Book review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

I’m not a big reader. I like books, but I simply don’t have the attention span to sit down for hours at a time, plowing through hundreds of pages, when I could be baking, sewing, or casually surfing the internet. However, I recently read a book so exciting and suspenseful that I not only read it in two days, but I proceeded to check out its two sequels and read each of those in two days as well.

I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan WellsI Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells (co-host of the great podcast ‘Writing Excuses’), is a wonderful horror book on the darker side of the Young Adult genre. Written in spectacular, unique first- person, the novel is about a high school boy named John Cleaver, a serial-killer fanatic/sociopath who holds himself to a strict rule system so that he does not become a serial killer himself. For instance, he is not allowed set fires or hurt animals, and he’s not allowed to stare at someone for too long, lest he become too interested and begin to stalk them. Continue reading “Book review: I Am Not a Serial Killer”

Seeing Ourselves in Chaucer’s Mirror.

Can we really relate to people from 700 years ago? Thanks to Peter Ackroyd, it’s easier than ever. In our iPod, iPad, texting and tweeting world, you’d think there is not too much in common with the lives of 14th century pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but, in fact, there is.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has been held up for centuries as the mirror of medieval society. Ackroyd highlights the tales in this 2009 version as the mirror of universal human society, and thus, us, in his daring and exciting free translation of this classic.

He notes that Chaucer himself, when he translated The Roman de la Rose, took great liberties to translate the feel and concept of that work rather than the exact language.  Ackroyd takes enormous liberties as well to convey the thoughts and the sense of the story rather than the poetic mannerisms so beloved by Middle English majors. As a result, the work is more alive, in this prose edition, than it has been in ages. By the way, Ackroyd uses pungently foul language with the earthier characters, be warned. Previous major prose editions of Chaucer, such as Nevill Coghill’s 1952 version, were very careful to stick to the script and not offend the traditional norm or literary decorum.   Continue reading “Seeing Ourselves in Chaucer’s Mirror.”

Kirkus Reviews to cease publication.

More bad news on the publishing front, I’m afraid. Today it was announced that KIRKUS Reviews will be closing its doors, to image of Sculpture of Fernando Pessoa at Biblioteca Camões, Lisbon, courtesy of Bob and Jan Truss via Flickrthe dismay of librarians (and the secret delight of authors) around the world. I can think of few better ways to pay tribute to and commemmorate the passing of this epoch-making review source, than to share a few passages from the Kirkus Style Sheet – a document of truly Churchillian elegance, with worthy thoughts and sage considerations for book people everywhere. It isn’t hard to imagine the following advice in the voice of Julia Child:

…At the same time, we also strive to convey a sense of each book’s distinctiveness. Just as Maupassant learned about description by following Flaubert’s advice to watch Parisian cabdrivers and catch the mannerisms that made each one different from the next, every Kirkus review tries to identify the features that make even the most formulaic books (The Body in the Chaise Longue; New Help for Arthritis Sufferers) distinctive, however slightly and subtly, from others.

This would work well in the deliberate intonation of John Houseman:

Interest is not generated by flippant antics, stylistic adventurousness, snarling displeasure or unmodulated intensity of judgment (e.g., “This is a really, really bad book”), but rather by the same sorts of techniques that make good books themselves work: an authoritative grasp of the material; an ability to inspire faith in one’s judgements; a voice that is engaging without being over-familiar; and a sense of humor that transcends mere facetiousness or sniping.

And here’s a summation worthy of Ian McKellen’s or Jeremy Irons’ erudite delivery:

Kirkus has a well-established reputation as the most valuable, critical, intellectually honest of the review journals. We often bristle when our collective tone is described as captious, nit-picking or hostile, yet we wear our reputation for unblinking criticism like a badge of honor. One of the prices we pay for this honor is the constant need to uphold standards of clarity and consistency in writing that help defend us against the occassional imprecations of authors, agents and publishers who would not care nearly so much about Kirkus style if Kirkus judgments were less prinicipled, less sound and less influential.

As a librarian who has had frequent occassion to gather around the familiar quartet of trade reviews to consult over the suitability of a particular book for a reader, I am going to deeply miss Kirkus’ anchoring presence at that head of that table. Among its fellows – Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and Library JournalKirkus often held itself apart, slow to join in a chorus of adulation, and often the only eye to catch some promising talent or sleeper sensation in the offing. Its criticism was at times merciless, but its knack for highlighting truly interesting and satisfying books will be deeply missed.

Cool Site: Overbooked

image-of-books-courtesy-of-manzabar.jpg

Websites aimed at readers are often labors of love created by people who would really rather be reading, and so even the most promising sites come and go with unsettling rapidity.  So when a site like Overbooked.org sticks around for a dozen years, it is something to celebrate.  Years before metacritic or bookmarks magazine began summarizing critical consensus from the vast array of book reviews, Overbooked set out to save the reader huge amounts of time by scanning four standard professional review sources (Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal), and pulling out just the starred (or highly recommended) titles.  The resulting lists represent the cream of a decade’s worth of crops, neatly arranged into major genre categories (including selected non-fiction) – a rich field for readers to graze.  Only have time for the most outstanding of titles?  Check out the all stars – books that received three or more starred reviews.  The site also has handy tables of forthcoming titles, a wealth of thematic booklists, and ample links.  All-in-all, one of the most useful literary sites out there, period.