When I View Reviews

Inside my local library in Montclair, New Jersey. (Photo by me.)

Book reviews! Whether capsule or full-length, I rarely read them before I read the book. Used to, but I’ve mostly stopped.

Why? I don’t want to know very much about the plot until it slowly (or not so slowly) unfolds in a novel’s pages.

I don’t want to see “spoilers,” which can sometimes slip into reviews.

I don’t want to be influenced by what reviewers think. (But if you enthusiastically recommend a novel in my blog’s comments section, there’s a very good chance it will go on my to-read list. šŸ™‚ )

Some reviewers may of course not be fans of a book, so, if I take those sentiments to heart, I might avoid a book I would end up liking.

For instance, I didn’t look at reviews of J.K. Rowling’s sixth novel starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott before enjoying the book this month. After finishing The Ink Black Heart (written under Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” alias), I as usual THEN read various reviews. Turns out many people felt the 1,024-page novel was way too long for its premise and genre, but in my opinion Rowling is such an engaging writer she pulled it off. Glad I didn’t peruse the reviews beforehand and risk not reading The Ink Black Heart

I should say that, out of curiosity, I sometimes look at the aggregate average of “stars” a novel gets from reviewers before I read it.

I should also say that some reviews obviously approach the perfection of whetting one’s appetite for a book while giving virtually nothing away — and thus can be safe to read beforehand. šŸ™‚

All that said, AFTER I finish a book I do read reviews — at least 10 or 20 of them — to see what others thought.

So how DO I decide which books to read? As mentioned, I often rely on recommendations from commenters here — as well as suggestions from family and friends. Also, if I like a novel by an author, I’ll quickly or eventually read other titles by that author. (My previous sentence referred to standalone works; if I enjoy the first book in a series, I’ll of course continue with that series for anywhere from a few installments to indefinitely.) There’s also the occasional serendipity of looking for specific books in my local library and another novel not on my to-read list catches my eye. Perhaps I had heard something about that book or author and my memory got nudged.

Oh, another thing I usually avoid before starting a novel is reading any foreword or introduction written by someone other than the author. Too much risk there’ll be plot “giveaways.” (I double back to the foreword or intro after finishing the book.) I also sometimes hesitate to look at book jacket copy for the same reason, though I might give that copy a quick glance when deciding on which novels to grab in the library.

Anything you’d like to say relating to this week’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — containing “cameos” from Bruce Springsteen and The Eagles — is here.

An Overview of Oval Office Occupants in Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Barack Obama

With the Presidents’ Day holiday in the United States coming up tomorrow, February 20, I thought I’d focus on mentions of and appearances by real-life presidents in novels I’ve read. Some of those commanders-in-chief were good leaders, others were bad leaders; some of their fiction cameos show them when they’re president, others show them before entering the White House. I’ll go chronologically backward in time.

Barack Obama is referenced in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah — specifically, the reaction to his 2008 presidential campaign and election from protagonist Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrated to the U.S.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom name-checks President George W. Bush when it focuses on character Joey Berglund’s response to the not-warranted U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent disastrous war.

Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone includes a cameo from 1976 presidential candidate (and of course eventual winner) Jimmy Carter.

Herman Wouk hits the White HouseĀ trifecta in War and Remembrance — which includes multiple scenes with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a brief cameo near book’s end by FDR successor Harry Truman, and an appearance by future president Dwight Eisenhower in his WWII commander days. FDR also gets quite a few pages in Wouk’s War and Remembrance prequel The Winds of War when fictional character Victor “Pug” Henry becomes a confidant to the Oval Office occupant.

A pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt, when New York City’s police commissioner, is a major supporting character in Caleb Carr’s crime novel The Alienist.

President Ulysses Grant appears briefly in Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back when players on baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings squad (including teammate-from-the-future Sam Fowler) meet the former Civil War general at the White House.

Abraham Lincoln has been a character in many novels; unfortunately, none I’ve read. But I’ve been moved by two Walt Whitman poems focusing on the 16th president: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

George Washington appears in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series during his time as Revolutionary War general — several years prior to being elected America’s first president.Ā 

Any novels fitting this theme you’d like to mention? I realize I’ve just skimmed the surface; I can think of several novels featuring U.S. presidents I didn’t include in my post because I haven’t read those books (yet). I have a feeling you’ll name some of them, and others. šŸ™‚

If you want, you could also mention novels with fictional American presidents/presidential candidates. Among the books that come to mind that I’ve read are It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, The President’s Plane Is Missing by Robert Serling (brother of Twilight Zone creator Rod), and Stephen King’s aforementioned The Dead Zone.Ā 

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a weird football/anti-football theme — is here.

For Some Authors, a Change Is Gonna Come

Many writers switch things up to a degree during their careers, but some do pretty radical makeovers. 

One is J.K. Rowling, who became internationally famous with her fabulous seven-book Harry Potter series. But rather than remain completely Potter-focused, the English author pivoted to penning the non-magical novel The Casual Vacancy before moving to crime fiction starting in 2013 under the pen name Robert Galbraith. I’m currently reading 2022’s sixth book in that series starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, and The Ink Black Heart (with its online harassment theme and other major digital elements) is so far as good as its five predecessors. Which I’m grateful for, because the novel is more than 1,000 pages. šŸ˜µ

(I also mentioned Rowling’s avoidance of being pigeon-holed in a 2021 post that has some similarities to this piece but contains mostly different content.)

Sometimes, a radical makeover involves a writing-format switch. For instance, Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott was a renowned poet during the first part of his career before becoming a prolific novelist (Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, etc.). Roughly 150 years later, Canada’s Margaret Atwood made her own highly successful transition from poetry to novels (The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, etc.).

Flipping that script was Thomas Hardy, a renowned novelist during the first half of his career (Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, etc.) before concentrating on poetry. Heck, the English author lived and wrote for 33 years after the 1895 publication of his final novel: Jude the Obscure.

Nathaniel Hawthorne came out with an amateurish first novel — Fanshawe (1828) — when he was not yet 25, but then focused on short stories over the next two decades. Some of the tales were gems, and Hawthorne enjoyed a modicum of success, but it was the American author’s return to novel-writing with 1850’s The Scarlet Letter that earned him wide fame during his lifetime and beyond.

India’s Arundhati Roy made a stunning novelistic debut in 1997 with The God of Small Things, only to turn to political nonfiction and activism for two decades before finally producing a second novel.

Any writers you’d like to mention who did the major makeover thing?

Speaking of changes, here’s Phil Ochs singingā€¦”Changes”:

And speaking of major makeovers, I was a football fan when I was much younger, but now hate the sport for its health-shattering violence, greedy right-wing billionaire owners, racism, sexism, homophobia, and pseudo-patriotic trappings. So, I’m not watching today’s Stuporā€¦umā€¦Super Bowl. šŸ™‚

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my local council FINALLY voting to initiate the firing of the municipality’s women-harassing township manager — is here.

Nicknames Can Be More Consequential Than Nicknacks

There are various ways we learn about a fictional character, and one shorthand route is when she or he has a memorable nickname.

Such is the case with the co-star of Kristin Hannah’s riveting, heartbreaking 2015 novel The Nightingale, which I finished yesterday. Isabelle is a young French woman who, during World War II, is nicknamed “The Nightingale” when she bravely risks her life time and time again sneaking downed British and American pilots out of Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle’s nickname evokes the night (the best traveling time to avoid detection during her fraught trips) as well as the melodious nightingale bird and the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. The prickly, rebellious Isabelle — just 18 when she joins the French Resistance — is a helper.Ā 

Obviously, a nickname can have negative connotations, too. In another WWII novel, Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller The Huntress, the title is the sobriquet of a woman who was a murderous Nazi before changing her identity and marrying an American. The man has no idea of his new wife’s awful history, but his daughter suspects there’s something fishy about her stepmother. The daughter and others try to out “The Huntress.”

Diana Gabaldon’s engrossing Outlander — the title of her first novel and the overall name of the series even as the other eight books have their own titles — is the nickname of 20th-century-born Englishwoman Claire, who meets 18th-century-born Jamie of Scotland when she time travels. Claire is an “Outlander”: someone from another time and place.

Then there is Isabel Allende’s Zorro (the Spanish word for fox), whose title character’s real name is Diego de la Vega. Allende’s 2005 novel is anĀ origin story of the masked, sword-wielding justice seeker created by Johnston McCulley in 1919.

Also, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian gets its title from the nickname of botanist-astronaut Mark Watney when he gets stranded alone on Mars.

Some nicknames can be partly ironic, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has laboriously tried to build an aura of greatness around himself, but he’s actually rather pathetic.

I blogged about nicknames in fiction once before in a 2016 post that contained mentions of such novels as Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), and James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th-century “Leatherstocking” series of five interrelated books.

“The Butterflies” is the nickname of the Mirabal sisters who, in Alvarez’s historical-fiction novel, courageously oppose vicious Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

“The Natural” is the nickname of Roy Hobbs, a baseball phenom whose given name is an amalgam of real-life Major League legends Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. But life is far from easy for Hobbs, even as the 1984 movie version starring Robert Redford gave some of Malamud’s novel a more uplifting spin not true to the book.

Natty Bumppo of the “Leatherstocking” series gets several nicknames. The sharp-shooting, wilderness-savvy character is “The Pathfinder” in one book, “The Deerslayer” in another book, “Hawkeye” in The Last of the Mohicans, etc. All monikers with more gravitas than “Bumppo,” that’s for sure. šŸ™‚

My 2016 post also mentioned — among other characters — “The Artful Dodger” (pickpocketĀ Jack Dawkins) of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and “He Who Must Not Be Named” (villainousĀ Lord Voldemort) of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.Ā 

Any nicknames in fiction that come to mind for you?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about dueling petitions and moreĀ — is here.