Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Rating

2 Stars

Plot

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story of a mother (Lydia) and her child (Luca) fleeing from a Mexican drug cartel. The two have survived a horrific massacre that saw 17 members of their family murdered in retaliation for a newspaper article on the local cartel leader written by Lydia’s husband.

Convinced that she and her son will continue to be targeted, Lydia flees the scene and determines to make her way to America via ‘la bestia’, a long and dangerous train journey north. Along the way they meet other migrants fleeing violence and despair in the hope of a better future.

Themes

This book attempts to explore the violent and corrupt drug culture of Mexico, the unrelenting and unfathomable depth of love a mother feels for her child, and bring to light the humanity and personal horror of migrants seeking asylum in the US. It tries. Sort of. Not really.

Impression

This book has sparked controversy around Cummins’s appropriation of Mexican narratives and superficial and clichéd depictions of migrants. Don’t get me started on the glowing wonder that is America in this book.

Let’s set aside the myriad issues with Cummins’s decision to write this book in the first place and start with the writing itself. It’s boring. Overburdened with indulgent flashbacks and constant explanations of Lydia’s feelings, this book really drags. It’s a long 459 pages despite the blurb spruiking it as an action-packed thriller. I mean, ‘For him, she will leap onto the roof of a high-speed train’ has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it (and I believe there’s one in the pipeline). Yet, the reading experience is slow and tedious. I found myself skimming this book just to get through it.

The characters are two-dimensional and overwritten. Luca is the perfect survivor child who stoically comes of age as their journey progresses. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. Lydia is wholly unsympathetic in her naivety, stupidity and stupid luck.

Then there’s the lack of authenticity and depth in Cummins’s representation of Mexico and of migrants. This is not the place for me to weigh in, but I can direct you to a swathe of excellent resources that will highlight how damaging books like this can be (marketed as must reads for those who want to know about the plight of Mexican migrants).

Here’s my favourite summary of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba:

“Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins’s narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.”

Here a few sources to help you get a handle on why this book is controversial:

I suggest you read Gurba’s full article to get a true sense of why she found American Dirt a difficult book.

Why is everyone arguing about the novel American Dirt?

The problem with American Dirt is not the author’s background.

I don’t have an issue with the fact that Jeanine Cummins isn’t Mexican. It doesn’t mean she can’t write a book that deftly tackles social, political and economic issues in another country. The problem is, she didn’t write deftly. She didn’t write well, and she didn’t write with care. She wrote a book that would sell millions of copies and be made into a movie. I take issue with the fact that she wrote a bad book that played on stereotypes and cliché.

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10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

Everyone wants to tell you how you should write your story, book, memoir or comic-book series. We’re all experts. Apparently. You will get a lot of well-meaning advice when you start out writing (like this post!) but you’re the one sitting at the desk grinding out the words. Here’s my take on the 10 worst tips for new writers that I’ve heard over the years. Some of them may be just the ticket to get you on your way. If so, great!

Write what you know

I don’t want to write what I know. I already know it. Well, sort of. One of the magical things about books and story is that you don’t have to be in your own everyday life. I understand the point of this advice – that by writing from our own world we can share a unique perspective and build an authentic experience for other people. For me, however, writing is quite a selfish pursuit and I want to write as much for myself as for anyone else. Which means I don’t always want to write ‘what I know’. I want to find out about something else. I think is a limiting perspective.

Plot

Aha! I hear you say. You said this was one of the best tips in your best tip list.

I did. I also said I didn’t like it that much. I get bored and lack the patience to plot out a story. I don’t stick to them anyway. My point is, plotting is fine. Not plotting is fine. The important thing is that the story makes it to the page through whatever path helps you get there.

Write the book you want to read

No! I’m nowhere near clever enough to write the book I want to read. That’s for actual artists. The ones I envy. More to the point, I don’t know what I want to read until I find it. I didn’t know I would enjoy a book about a sad woman with a social media addiction until I read Kate Jane Unsworth’s Adults. Why did I pick it? Because I liked the cover and the title – same as everyone else.

I prefer to write the story that’s tickling my imagination. If my brain is doing me the courtesy of plopping a story on my lap, who am I to say: Oh, sorry. I really fancy reading a space-opera romance right now, so your spy thriller will have to wait while I write the book I want to read propped up in bed.

I might be over-playing this a little, but I think this kind of overthinking is dangerous.

Build character profiles/do a character interview

For me (and this may be a trick that works for you), this seems forced. I end up with a stack of profiles I have filled in myself and overlay with a few unimaginative ‘quirks’ to make them seem interesting. Characters must have a life of their own, a voice of their own and (for me) be allowed to develop organically.

Write at the same time every day/build a routine

This is another one that makes it on to most lists. It isn’t poor advice, but it can go badly for you if you invest too much in it. It’s that same mentality as when you’re on a diet and you fall off the wagon and say, ‘stuff it, I’ll eat all the biscuits then’. The feeling that you have missed your quota, or ‘failed’ to turn up at the desk today can have a negative feedback effect. Create a routine (I like to write first thing in the morning) but don’t get stressed if you don’t make it every day. Life happens and the work will be there tomorrow – just make sure you get back to it.

Know your audience

Again, this isn’t necessarily terrible advice, it just depends on why and what you’re writing. If you’re a romance author contracted to Harlequin, then yeah, you need to know your audience. For most of us, trying to write a book you think other people will want is impossible. Write your story. Make it the best it can be and someone will love it.

Workshop it/join a writers group

You may thrive on this. I love hearing about other people’s work. I love the buzz of seeing someone else’s creative spark and knowing they have a great story on their hands. Equally, there is nothing worse that putting your precious, fragile idea out there before it’s fully formed and having it rejected. Nothing kills a story idea quicker than early criticism.

So, join a group, they have a lot to offer but think about the critique you give. Remember, it isn’t your story and other people don’t have to write it your way.

Be imaginative

What? Really? Silly me, I’d planned an entire book with the sole intention of being as drab as possible. This one doesn’t deserve any further explanation.

Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut. This is one that makes it into every list of tips for new writers. It’s true that allowing a story to unfold before the reader rather than telling them what is happening provides a more pleasurable and engaging experience. But ‘show, don’t tell’ has its limitations. It can lead to tedious over-description or worse, a confused reader who’s missing the information they need to reach their own conclusion. As a general rule, ‘show, don’t tell’ is important, but taken to it to its extreme and you will ruin your story.

Be unique

Good luck with that one. Trying to make your story unique is a sure-fire way to strangle it to death. That doesn’t mean you be deliberately derivative, use cliché or don’t strive for a unique perspective, but story structures repeat for a reason. We return to the same genre for a reason. We like familiarity as much as we like the unexpected. Just the act of you writing the story will make it unique, you don’t need to try. The same story told by five different people will end up as five different stories. We love authors because of their voice, their small insights, their worldview. Most of the time, it’s not because they have created something completely unique.

So, there you have it. Some wonderfully unhelpful tips on writing. Maybe 10 worst tips for new writers is a tad misleading because these may be the tips that you needed to get started. But that’s the thing; we’re all different and there is no set of rules for how you should create. 

If you want some useful tips, here are a few I can recommend:

The mystery of the cleaning lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience by Sue Woolf

On writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Writing excuses (Podcast)

There are so many more but you’ll develop your preferences as you refine your writing style and process.

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Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Rating

4 Stars

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams has been in the top-ten best-sellers list since it’s release. But good sales often don’t correlate to the quality of the book. Fear not, I’ve got you covered. This review will help you decide whether The dictionary of lost words needs to be on your bedside table.

Plot

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams is set during the ambitious project to build the Oxford English Dictionary. The story follows the life of Esme Nicoll and her search for lost words. Esme is raised by her widower father and spends her childhood beneath his desk at the Scriptorium where he works as an editor on the dictionary. Naturally, Esme grows up among words, definitions, and scholarship.

When Esme finds a discarded word on the floor of the Scriptorium, she undertakes a lifelong project to collect and record words that don’t meet the dictionary’s strict standards. These words, though excluded from the OED, hold depth and meaning to those who use them.

Themes

This book is rich with history, relationships and politics. Set during the women’s suffrage movement and the building political tensions of an impending world war, The dictionary of lost words has tremendous amounts of material to mine. Yet, this is an unassuming book. Esme goes about her life’s work beneath the shadow of the great dictionary. Her love of words builds her understanding of the world and her place within it.

Somehow, Esme’s gentle passion for words is deeply stirring. As she seeks ‘women’s words’ and those of others who don’t meet the criteria for the OED, Esme gives voices to women, the working class and the illiterate. She works apart from the large moments of history but is no less subversive or valuable than the grand vision of the OED or the suffragettes. This book shows that battles are fought on many fronts, and they’re all important.

Impressions

When I began reading The dictionary of lost words, I thought it was going to be a quaint (suggested by the cover) exploration of a young girl’s passion for words. It was, and it was so much more. The dictionary as a device for viewing this tumultuous period of history is clever and elightening, while the characters in this book are beautifully rendered. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Esme and Lizzie (a maid who becomes her surrogate mother).

There is nothing heavy-handed about The dictionary of lost words. Everything from sex, death and the limitless depth of meaning within every word is treated with delicacy and intelligence. I emerged from this book with a sense of warmth, sadness and awe. Williams addresses the silencing of women’s histories by offering a path into the past that has slipped through the cracks.

What did other reviewers think?

Here are a few links to other reviews if you want to dig deeper.:

Better Reading

The Guardian

Sydney Morning Herald

 

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10 writing tips for new authors

10 writing tips for new authors

10 Writing Tips for New Writers

The internet abounds with writing tips for new writers and everyone has a take on how you “should” write your book. Always plot. Never plot. Write at the same time everyday. Don’t wait for inspiration. Grind it out. There are thousands of them. In this post, I’ve narrowed down my favourite writing tips for new authors. But, take them with a pinch of salt because your process may be different.

My biggest tip? Don’t let other people’s ideas of how you should write get in the way of your writing. Build your process to suit the way you like to work. However, if (like me) you like to dive into other people’s processess or need a gentle nudge, read on.

The first draft is where you tell yourself the story; the second is where you tell it to other people

Thanks Neil Gaiman.

If you’re struggling through your first draft, this tip will change your life. When you approach your writing with this mindset, it becomes easy to reconcile the bumps, inconsistencies, and banality of those first efforts. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that your character’s name changes halfway through, or a new antagonist seizes the reigns at 50,000 words. It’s your story, run with it.

The second draft is where it’s at for actually crafting your work. And the third. And the fourth…

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach

This is a fundamental truth of writing (and everything else). New writers are rarely told that writing, more than anything else, is an exercise in dogged determination. It’s a willingness to fix what you hadn’t seen as broken and change what you thought was perfect.

Your first draft isn’t ready to send out to a publisher, and it’s likely your second won’t be either. And while it’s tempting to send your shiny new story out into the world, you’ll be grateful you persevered through a round or two (or three) more of edits.

Don’t edit while you write

Don’t. You’ll go round and round in circles making a few pages perfect that you’ll end up cutting out later. See tip #1.
Over time, you’ll find that the quality of your early drafts will improve. You’ll subconsciously edit your work as you go and make fewer obvious mistakes. Let this kind of self-editing develop naturally.

Plot your story

This is a surprise addition to the list because I’m a pantser from way back. As a new writer, I never plotted. I hate plotting. It gets in the way of writing. Whenever I start, I get excited about the story and can’t resist diving into the writing way before I’ve worked out any of the details that a traditional plotter would be across. However, lately I’ve found that pants/plot hybrid works well for me (you might be different). I don’t need to delay gratification for too long, but I don’t stumble around blind for months on end either.

Life is about compromise, right?

I’ve also done a few time-based, subject-restricted writing competitions and found plotting invaluable when there’s a tight deadline, a word count limit, and a set of parameters that have to be met.

Kill Your Darlings

You’ll hear this piece of advice from every writer you’ve ever met and as a new writer it can be a near impossible feat.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”—William Faulkner

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”—Stephen King.

Your darlings are those beautiful bits of prose that came to you in a moment of inspiration and made you feel special. They flow and flutter, dip and dive across the page in a flurry of whimsy and playfulness. Kill them. Do it. They’re dragging you down. Lock them away like Bertha Rochester if you must, but they’ll burn your house down if you don’t (oh wait… she did that anyway didn’t she?). See advice #2.

Be a reader; you can’t write in a vacuum

One of the best writing tip for new writers isn’t to write at all, but read. Reading other people’s work is the best way to educate yourself about writing. You know a well-written book when you see one, the next trick is to figure out how they did it. This means that you need to read as a writer. Look at language, structure, voice, plotting, setting, characterisation—all the ‘ations’. Many new writers worry that their work will be derivative or that they need to ‘be original’. Your words are always original and every piece of work is derivative, so put that fear aside and get reading.
And, who doesn’t enjoy reading?

Never trust anyone who does not bring a book with them. Quote by Lemony Snickett

Aim for rejection

This may seem an odd tip for successful writers because who wants to expereince that sinking, disappointing feeling over and over? But aiming for rejections means you’re writing. The more the better. After all, a rejection is a ‘not here right now’ response rather than a ‘this is no good’ response.

Write

You can’t fix it if you haven’t written it, and like anything, writing takes practice. Not only does your writing improve the more you do (who’d have thought?), but you build a body of work that shows you what kind of writer you are. Plus, publishers like writers who have a publication history (a real Catch-22, thanks Joseph).

This tip is also a variation on the ‘don’t edit while you write,’ and ‘the first draft is where you tell yourself the story’ tips above.

Hang out with other writers

Seriously, they’re the only ones that get it. That doesn’t mean you have to join a writing group if that’s not your thing, but just being able to talk to someone who understands the ups and downs is incredibly helpful.

Use less words

This is one of those tips for new writers that isn’t true for everyone. Some people love flowery, poetic language. I prefer simple, straight-forward language with details expressed in as few words as possible. This is as much a reflection of personality and preferences than a steadfast rule. However, as a reader, I often skim the sections of description and jump to the action and dialogue. I know I’ve found a gem when I gush at the beauty of a simple sentence that still portrays the complexity of place and emotion.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, these tips will help you get stuck into your writing. Take out of them what works for you and throw away anything that doesn’t. Writing is a mix of black magic, stubbornness and luck, and you never know what tip or trick will be the one that gets you through your next piece of work.

Looking for more inspiration?

The internet is a veritable rabbit-hole of ‘how to’s’ and ‘rules’, and ‘tips’ for new writers. Here are a few I think are useful.
Louise Allan’s ‘How to write a book’ series.

The Guardian’s ‘Ten Rules for Writing Fiction‘.

The Write Life is a great general resource.

Writers’ HQ have heaps of resources to support your writing journey.

And if you want a laugh, Writers Write post loads of memes and charts that capture the enigmatic world of words.

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Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Book Review: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Rating

4 Stars

Overview

The Betrayals is the latest book from Bridget Collins, an artistic nod to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, written with Collins’s unmistakeably rich and lyrical style. Collins’s debut adult novel, The Binding was an astounding piece of writing and expectations were high for her next offering. 

The Guardian’s Stevie Davies describes The Betrayals as a game that is ‘played by the author with and against the reader.’ For me, The Betrayals reflect the games we play with in our efforts to construct ourselves. 

 

 Plot

The Betrayals takes place at the mysterious Montverre Academy, a school where boys study the grand jeu, also known as ‘the game’. The grand jeu is a mix of music, maths, movement and arguably magic. However, the mechanics and visuals of the game remain unexplained and intangible.

The story is told from three POV characters: the rat, Leo Martin and Claire Dryden.

The rat, a young girl who lives at the school in secret, opens the novel and introduces the arcane world of Montverre Academy—part school, part seminary. She sees all as she scurries through the walls and hidden rooms.

Leo Martin is an ex-student of Montverre and now a disgraced political sent back to in exile under the guise of scholarship. Once a gold medallist the grand jeu, Leo is forced to confront past trauma at his former school.

Claire Dryden is the first female Magister Ludi (head teacher) of Montverre and already harbours a burning hatred for Leo. She must prove her value at the school by delivering her first ‘summer game’ but the pressures of Leo’s presence and her own past threaten to undo her life’s ambition.

Themes

The Betrayals is a complex blend of romance, mystery, fantasy, historical reflection, gothic and political thriller set in a dystopian authoritarian world. The politics of ‘The Party’ lurk in the background but, like the game, are an implicit threat rather than a fleshed-out reality.

This obfuscation is a theme that runs throughout the book. The setting is overwhelming and rich with possibility, but Collins keeps the perspective tightly focussed upon the inward journey of her characters. While some reviewers have criticised Collins for her trail of world-building breadcrumbs, I feel the mystery of the outside world drives the reader and characters to the interior. This is a journey into the heart of darkness, searching for the light at the centre of what it is to be human.

The romantic threads of the novel explore love and attraction as a connection between two people, undefined or inhibited by gender. Yet, gender is one of the largest constraints of the novel. Only boys may study at Montverre and until Claire Dryden is accidentally appointed, only men could be magisters. Women in the world of ‘The Party’ are bound to the tenets of ‘Home, Husband and Happiness’.

Within this oppressive landscape, the grand jeu becomes a sanctuary of equality and independence.

Impressions

I loved this book, but perhaps I would have loved it more if I’d read it before The Binding. It’s difficult for an author whose previous novel is exceptional to live up to a reader’s heightened expectations. To be fair to Collins, The Betrayals is beautiful. It pulses with rhythm and cadence, matching the grand jeu in its intricacy. The recurring imagery and cinching plot arcs explore the core of what makes us human, like a quickening heartbeat.

Bridget Collins is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. Her romantic narratives are deeply moving and speak to the profound and wordless emotions that drive human connection. I wanted to know more about the grand jeu, and I wonder if this is one of those rare books that would translate well to film, where the visual elements of the game can create a sense of its depth and beauty.

The Betrayals is as dazzlingly clever as the grand jeu but lacks the heart-wrenching connection of The Binding. It’s as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one, which I enjoy, but somehow it didn’t grip me in the same way. This is a book that can be studied. A book that can be written about and probably should be.

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Review of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Review of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

3.5 Stars

This week I review Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth, released January 2020.

I picked up  Adults because the vague stare of the scruffy dog on the cover piqued my interest. The word ‘Adults’ in bold, black lettering felt like a challenge to my adulting abilities. Was this a book that would validate or undermine my sense of competency? No. In the end, Adults is a book that provides forgiveness and empathy.

Adults explores the relationship between social media and trauma through the story of Jenny, a columnist more invested in her online presence than her real life. It’s an extreme representation but not an unfamiliar one. We’re led through Jenny’s story by a mixture of traditional prose, email and text messages. The differing styles offer insights into the different facets of Jenny’s personality and history.

The story begins with Jenny agonising over an Instagram post of a croissant. How many likes, shares and comments has the post attracted? Was the post banal? Will her favourite influencer follow her?

We cringe as she performs the obsessive rituals of virtual life, all the while pretending we don’t recognise them as a part of our own routine. Secretly we soothe ourselves, dismissing Jenny’s pathology as far-fetched.

Yes, but this book is over the top. I’m not as bad as that.

The need for online validation overtakes Jenny’s daily life to the detriment of her professional life and relationships. She crumbles at work, loses friendships and battles with self-doubt. Yet, we see her at her strongest when she’s constructing a self-image in the artificial realm of digital communication. Her online persona is dry, quick-witted and sardonic.

As Jenny’s physical life unravels, we see a darker side to her social media addiction. Adults leads us beyond the shallow self-obsession portrayed at the beginning of the book in a way that is reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fabulous Fleabag.

The flippant parody of the book’s early chapters transforms into a shared experience of grief and loss until we’re left staring at her vulnerability as it mirrors our own.

Adults is a modern take on a modern life. Addiction, self-preservation and camouflage come in many forms and are not easily teased apart.

 

Don’t want to take my word for it? Here are what a few other people thought of Adults: