The Reader Wants More

Last week I read the currently popular novel The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. This week I read Pam Munoz Ryan’s award-winning novel Echo. The books couldn’t be more different. Ware’s novel is suspenseful, heavy in plot, but short on character development. Echo is a children’s book with a touch of fantasy and three distinct stories ultimately tied together with a common theme. I enjoyed both books very much and admire the writing talents of the authors. But despite the differences, these novels have one element in common: the climaxes leave me wanting more.

The Woman in Cabin 10 reveals the identity of the killer sooner than one would expect. When the climax arrives, it’s a chase scene that builds suspense nicely. However, because we already know the murderer’s identity, the element of surprise is muted. In Echo, each of the three stories ends with a cliffhanger. The reader has to wait until the end of the 500+ page book for a brief wrap-up that explains how the cliffhangers were resolved. I felt cheated. I wanted more detail. I wanted to know how young Friedrich felt while evading the Nazis. I wanted to know how Mike, the orphan, recovered and accepted his fate. I wanted to know how Ivy, the young Mexican-American girl, reacted to the news of her brother who was fighting overseas during World War II.

I’m currently writing my third novel. The climactic scene involves the heroine’s frantic effort to stop the public showing of a video. Beta readers have praised the suspenseful scene, but more than one commented that they wanted more from the final reveal. I’ve taken heed and am rewriting the scene so it delivers a stronger punch that should satisfy the reader’s expectations.

I learn and grow as a writer by reading novels and by listening to the advice of my beta readers.

GOT BOOKS

Here is a list of how I select my reading material:

  1. Book reviews.
  2. Friends’ recommendations.
  3. Browsing the shelves at libraries and bookstores.
  4. Websites (such as Goodreads) that rate and review books.

Lately I’ve been struggling with choosing my reads. I experience this every so often. I’ll have a period of time when I’ll read a string of mysteries, chick lit, or some other genre–perhaps the entire works of one specific author who is new to me. Then I’ll be at a standstill. What do I read next? That’s when I have to do some research. I pay more strict attention to what my friends are reviewing on Goodreads or visit other websites (such as TheLatinoAuthor.com) for recommendations. Then I make a list of titles, and the next time I visit the library, I search for those books.

Currently I’m reading The Blue Line by Ingrid Betancourt, a story of political intrigue and lost love. When I finish it, I’ll need to search for some new titles. I can’t be without a book to read. For me, it’s like not having food to eat. I welcome suggestions.

We Need Diverse Libraries

I’m a big fan of public libraries. Of course I am. I worked in libraries for many, many years: small ones, big ones, poor ones, not-so-poor ones. Now I visit the library regularly, and it’s where I obtain most of my reading material. Unfortunately, despite living in a large city with a main public library and several branches, too often I am unable to find the books I want to read.

I read a broad range of fiction–mysteries, bestsellers, literary, horror, and some sci-fi–and often want to read books by Latino authors. I’ve blogged before about the shortage of novels that deal with Latino culture, written by Latino authors. When I come across a title I’m interested in, I always check the library first for availability. The other day I searched my local library system for Chicana Falsa, a book of poetry and short stories by the renowned Chicana author Michele Serros. To my disappointment, I found the library doesn’t carry it. A few weeks back I searched for The Amado Women by an up-and-coming Latina author Desiree Zamorano. Again, I did not find it at my city’s library. Curious, I checked for the classic Chicano novel Pocho, by Jose Antonio Villarreal. It wasn’t in the collection either.

In a city that is at least 40% Latino, I would expect the public library to not only have these books at its main facility but at most of its branches, too. Fortunately, I live near a very large county library system with numerous branches (almost 100). I found Chicana Falsa at about ten of those facilities. The Amado Women is only at two. Pocho is more available, located at approximately twenty of the libraries. I could drive twenty miles to the East Los Angeles Library and find all of those books, but why should I have to do that? There is a reserve system, of course, that allows users to request specific titles to be delivered to their local branches, but that still isn’t sufficiently serving the population. Readers often discover titles by scanning the book shelves at their local libraries. I believe books about the Latino experience should be more readily available to readers of all backgrounds. Why limit these books to Latino communities? Ernest Hemingway’s books, for example, are not limited to primarily Caucasian communities; his works are made available in most, if not all, public libraries.

How do we expect readers, especially young readers, to be exposed to other cultures and ethnicities through literature if we don’t make the material available to them?

 

DIVERSITY NOW

I’ve blogged before about my wish to see more ethnic diversity in mainstream fiction. As a lover of fiction, I would like to read novels that more accurately reflect the American society in which I live. When I read books set in Los Angeles, I expect to see a mix of white, Asian, African-American, and Latino characters, but that doesn’t always happen (I do appreciate Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, which are set in LA and always have ethnically mixed casts).

Currently I’m reading a novel set in Chicago, another ethnically diverse city, and so far the only character of color (a minor one) is a “Mexican” speaking parking attendant. A few days ago I finished a well-written action novel that I enjoyed . . . until the last chapter. It contained an ugly stereotype, a Mexican criminal. What a disappointment. Why include a Mexican at all if a negative image is the only one the reader will see? Time and again it is such a letdown to read books that ultimately fail to have diverse characters or simply contain negative stereotypes. In fact, I would prefer to read a book that has no ethnic characters rather than one that contains the stereotypical Mexican maid, gang member, prison inmate, gardener, or spicy/sexy female. Stereotyped depictions do a disservice to minority communities and reinforce negative images.

My Mexican heritage is a rich and colorful one. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, professions, income and educational levels. We should be depicted as such. And that’s why I write novels that feature  Mexican-American characters in all shapes, sizes, colors, etc.

 

 

 

Without a Book

I made a mistake on my vacation, which came to an end a few days ago. My husband and I traveled to Chicago, rented a car, drove to Hershey, stayed a few days for a wedding, then returned to Chicago to attend another wedding. Though we had a wonderful time, visiting with family we had not seen in ages, there were some hours we had to kill. These were hours spent waiting in airports, and some evenings in hotel rooms where the TV and cable offerings were less than tantalizing. At home, I always turn to a book in the evening when there is nothing on TV that grabs my attention. However, I did not take a book with me on my vacation.

I did consider carrying a small paperback or my e-reader, but when I travel, I like to do it as lightly as possible. I don’t want to deal with the extra weight or bulk of a book or e-reader. I missed reading, though. I thought about purchasing a paperback on the road but never had an opportunity. Going ten days without a book to read felt like being on a diet that deprived me of one of my favorite foods.

As we waited at O’Hare Airport for our return flight, we were told our aircraft was delayed for two hours. I quickly purchased a paperback edition of Jo Jo Moyes’ Me Before You. Moyes’ storytelling is easy to enjoy, like eating a bowl of popcorn. I wanted to be entertained, to keep my mind off the possibility of any further flight delays. But I only read the first two pages before setting the book aside. Instead, I gazed enviously at a young man sleeping soundly on the carpet. I was very tired and wanted so badly to sleep.

As a chronic insomniac, I have always envied the other passengers who sleep through a red-eye flight. I invariably am one of the few who keeps a light on to read. That is why it was such a surprise that I slept through most of the four-hour flight that night. I didn’t once open Me Before You.

One of the few things I appreciate more than a good book is a good night’s sleep.

 

 

 

The Armchair Protagonist

I am an armchair protagonist. I watch a lot of movies, TV shows, and read a lot of fiction. I’m usually able to put myself in the characters’ minds, empathize with their feelings. But sometimes I can’t. Recently my husband, John, and I watched a detective story. The hero was trying to track down a serial killer who was hiding out in victims’ homes before pouncing on them unexpectedly and committing murder. A couple was in bed, turning out the lights, when they heard a noise upstairs. The husband got out of bed, went upstairs, met the killer who proceeded to kill the guy and push his head through the floor. The victim’s wife, still in bed, listened to the rumbling sounds upstairs, and screamed when her husband’s head came crashing through the ceiling. This whole time I was thinking, Why doesn’t she run out of the house and/or call the police? Instead the woman was frozen in fear.

Time and again, especially with horror movies, I watch characters fail to take appropriate, practical steps to save their lives. They’ll run the wrong direction or freeze and wait as the killer (or sometimes a ghost) approaches and ultimately takes them out. In the meantime, I’m saying, Do something!! The truth is, I don’t know what I would do if pursued by a ghost or a killer. I like to think I would be brave and act quickly, but how can I be sure of that? We all react differently to stress. I think it’s up to the writer to put the reader in the character’s head, to understand her reactions and motivations, so we’re not surprised with the actions she ultimately takes.

I just read my first JoJo Moyes novel, The Last Letter for Your Lover. It’s a very entertaining story of star-crossed lovers who somehow keep narrowly missing their connection and can never seem to be in the right place at the right time.. There is another character who appears in the second half of the book who is romantically involved with a married man. At first I had difficulty understanding why she would waste her time with a guy I considered a complete jerk, but eventually I came to understand her motivations. The author did a good job of helping me “get” the character and why she was letting herself be used by the jerk. That’s how a reader ultimately comes to care for the protagonist. You can’t really empathize with a character if you don’t understand what motivates her.

Seeing Myself

Whenever I read a good review of a book I’m attracted to, I’ll add the title to my reading list for future reference. Don Lee’s The Collective had been on this list for a couple of years, and I couldn’t remember why I’d wanted to read it. The title makes it seem like a spy novel. The Collective is far from that.

Don Lee’s book is about three Asian-Americans who meet while attending college in Minnesota, become friends, and remain friends until one of them, Joshua, commits suicide. (This is not a spoiler. The suicide occurs in the first few pages.) The story is narrated by Eric, who is a third-generation Korean-American. Eric does not identify much with his Korean roots, is attracted to blond women, and tells Joshua he has never experienced racism. Joshua, adopted by a  Jewish couple, is proudly Korean-American and tells his friend that racism is rampant in American society: “You’ve never had someone ask, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where you from?’ or ‘What’s your nationality?’ because there’s no fucking way you can be a real American? You’ve never had a kid pull his eyes slanty  at you or some asshole tell you it’s National Hate Chinese Week? You’ve never had anyone tell you your English is pretty good or ask you to ‘chop chop,’ hurry it up?” Eric disagrees with Joshua until he and his friends become victims of a racial incident on campus. Joshua awakens Eric’s sense of pride in his heritage, yet Eric feels that Joshua is too sensitive about racial issues and is divisive.

Years after they’ve graduated from college, the three friends (less emphasis is placed on the third friend, Jessica) form The Collective, a group of Asian-American artists. But even within this group, Joshua is divisive. He is idealistic, yearning for a society that no longer denigrates his culture, that recognizes his novels as  mainstream works rather than as ethnic literature. He offends a fellow writer in the group who always writes about white characters. He tells her that an Asian-American novelist should only write about Asian-Americans.

I very much identify with the characters in this novel and how they struggle with the issue of racial identity. I fall somewhere between Joshua and Eric in terms of how I view my own ethnicity. I know that I have been a victim of racism, yet I don’t view everything through a racial lens as Joshua does.

This novel touched me in a unique way. I have never read a book that discusses racial identity in such bold terms from an Asian-American viewpoint. I find the book particularly interesting because I am currently writing a novel that deals with racial identity from a Mexican-American perspective. I wish there were more novels like  The Collective. I can relate to the characters in this novel because of our shared experiences as ethnic minorities, however different our cultures might be. It’s a unique experience to see someone like myself in the literature I read, but there is not enough ethnic diversity among fictional characters, unfortunately. As an indie author, I am doing my part to change that.