Savvy Saturday – Book reviews, of a sort

If you want to be a good writer, you have to read good books. Lots of them. Inductively learning and reviewing how master authors build characters, build worlds, build tension, and even build sentences helps keep your brain sharp and your stories fresh.

Unfortunately, pleasure reading is not something that graduate students have much time for. That’s another reason that I love Christmas break: despite the work that still has to be done, there is free time for novels. What a lovely happening.

Over my Christmas break, I read (or re-read) works in three distinct genres: classic science fiction (featured: Andre Norton’s Star Soldiers), newly written fantasy (featured: Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades), and British murder mystery (featured: Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise).

What was most interesting to me about these works was how differently the authors wrote to communicate a gripping story. Each of these three authors is well-known in his or her genre, has round characters, and puts these characters in scenarios that they must be clever in order to get out of. But that’s where the similarities between these books ends – and I’m not talking about the aliens versus magic versus British nobility. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to comment on some of the unique aspects of the writing of each of these three books and their authors. (Don’t worry – no spoilers.)

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Andre Norton, like many science fiction writers, has a tendency to emphasize world-building. Through the book Star Soldiers, we get a history of Earth’s future, in addition to interesting tidbits about the cultures of the planet on which Our Hero finds himself trapped with his crew. However, this emphasis can grow to be a bit much: nearly every page includes explications of alien customs or the inclusion of alien words or jargon that – even most of the way through the book – are difficult to understand. Stylistically, Norton makes heavy use of dashes, and has a greater affinity for exclamation marks than is currently in vogue. Some of this is likely due to the book’s original publication date of 1953, though some is also just likely the author’s unique style.

 

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Rick Riordan, unique of the authors in this group, writes in the first person from the point of view of teenage “demi-gods” who speak in modern vernacular. What was particularly interesting in this book was seeing how he maintained unique voices among the multiple characters telling the story. As the fourth in a series, The House of Hades is a continuation of a previous adventure, and both picks up and leaves off in the middle of the action. As such, Riordan doesn’t have to introduce the main characters, but he does have the tricky job of reminding readers who may have forgotten what happened in the prior books of what is going on, why people are doing what they’re doing, and what we learned about characters in previous books that is now vitally important. Also unique among the works I read over break, Riordan’s books are written to be funny. Not only do characters make jokes, but specific word-choices are made by the author to keep young readers’ attention. He does this well, and it’s no wonder that Rick Riordan has been on the best-seller list for years.

 

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Dorothy Sayers, in her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, writes in a more relaxed yet thoughtful way than do either of the other action-adventure authors discussed here. Murder Must Advertise was especially interesting to me as it is not only set in an advertising agency in Britain, it also gives pointed commentary on the nature of such agencies and print advertising. As a marketing Ph.D. student, I found these parts hilarious and apt. The voice of the author comes through much more clearly in these books than in the other two, showing Sayers’ understated wit in her descriptions of settings, and her comments upon characters and their actions. One particularly interesting literary device used in this story was the referencing of a character by two names: one name is his alibi, and the other his true name, but even after his true name is known, the character is continued to be referenced by his alibi in situations where he is acting as that character. This leads to the author’s ability to change our perceptions of the character and what he is going to do in a situation simply by changing which name she uses to refer to him.

While I would not want to adopt anyone else’s writing style, reading these three incredibly different authors has reminded me of the many different ways of using the English language to powerful effect. Hopefully, these novels will be enough to put me in good stead until next break. Whether or not this proves the case, however, I’ll be a good student and stick to reading academic articles until then.

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