A review of The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner #Tuesdaybookblog #BookReview

mars room 3I went to see Rachel Kushner speak last year in June. I’d never read anything by the multiple National Book Award finalist, but I grab any chance I can to hear an acclaimed author speak – especially in English. I enjoyed the talk enough to grab a copy of the novel. As usual, the book sat in my #TBR pile for months before I got around to reading it. The book finally managed to make it to the top of my TBR heap when my book club picked it for our February read.

 

 

mars room 1It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

~ My Review ~

I’m not surprised The Mars Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a beautifully written book that focusses upon a topic rarely seen in the world of fiction – women in prison. Romy Hall’s voice comes through with such clarity that it’s as if Romy was standing next to me reading her story out loud. But this was not an easy story to read. On the contrary, Romy’s life was the stuff of which nightmares are made. A kid who got off track, never found her way, and ends up in prison for life.

Fortunately, Romy’s story is not told in one exceedingly long narrative. Instead, we view bits and pieces of her past as she struggles to make it through every day life in prison. This made the story palatable, although no less heartbreaking. I found myself sympathizing with Romy and wanting to kick a guard or two in the shin. The portrayal of the guards was strikingly honest. Their lack of sympathy as well as desire to make a buck or two off the inmates hit the nail on the head.

We also get a glimpse into other lives as the novel is told from various points of view. These changes were a breath of fresh air. Each time I thought I couldn’t read one more word of Romy’s story, the chapter ends, and we switch points of view. The decision to tell the story of Romy’s crime from the victim’s point of view was nothing short of brilliant.

Kushner addresses several societal themes of modern-day society. Everything from prison reform to criminal justice reform to child care reform to traditional gender roles. Although her thoughts (disdain?) for these systems are loud and clear, she doesn’t shove her opinion into the reader’s face. This is where her brilliance shines. She shows us the situation and lets us come to our own conclusions.

The Mars Room is a breathtakingly beautiful book about an abysmal situation. I couldn’t put it down.

mars room 4Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Five Novel of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. A collection of her early work, The Strange Case of Rachel K, was published by New Directions in 2015. Her fiction has appeared in the New YorkerHarper’s, and the Paris Review. She is the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2016 Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Inane internet research is just another day in the life of a writer ~ #WritersLife #AmWriting #HumorIntended

I’m not one of those writers who can sit in a cave in write. Well, I could. I totally could, but only if the cave had Wi-Fi (really good Wi-Fi, not that stuff that goes in and out and drives you mad). Without internet, I am nothing. I don’t know how writers before the internet managed. Really, I don’t. Sure, I went to college before most people had computers, but I don’t remember those days. I have actually actively tried to forget those days. (Working full-time and graduating before you can legally drink is not fun, in case you’re wondering.)

google-76517_1280On the average writing day, I spend at least thirty minutes researching completely inane things. Oh, there are days and days spent researching murder and how to get away with murder. But the vast majority of my internet searches are just plain silly. Don’t believe me? Here is a list of some of the things I researched this week (a partial list because I can’t give away any actual clues):

  • Whether bats have good hearing. Because inquiring minds want to know.
  • Elderly names for a man and a woman. I went with Bernice and Vernon. I have an elderly uncle named Vernon. Geez. I hope he’s not as sleezy as the Vernon I wrote in my story.
  • Crazy cat names. Spoiler alert: A cat named Myrtle will make a brief, hissing appearance in my next book.
  • When not to use an apostrophe. Lots and lots of times.
  • How to spell purview. Turns out I knew how to spell it all along.
  • 1930s or 1930’s. Answer? It depends.
  • How to spell smart aleck? Spoiler alert: It’s smart alec or smart aleck. (Word disagrees with me, but the dictionary says I can go either way.)
  • What’s that thingy people sit on at bars? It’s a bar stool. Yes, sometimes I can’t think of words like bar stool. *Hangs head in shame*
  • How to change cat litter? I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Even though cat litter is mentioned for about one paragraph, I wanted to make sure I kind of knew what I was talking/writing about.
  • Shows old people like. I knew I wanted to mention Matlock, but darned if I could remember the actual name of the show. It’s Matlock, Dena. Mat-lock. Not hard to remember.

Somehow, these strange searches take up hours and hours of my time. I’m a writer. I don’t write. I research cat names on the internet.

 

Ways to get reviews on Amazon I would have never done in the past but do now #WriterWednesday #MarketingTips #AmWriting

Getting reviews is one of the most harrowing tasks a writer has. It’s a ton of work finding bloggers who might review or finding review services that aren’t a waste of money. It’s a time suck, so why bother? Unfortunately, reviews sell books. As a reader, I totally understand this. If I see a book I’m unsure about and it has only five reviews but has been out for years, I’ll probably give it a pass. And that’s only with regards to the number of reviews, I’m not even touching that minefield of a topic regarding the review score. No thanks.

23 jan 2019

An actual picture of me begging for reviews.

I’ve written a ton of blogs about how to find reviewers, ask for reviews, etc. But with my last book only garnering eighteen reviews, I knew my methods needed some adjustments. I decided to try some tactics I’d heard about but had hesitated to employ because I didn’t want to bug people too much. No one likes to get bugged!

 

 

Here are a few ideas that have worked and didn’t seem to cause any backlash:

23 jan 2019.2Ask bloggers to review on Amazon. Unless you’ve been living in a cave (without Wi-Fi!), then you’ve heard about the scandal of Amazon removing bloggers’ reviews. As a result, many bloggers no longer review on Amazon. It’s lovely when bloggers review on their blog and on Goodreads, but – let’s face it – we writers want reviews on Amazon. (Aside: Most of my books are in the Kindle Unlimited program and I, therefore, focus my reviews on Amazon.) In the past, I wouldn’t bother bloggers who didn’t review on Amazon. It’s their choice, after all. But, considering the abysmal number of reviews for Finders, Not Keepers, I decided I needed to do something – anything! I sent an email to bloggers who reviewed my latest book for a book blast and kindly asked them to review on Amazon. I made it clear it was their choice and included a link to the original review as well as to my book on Amazon. This resulted in an additional review from a blogger who doesn’t usually post on Amazon.

Ask newsletter subscribers to review. I don’t know why I’d been reticent about this idea. My newsletter subscribers didn’t subscribe to my newsletter for nothing after all. My request resulted in an additional twenty readers saying they wanted to review my book. I’m hoping to turn these newsletter readers into an ARC review crew.

Follow up on ARCs. This is a tough one. I hate it when writers bombard me with emails: Have you read my book yet? When are you going to post the review? Ugh! Leave me alone already! I realized, however, I did need to do some type of follow-up on the advance reader copies I’d sent out. As a reader myself, I often forget about the ARCs on my kindle. *hangs head in shame* I decided to send a general email telling readers the book was now live and I’d appreciate it if they’d post a review. That’s it.

What are different ways you have found which results in more reviews on Amazon? Share your ideas in the comments so I can steal them <insert evil laugh here>.

 

Is it okay for writers to have a favorite character? #AmWriting #WritersLife #WritingTips

pnpff (2)I know parents are not supposed to have a favorite child, but does that apply to writers as well? Are we writers allowed to have a favorite character? To be honest, my favorite character is usually the one I’ve just finished writing. But this time I do feel as if Melanie – from Picture Not Perfect – will remain a favorite for years to come. I just love her! It’s so much fun to write a character who’s crazy. You can put them in all kinds of odd situations and just let them go. (And maybe fantasize a bit that you could have just as much fun!)

My question – is it okay for writers to have a favorite character – is not entirely frivolous. Because I do think there is a bit of a danger to having a favorite. Dangerous? How in the world can it be dangerous to have a favorite character? Let me explain.

is it okay for writers to

I had a ball writing my Gray-Haired Knitting Detectives series. It was my first attempt at chick lit (which turned into mystery but that’s a different story). I had so much fun I didn’t realize I was using the same humor for each of the main characters. Oops! This is indeed the danger of having a favorite character. I tend to write her over and over again. I’m pretty sure my readers are not waiting to read yet another Izzy (the main character in Murder, Mystery & Dating Mayhem). In fact, readers were quite clear about that. Eek!

This was a valuable lesson for me. It’s okay to have a favorite character, but I need to make sure I don’t simply put her in a different coat to revive her for a new novel. I’ll try, but no promises. Although I’m certainly loving Pru, the protagonist in book 3 of the Not So Reluctant Detectives Series, which I’m writing now. She’s completely different than her friend Mel. Huh. Maybe I do just fall in love with whatever character I’m writing.

 

Tips for writing ad copy for an Amazon Sponsored Product Ad #authortoolboxbloghop #writerwednesday #writertips #writerslife

amazon ads 1Writing a blurb for a novel is difficult. How can you possibly condense a novel you’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears into down to just three paragraphs? It’s nearly impossible and sometimes feels more difficult than writing the novel in the first place. But even worse is ad copy. I’m referring here to Amazon Sponsored Products Ads.

My goal in 2019 is to quintuple my royalties. (Crazy, I know.) In order to make that goal happen, I’ve been advertising more and more on Amazon. One of the most frustrating aspects of Amazon ads is writing the actual ad copy. Amazon limits the copy to 150 characters. How can you possibly tell enough of the story to interest a reader with only 150 characters? You can’t. It’s impossible.

But then, I had an epiphany. I was in the shower when I realized my mistake. (I really should get a robe.) Ad copy doesn’t need to tell the story. That’s what the blurb is for. Nope, the only thing ad copy should do is get the reader to click. That’s all. Get a reader interested enough to click.

Sounds easy enough, right? Yeah, not really. Here are a few rules I apply to my ad copy:

Tone and voice. It’s important to incorporate the same the tone and voice of your novel into the ad copy. If your novel is witty, be witty. It’s not enough to say the novel is witty, you need to show it.

Don’t lie. Of course, we should never lie. (White lies are okay, right?) But what I mean here is you shouldn’t mislead readers. If your novel is not full of suspense, don’t make it sound like it is in the ad copy. At best, you’ll have lots of clicks with no buys. At worst, you’ll get one-star reviews from readers who feel tricked.

Here are some other tips:

Quote an awesome review. Let a reader pick your ad copy for you!

Indicate prizes your novel has won. I’m not a big fan of bragging about prizes, but it’s undeniable that it works for marketing.

Use genre-specific terminology. For example, does your novel fall into a beloved romance trope such as the reverse harem? Make sure to mention it.

Indicate urgency/discount. Indicate the price is a limited-time only discount. Go further and show the discount by indicating the original price.

Use social proof. For example, if you have over 50 five-star reviews or over 50,000 copies read.

How about you? How do you write ad copy? Any tricks of the trade to share?

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This blog post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. This is a monthly blog hop hosted by @raimeygallant. Make sure to stop by the other author blog posts in this month’s blog hop to fill up your author toolbox!

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Review of The Only Story by Julian Barnes #MondayBlogs #BookReview #AmReading

Reading The Only Story reminded me of a meeting of my writing group when I was living in Istanbul. I was working on my novel Life Discarded at the time. When the novel starts off, Morgan is a bad girl – an extremely bad girl. Naturally, that started a discussion about writing a novel with characters readers hated. One of the ‘rules’ of writing – supposedly – is to keep characters relatable and likable. So, how do you write a story in which the characters are not likeable, but which readers want to read anyway? Julian Barnes has managed to pull off just that hat trick.

~ Blurb ~

review the only story

~ My Review ~

Based upon the blurb, The Only Story is not a novel I would have chosen to read. But when a book is written by an award-winning author and a book club pick, you go along with the flow. The prose in this novel makes it clear why Barnes is an award winner. Although the story didn’t captivate me, his words did. I found myself re-reading passages again and again. I was actually disappointed I bought a signed first edition as I wanted to mark up the book for future reference.

I can honestly say I didn’t like Paul to the point I’d probably deck him if I saw him in person. Nonetheless, I found him one of the most honest characters I’ve ever read. He didn’t hold any punches! He was emotionally stunted, immature, and a bit of a brat. Without his brutal honesty, I would have found it hard to continue reading. I didn’t care much for Susan either. She didn’t seem to have much of a personality. As this was Paul’s story, I don’t feel we ever got to meet the ‘real’ Susan. The secondary characters are mostly unlikeable as well but extremely entertaining (e.g. Susan’s husband and his elephant pants).

The novel is split into three parts with the first part in first person, the second in second person and the third in third person. This highlights the increasing distance Paul feels to his love story. I must say I didn’t feel the intense passion in the beginning. Paul admits his memories are unreliable. Perhaps the memory of passion has faded as well?  As second person is somewhere between the deeply personal first person and the impersonal third person, the second part of the novel implies Paul is in an intermediary state where his love transitions from intense to suffering to detached.

I found the subtle social commentary throughout the novel interesting. Paul’s deep dislike of his parents’ way of life echoes the feelings of the youth of the 60s. Susan’s referral to her alcoholism as a moral disease is reminiscent of how society thought of alcoholism at the time. And then there’s the spousal abuse about which no one talks. Although Barnes does not tell us what to think of these societal values, he does bring them to the forefront and gently prods us to contemplate them.

Whether you enjoy the novel or not, the story undeniably thought-provoking story.

~ About the Author ~

review the only story2

Up next for the book club is The Mars Room from Rachel Kushner. Stay tuned …

Celebrating the New Year in The Netherlands ~ New Year Traditions #ExpatLife #Expat #ThisisHolland #NewYear2019

Everyone knows Europeans love to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. As a 17-year-old living in Germany, I did not know this. At least not until we went outside at midnight and I nearly peed my pants when someone threw a firecracker at me. (I’m sure my then-boyfriend – who watched me scream in fright – would be shocked to learn I went on to spend five years in the U.S. Army as a Military Policewomen.) Besides setting off fireworks, how do the Dutch celebrate the New Year?

new year traditions 1Fire, fire, fire. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that it’s not just fireworks scaring the pants off of me on New Year’s Eve. There is also lots of fire. Oh great, one of my phobias come to life. They build a huge (Guiness World Record size) bonfire on the beach. (This year it was too windy. They set fire to it anyway. Chaos ensued.) But that’s not enough for the inhabitants of the Hague. Nope. They also like to light fire to Christmas trees. Awesome idea. Let’s start fires everywhere, shall we? Nothing like coming home at 2 a.m. and finding your street on fire.

new year traditions 2New Year’s Borrel. Now, this is an idea I can get behind. Borrel is a loose term used referring to a drinks gathering. It’s customary for companies to throw a New Year’s Borrel for their employees. Depending on the size of the company, this can range from an informal beer and chips gathering in the office to an extravagant party with DJs and presents. I’m okay with either. I’m not picky.

Best Wishes. It’s the tradition to wish friends, family, etc. best wishes the first time you see them in the new year even if this is several weeks after January 1st. I didn’t realize this was different until some one complained about it yesterday. Is it odd? *Shrugs* I kind of like the idea. (My Dutch husband informs me this habit is technically incorrect, but everyone does it anyway.)

new year traditions 3

THE hat.

New Year’s Dive. I realize diving into some frigid water is not unique to the Netherlands but thought I’d mention it anyway as it is a tradition. Each year at least 25,000 people plunge into the North Sea on New Year’s Day. What do they get for their efforts? A hat. It’s hat. That’s it. Okay, that’s being unfair. 1 euro of the entry fee (entry fee is 3 euros for those who want to join next year) goes to a good cause because not everyone has a happy new year. The donation went to the food bank this year. (Go here to support the food bank.)

new year traditions 4Oliebollen. You can’t have any tradition in the Netherlands without involving food. You won’t hear me complaining about that. (My waistline is a different story.) Oliebollen is basically deep-fried dough topped with powdered sugar. Sometimes there are raisins. They go quite well with a glass of champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve. (That might be the champagne talking.)

What about your country? What New Years traditions do you enjoy?