CHARACTER MATTERS

Every year, I reflect on the characters I’ve met through fiction. I do this because character-driven fiction is my favorite. While plot is important, too, I’m more likely to recall a fascinating character over any plot. I connect with characters. Following are my favorites from my 2020 reads:

Manny Rivera in February Files, Trail of Deception, and Moon Shadow Murder. Though I first met Manny last year in Artifacts of Death, the first in this murder mystery series, I came to know him even better in these three volumes this year. Manny, a law enforcement officer, investigates murders in the beautiful Moab, Utah area. He is patient, self-reflective, kind, and loves his family. He is a good man who above all seeks justice.

Jordi Perez in The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spaulding. Jordi is a talented teenage photographer. She is also a lesbian, comfortable in her own skin. Her parents are supportive of Jordi’s sexuality and artistic goals. Jodi is free-spirited, passionate, and quite mature for her age. The other major characters in this YA novel, Abby, Jordi’s love, and Jax, Abby’s friend, are fully developed and interesting people.

Isaiah Quintabe in IQ by Joe Ide. This is the first in a detective series. Quintabe is a private detective. He lives alone in Long Beach, California. He’s a loner and a very intelligent man, despite being a high school dropout. He will take a case that challenges his skills, even if the client can’t afford to pay in cash. He is loyal and determined.

Tangy Mae Quinn in The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips. Tangy is incredible. Only thirteen years old, she endures and survives parental abuse and sexual abuse. Throughout, she maintains her strength of character.

Book Club Choices

At least once a year, I like to briefly comment on the books I’ve recently read that I believe would make for great book club discussions. Below is my short list, which includes a couple of books that led to lively discussions in my book club.

  1. The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips. Racism, colorism in the African American culture, child abuse, and sexual abuse, are just a few of the heavy themes in this novel about Tangy Mae, a young Black girl in the South. It’s a harsh look at racial class issues and the subjugation of an entire race. A lot of hot issues here to prompt discussion.
  2. Factfulness, by Hans Rosling , teaches how to evaluate dire situations with a more practical and optimistic view by disregarding preconceived notions and paying attention to the facts. Our book club discussion segued into a lively exchange inspired by this book and by the BLM protests happening at the time.
  3. The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez. Infertility is the issue here, and the author handles it with a sympathetic tone. It could be a difficult read for anyone who has dealt with infertility, but it’s an eye-opening look at the issue through a fictional tale.
  4. The Shanghai Free Taxi by Frank Langfitt is an interesting look at the Chinese government and how the Chinese view American politics. This could lead to a political discussion, so choose this only if you know your book club members well and trust that the discussion won’t get heated.

One-Novel Novelists

I’m a self-published writer. I’ve written and published three novels and am currently writing a fourth. Over time, my writing skills have improved. Though I think my first book is better than my second, that’s more a personal preference rather than anything to do with the writing itself. I prefer the first because its story and theme are closer to my heart.

I’m proud that I’ve written three novels, especially when at one time I thought I wouldn’t  be able to write even one. I recently got to thinking about writers who only wrote and published one novel. I’m talking about successful writers who garnered much acclaim for their first novels and presumably could have written and published more based on their reputations. I did a little research, and here are a few of those writers: Margaret Mitchell—Gone with the Wind; J.D. Salinger— Catcher in the Rye; Sylvia Plath—The Bell Jar; Arthur Golden—Memoirs of a Geisha; Emily Bronte—Wuthering Heights.

Bronte and Plath died not long after their works were published. That’s the best excuse for not writing a second. Salinger and Mitchell earned such enormous success for their first novels that it seemed they backed away from writing any more. And Arthur Golden? I couldn’t find any reason why he hasn’t published a second novel. He was sued by the geisha he used as his source for his novel. Maybe he’s shied away from producing another? That’s purely speculation on my part.

I’m sure there are countless writers who have published one novel and never succeeded in getting another published, though not for lack of trying. Still, I think they have much to be proud of in having successfully published one.

 

Beta Readers

I’ve just completed another draft of my fourth novel, The Will of Sonia Sanz, . This draft was extra special because it incorporated revisions suggested in the feedback provided by five beta readers. I always look forward to this feedback, but at the same time, it can be disappointing to hear negative comments. This time was no different. While three readers enjoyed the book, two readers told me the story needed more excitement. I was puzzled. After all, this is a story that includes two unexpected and sudden deaths, a gold digging scoundrel, a wild spendthrift, a gas lighter, and a mysterious intruder. What more could I do to build suspense? After further discussion with these readers, I realized the problem wasn’t what was not in the novel; it was what was in it. I had overloaded the story with too many repetitive passages and unnecessary dialogue that negatively affected the flow of the plot. I began to rewrite and revise, eventually deleting twenty pages. The book now reads faster with a stronger emphasis on plot and action.

As a writer, I’m fortunate to have family and friends who are not afraid to tell me the truth when it comes to my writing. They are truthful but at the same time kind. It’s not only what is said but how it’s said. “The book needs more punch to it,” is easier to hear than “It’s just too boring. Make it more exciting,” for example.

Good beta readers are essential to a successful writing process.

What to Read During a Pandemic?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I’ve been sheltering in place for nine weeks. I’ve had plenty of time on my hands to read, but I’ve found it a challenge to concentrate. When we started to stay home, I was in the midst of reading The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s an outstanding nonfiction book about the tragic deaths of many in a group of immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 2000s. I read the first half quickly but struggled with the second half despite my interest in the topic. I couldn’t concentrate. My mind wandered, and I’d have to get up and do something, anything—cook a meal, clean the oven, do laundry, whatever kept me from sitting and dwelling on the pandemic.

Now, nine weeks later, I’ve relaxed a bit, and I’m finding it easier to sit and read for at least a half hour at a time, if not longer. It could be that I’m less anxious about the pandemic, or perhaps I’ve accommodated to the new normal. Or, could it be because I’m reading novels that don’t require a lot of deep thinking? It’s easier to bury my mind in that type of book. The past three weeks I’ve read a thriller, a YA novel, and a chick lit romance. The YA novel, The Summer of Jordi Perez , was especially easy to read because it’s a feel-good story. Hmmm…I think I just answered my question.

What I Read: 2019

I read 46 books last year. Here’s a breakdown:

44 Fiction

4 Young Adult Fiction

1 Juvenile Fiction

14 by male authors

12 mysteries/thrillers, 3 science-fiction, 1 western, 2 romances, 1 horror

7 by Asian Americans, 6 by Latino Americans, 2 by African Americans, 1 by Native Americans

I like to review my writing habits annually to see if I might have adopted any new trends. Not last year. The main difference last year is that I read twice as many mysteries/thrillers than I did the previous year. I enjoyed some very good ones,  like Witch Elm by Tana French. I read only three science fiction novels, two less than the previous year. I plan to read more science fiction in the future. It’s a genre I’ve ignored in the past, but it’s the genre of ideas, one I’ve come to appreciate more.

Best of the Year

There are only 12 days remaining in 2019. I’ll probably read at least one more book before 2020 arrives, but so far this year I’ve read 45. Following is a list of my five favorites ranked from best to least of the best:

1.  The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I love this coming-of-age young adult novel about a teen girl struggling to become her own person despite challenging obstacles. Beautifully written in verse form.

2.  The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Of course, I’m biased. I worked at the Los Angeles Public Library in the early years of my librarian career. With its detailed descriptions of library procedures, policies, and buildings, a reader might find some of this book tedious. But I enjoyed it, especially the many historical details.

3.  On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.  An ultimately optimistic coming-of-age story of a Black teen who dreams of becoming a famous rap artist so she can save her family from economic distress.

4.  Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This was an especially interesting and eye-opening novel for me. There are many historical details of the lives of Korean refugees living in Japan during and after World War II. Their sense of alienation from the mainstream Japanese culture is heartbreaking.

5.  There There by Tommy Orange. I felt a personal connection to this story of Native American cultural identity,  and how Natives can feel lost in their own country.

In Character

Every year I like to list the interesting characters that I have met through my readings in fiction. I’m a little surprised, after reviewing my list of readings of this year, that not too many characters stand out in my memory. These made the short list:

Xiomara Batista in The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Xiomara is memorable because she is a deep-thinking teen who is up against a lot, especially a strict mother who doesn’t get her. Yet, Xiomara triumphs.

Eleanor Oliphant in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. She is not a totally believable character but Eleanor is a thoroughly unique one. She struggles, with the help of a wonderful support team, with mental issues.

Queenie in Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Queenie is a damaged, self-destructive, young woman who makes things worse for herself by engaging in abusive relationships. Though I found her behavior and actions frustrating, I couldn’t help rooting for her to stand up for herself.

Arthur Less in Less by Andrew Sean Greer. This guy has everything–good looks, a successful writing career, good connections–but is depressed because he is turning 50 and isn’t in a satisfying relationship. I didn’t find Arthur Less likable nor did I care much about his personal problems. He’s too shallow and self-involved. But, he’s witty and self-deprecating… he’s memorable.

Book Club Books

This is the longest period of time I’ve gone without blogging. Life has been very busy lately, and I’ve had little time even to write the draft of my next novel. So far, I have written 180 pages. Still a ways to go. Anyway, last time I blogged, I said I would recommend books that I think would make good subjects for book club discussions. Here is the list:

There There by Tommy Orange. A heartbreaking look at Native American society and the long-term effects of oppression and loss.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A historical novel about Koreans exiled in Japan after World War II.The reality of living as if a stranger in one’s own land is explored.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Like Pachinko, this book explores the theme of living as if a stranger in one’s own land (this time, in the United States).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. The hero travels the world to put off facing the fact he is an aging (50) gay man who is losing his appeal (or so he believes). Funny and self-deprecating.

Eleanor Oliphant is Comfortably Fine by Gail Honeyman. A highly unusual young woman deals with the challenges of everyday life.

The Politics of Book Club Discussions

I recently hosted our monthly book club meeting where we discussed the young adult novel I’d suggested, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika Sanchez. I’ve read the book twice and found it funny, entertaining, and relevant, in terms of dealing with serious teen issues. Plus, I was able to relate to the Mexican American cultural aspects that it depicts. During our discussion, I got the impression the others weren’t crazy about the book, and they especially disliked the main character.

In the three years that I’ve been an active member of this group, I have sometimes been surprised at the reactions the others have had to the books that we’ve read. A couple of times, I have disliked the books we’ve read, while the others have enjoyed them. We usually do have a consensus one way or the other though. But if I’m outnumbered, I try to defend my position as diplomatically as possible. I would never come right out and say I disliked a book. That could cause hurt feelings. I have also made a point of reading each book cover-to-cover, even those that I disliked. I think it’s only fair to do that, unless you find you simply can’t get through a book you particularly loathe. I haven’t hated any book that much.

Though I hosted the book club at one of the library’s I managed years ago, that was part of my job, not my personal life. Being in the group that I’m in now has been an enjoyable social experience for me. It’s interesting to see the types of books the women choose to read and, of course, to participate in the discussion we share. On the downside, I’ve now read several books I didn’t want to read, and a couple I truly didn’t like. On the plus side, I have loved some books I otherwise might never have read.

Next month, I will blog about titles I think would make good choices for book club discussions.