may be hurting someone else? Is it possible to overlook these stereotypes and not be affected by them?

No book is perfect, none. And to be honest, I don’t have ‘the’ answer to any of these questions. Like I said, even the classics are valuable, if only as a window into our past. But whether we continue reading them or not, that’s a decision we have to make for ourselves. Just like everything else. I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes once, and I am grateful for the impact it and Edgar Rice Burroughs have had on society, on me. But beyond that, maybe it’s time to put the book back on the shelf and give another author a chance.