August 24, 2009

Answering Shannon Hale, while reviewing Lips Touch

"So, I wonder if book evaluation is trumping self-evaluation. I wonder if we get so caught up in gushing or bashing, shining up those stars or taking them away, that the reading experience is weighed too heavily on the side of the book itself and not enough on the reader. After all, reader is more important than book. Reader is the one who changes from reading, not the book. Reader is the one who lives the magic of storytelling."
- Shannon Hale

That Shannon Hale, when she gets to thinking, goes deep. I've been reading her series of posts on How to Be a Reader, and I'm going to both review a book and concurrently evaluate my reader experience in reading Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor.

Full discolsure: Laini and I are blogosphere acquaintances, and I received her ARC, unrequested, from her very generous PR people, and thank you, Scholastic and Arthur Levine Books, verry, very much.

And now, on to Ms. Hale's questions:

1. Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?I have been waiting to read Lips Touch since I saw a sneak peek of the artwork in the book. I knew it was about kisses, and about longing/yearning, and frankly, I was a little scared to review it. A husband-and-wife dynamo duo writing this? Who am I to say if it was good or not? They have enough of that kind of stuff living in their brains already. I expected to like it, but really didn't expect to want to seriously review it.

2. Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up? Lips Touch is a book you just READ. I wasn't imagining the number of stars or pondering Laini's word choices. I got sucked in immediately.

3. Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place? No. Not at all. I am cheered to be returning to my library roots, accepting fewer review copies from editors, since I'm so far away, and it's ...nice to just read what I choose.

4. Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book? It forces me to be a lot less gushy and/or a lot less snarky. I try to be, you know, coherent? Which isn't as easy as it sounds. I am a dyed-in the wool booknerd, so it's hard not to go on and on about what I like, or what disappoints me. Reviewing forces me to consider what people need from a recommendation.

5. What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world? My motivation is mainly that I know how hard it is to find really good books. I try and find books that feature ethnically diverse characters, strong female rulebreakers and characters who buck the clich├ęs and stand up for themselves. That in itself is a tough and frustrating job that can leave you in tears, even online. I'd like to make people's book searches easier, especially people who want their kids to read but don't read a lot themselves, and don't know where to start.

6. If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer? I don't rate. I don't do stars or numbers. I hate that on Goodreads; I tend to want to put "Really, really liked it!" on everything; the few times I've put that I didn't like something, I got email telling me a.) I couldn't say I hated something without a full review or b.) just asking me to elaborate. I only use Goodreads to keep track of books I read and to leave a "wishlist" for myself; I review to share what I've read with others. Those seem to me to be two different things.

And onward, to the goods:

Lips Touch was... in a word, cosmic. I didn't expect the level of literary excellence in it that I encountered. Not that Laini's other books aren't literary -- Silksinger and Blackbringer are among our faves around here, but the audience for these stories is not exactly the same as the one for Magpie Windwitch. Lips Touch reminds me of the short fiction to which I was introduced in grad school. Each story is carefully crafted, meticulously balanced between narrative and exposition, each phrase is rendered down to its most deft and spare. Themes of love, belonging, longing and yearning swirl like bewitching incense through tales of fantasy and fact, scavenged from the fiction and folktales of various cultures and histories (Zoroastrian and Hindu religions, and the British Raj, specifically) to create a thoroughly new and intriguing retelling.

Contemporary lives mesh with the past in Goblin Fruit, where the "urgent, unkissed" Kizzy takes a seductive taste of the danger which could be her undoing; silence reigns in Spicy Little Curses Such as These, and who knows if the three little words Anamique longs to utter will complete the castle in the air she and James have built, or pull it all down? The satisfying, if strange world of fourteen-year-old Esme, and her mother, Mab, is shown to be a sham, as their lives are peeled apart by memory, malice, and the changing color of Esme's left eye. There are shivers in these tales, provoked by both desire or dread, which is sometimes impossible to tell apart.

Good and evil are explored -- as are the edges of black and white and gray. Gray wins out, as good seems dismissed as no more than the luck of the draw, instead of divine sheltering, and evil is a fact all too readily apparent. The splash of color in such prosaic lives are the kisses -- a brilliant, soul-searing red, which is echoed in the color choices for the cover.

And the artwork -- *oh.* The ARC only had one set of completed preliminary sketches for the first story, but there are at least three pages set aside per tale for introductory artwork. The sketches for Goblin Fruit were phenomenal. Between the two of them, Laini and her artist-husband, Jim DiBartolo, have created an extraordinary volume of art. It's truly beautiful, the stories will resonate with older YA and adults, and it's coming out in October, so you only have two more months to wait. A perfect October Country read, folks.

So, that's my answers for Shannon, and my thanks to her for making me a more thoughtful reader/reviewer, and that's my enthusiastic review.

Buy Lips Touch: Three Times in October 2009 and beyond, from an independent bookstore near you!


jama said...

Thanks so much for this, T. Loved your Shannon answers and thoughts on Lips Touch. I'm intrigued!

Sarah Stevenson said...

These stories sound delicious and I can't wait to read them! I've also got Shannon Hale's post on my virtual TBR pile.

Ethel Rohan said...

Wow. Intelligent and interesting as ever. One of the challenges for me in the MFA program was reading for craft/writing a response versus the pure enjoyment/experience of the book.

It really says something about a book where you feel so suck in you're experiencing the work as a reader versus a reviewer.

Laini Taylor said...

Tanita, I'm so glad you enjoyed Lips Touch! Your review really means a lot :-)

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I agree that analyzing/reviewing a book can sometimes hinder the sheer enjoyment of it. All the same, reviews are helpful if you want advice on whether or not to read a particular story.

I really liked this review. You described the work well without sounding dry in the least! :)

Rachel Heston Davis

tanita✿davis said...

Jama & Ethel: You'll really enjoy this book, I think. It's slim enough to tuck in a purse, but if you read it while waiting at a doctor's office, you might be annoyed to be interrupted when it's time for your appointment.
Rachel: Thanks for stopping by - I do hope that I can provide some kind of advice for readers by providing discussion in lieu of stars.

Saints and Spinners said...

I'm intrigued! I want to read it. I'm going to put Lips Touch on hold before my library system goes on furlough for a whole week.

Regarding stars, I don't love them either, but I don't want to write a review for every book I enjoyed. I know GoodReads is public, but ultimately, I'm keeping track of books for myself. I've stopped adding books I abandoned or didn't enjoy. I've been tempted a number of times just to delete my whole account.

Unknown said...

There is not enough time to read. There is not enough time to read.
I am going to sneak this into my budget notebook tomorrow!

tanita✿davis said...

Saints: OY. I feel that way about Goodreads, Facebook, and the whole Web 2.0 on a daily basis. I don't like my opinions being so widely disseminated with stars. I am going to try and just write brief notes without them... I know people find them useful, though, and you're right -- they're shorthand.
KB: I feel your pain, my dear. There is NEVER enough time.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Farida--I agree with you. I'm not thrilled about the stars (especially since there are no half stars!) but they're a useful shorthand. I don't mind the way Goodreads does it in the sense that their star ratings roughly correspond to how much the reader "liked" the book rather than how "good" it was--or at least that's the way they describe the ratings. I try to remind myself regularly that it's all subjective anyway. :)

I, too, don't usually add books I've abandoned or really disliked (which often go together...)

Doret said...

Loved your answers to Hale's questions. I never rate my reviews either - I can consider two books 3's but it can mean two different things.

Kelly L. said...

@Doret: You've got an excellent point re: two books earning three stars, and it meaning two different things. One of those 3-star books might have been a solid but middling read, nothing wrong with it but nothing spectacular about it. The other might have been just this side of wonderful, but with bad copy-editing or one big plot hole that shot it in the foot.

I do rate books with stars, but I agonize about it a lot! I'll finish a book and find myself reading down the list of my recent reviews, going "Hmm, I liked it better than this one but not as much as that one... how about 3.5?" At least we have half stars at FantasyLiterature, which helps me a little. I don't think I could break it down to a percentage score, though, the way some sites do. I'd give myself a headache!

Found this discussion while looking for reviews of Lips Touch. I just read it, and adored it (I'll have a review up soon). I wanted to see if others have had the same experience I have--that this is a gem. I think this is just about an Angela Carter level of awesome, and I do NOT say that lightly!

Kelly L.

Shelf Elf said...

"Cosmic" Yes. Just So.

Great review. It made me think about the way I read and review. I'll have to check out Shannon's Posts.