Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why, oh why, did you even review? or Introduction of the B.V.O.T. Scale

Let's be honest, people: everybody comes to a book with preferences.

You're totally allowed. It's a big world out there with lots and lots of books. There's shelf-space for everyone to find something to love.

What I really dislike is when someone imposes their own preferences on a whole genre - or even all their moral preconceptions on all of YA. It's not just that they don't like the book; they don't enjoy the type of book that the work is trying to become. But they act like it's the book's fault.

No, I say to this strange, critical interloper, the book is not the problem. YOU are the problem. If you didn't like that kind of book, why did you even read it? Why didn't you just realize that you weren't going to like it, put it down, and go find the kind of book that makes your heart sing? And why did you feel the need to talk about how much you hated it? (Isn't there enough hate in the world? *sob*)

Confession: I have been guilty of this myself. In fact, I once had such write-up on this very blog. It is gone now (and has been for a few months), but I wanted to admit fault. That way, you know that I know how hard it is not impose your own preferences on a book.

BUT there is an exception to every rule.

I was taking a look at some of the books that I have enjoyed the very most recently, and I noticed something strange. All of them were really surprisingly different from each other - different genres, difference age groups, different moods.

Here are the ones I hearted the most from March 15 to April 15*:

*(Why this time period? Because I've been meaning to write this post for that long. Don't judge, people. I've had deadlines.)

This is a shockingly bad photo.
That's how you can tell I took it myself - with my camera phone.
But I wanted to prove that I actually have read these.

But these books all have one thing in common: they all accomplish exactly what they set out to do.

What? you say. Books do not have goals! They are entertainment!

Yes, they do, dear reader. Books are trying to say something. They are trying to tell a story.

(In my universe, dear reader, everything is a story. Even those crazy, philosophical books written by Foucault.)

All of these books tell the story they set out to tell. They are the BEST VERSIONS OF THEMSELVES. That made them delicious from beginning to end.

So, let me tell you about how they measure up on the B.V.O.T. scale:

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
YA Contemporary

I almost didn't read this one. It was a teen romance, and I felt like I've already read too many of those in my lifetime. But I kept hearing such good things. Like this:

“Imagine a mug of rich, thick hot chocolate. Now add a swirl of sweet whipped cream. Yummy? Oui. Well, Anna and the French Kiss is richer, sweeter, and—yes—even hotter. You’re in for a very special treat.”—LAUREN MYRACLE, NYT bestselling author of Peace, Love, & Baby Ducks and Let It Snow

Perkins wants it to be fluffy and full of romantic swoony goodness. But this is the best kind of swoony: it's got real characters! Full-realized and hormonal and alternately giddy and angst-y! The love-interest has FLAWS! And the setting is to die for. (I've actually been to Paris; I wasn't as impressed with it as with Provence, but NOW I want to go back. And eat lots and lots of macaroons.)

This is a teen romance, but that's like saying that Hunger Games is just an YA adventure. Only technically true. It's really so much more.

The point is that the love-story is as complex and layered as many of the more "serious" books out there, and that makes it about a million times more satisfying....

....and a 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale. A perfect score. :-D

What is the B.V.O.T. scale?
You ask.

I (kind of) told you already: the scale that measures how well books become the Best Version of Themselves.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger
MG Contemporary

This one is a toughie to describe, because it's hard to boil this sucker down into a one-sentence hook. It's a situational deal.

Everybody knows the weird loner kid in their class. Dwight, the central figure in this one, is so weird that he folds up an origami yoda and starts acting like it has a mind of its own. It even gives its own weird Yoda-like advice to everyone. Advice that has an uncanny way of being helpful. Nobody, not even the narrator Tommy, can figure out whether or not there's really a Yoda spirit in the puppet, or whether Dwight is really just being weird again. The whole book is about trying to figure it out.

BUT no word is wasted. Even the illustrations enhance and compliment the novel. It's funny and sweet and realistic at once. And even though the book is short (less than 200 pages), it encompasses a wide range of viewpoints, by including short vignettes from Tommy and Dwight's other classmates. INCLUDING one from a complete and total skeptic, who makes plausible arguments throughout the whole novel.

So even if you want to believe in Origami Yoda yourself, you're left guessing alongside Tommy the whole way through. (Do you have any idea how hard that is to do??)

This also makes for an awesome and satisfying ending.

Another 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
Adult Biography
(Non-Fiction! Are you shocked too?)

It was easy to figure out what kind of story the author was trying to tell - Schiff OUTLINES her purpose in the Prologue: she wanted to convey Cleopatra to put this fabled historical figure in her own context, and to depict her not as a seductress, but as a pharoah. Schiff showed where Cleopatra was coming from and what she was trying to achieve. The author also ended up showing us how much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from old Roman dudes, who were mad at her for being prettier and richer and more politically effective than they were. I found that enormously entertaining.

Lots of focus was given to character in this biography. We see Cleopatra, and Caesar, and Marc Antony, AND Cicero, AND even Biblical guys as real people. Not just characters from a Shakespeare play, or the name that goes under a famous quote.

And this WORKED: I am now totally Team Cleopatra. I spent at least three weeks telling people fun little tidbits about Cleopatra and how awesome she was. (Yes, I did get weird looks from people.)

Another 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale...with the caveat that I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and I may not know what I'm talking about.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Adult Paranormal

Okay, I know why I love this one: it has Oxford AND Witches AND Rowing in the first 40 pages of the book. These are some of my favorite things. I had nostalgia like whoa.

But it's also just cool - kind of TRUEBLOOD meets PRACTICAL MAGIC meets THE DA VINCI CODE. Reading all 600 pages, I knew that it could be a tighter book, but part of the pleasure of it was that it wasn't. We needed the sprawling mess to get the whole package.

Harkness used the characters' long conversations to develop the world and its underground societies of Vampires (self-explanatory), Witches (ditto, but these witches come in big family trees), and Daimons (the mad creative geniuses that have trouble with silly things like reality). Maybe we got into a lot of backstory with the love-interest vampire, but he's OLD - really, really, really old. You would have a lot of backstory if you had been living for centuries and centuries. Since two of the main characters are professors, which leads to a lot of explanation about their subjects. Not everyone's cup of tea, but for me, all the academic stuff counterbalanced the swoony love scenes.

Be warned, my dears: IT IS THE FIRST BOOK IN A TRILOGY. If you do not like cliffhangers, this book is not for you. (And annoyingly, lots of people have judged the book harshly for being long AND having a cliffhanger.)

Which means you're probably signing up for 1200+ more pages if you get hooked (like me).

But I won't lie: this one could have had a more satisfying ending. It felt like, let's toss in thirty new developments so that the reader's totally impatient for the next book. That was unnecessary. I was totally cool with just following Diana the witch and Matthew the vampire along to their next adventure.

Thus, I give it a 4.5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale. Very enjoyable, very close to perfection, but not quite there.


This is what I want more in reviews.

Honesty isn't the problem, but tearing down a book because it wasn't what you expected doesn't help anyone. Not the person reading the review (they probably won't have the same tastes and expectations that the critic does!). Not the author (the reviewer isn't even speaking their language!).

But be honest with yourself too! What expectations are you bringing to the book? Are you judging the book on its own terms, or on your own? Ask yourself if the books you're reading and reviewing are your Cup of Tea, or really not. Ask if they're the Best Version of Themselves, not what you wanted them to be.

If you dislike the book for reasons that have nothing to do with the book, then maybe you shouldn't waste your time telling us about how much you dislike it. Your time would probably be better spent finding something else you would like.

Then tell us about that one. :-)


storyqueen said...

I love your Best Version of Themselves scale!

Truly, isn't that what we want in a book?

A book that is honest enough just to be itself?

Looking forward to reading Cleopatra and Discovery of Witches!


Shelby Bach said...

Shelley - Yay!! I hope you enjoy them! :-)