One-Minute Book Reviews

May 6, 2023

Why I Support The Writers Guild Strike

Filed under: Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:41 am
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I belonged to the Newspaper Guild for more than a decade when I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, a “closed shop” where certain types of employees had to join the union. During those years, I found that union membership had benefits that went far beyond the difference it made in my co-workers paychecks’ or everyday working conditions.

The Writers Guild in Hollywood has gone on strike, in part, because the rise of streaming services has cut deeply into what they earn, and movie and TV studios and production companies are allowing it to happen.

But even those of us who work in other fields have reason to care about the outcome: The long, slow death of traditional unions has been a major factor in the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United States. That income inequality helps to explain why unions recently have become reenergized in media companies, including the book publisher HarperCollins.

I write about why I support the Writers Guild strike–drawing on my experience as a third-generation union member in my family–in a new post over at Medium that might interest you if you care about whether writers earn a decent living. The official hashtags for the strike include #WGAStrong and #DotheWriteThing, and if you support the strike, you might also consider using them on social media.

May 2, 2023

15 Inspirational Quotes On Writing You Won’t Get From Stephen King or Anne Lamott

Filed under: Books,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:56 am
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Have you noticed that every time you see a list of inspirational quotes on writing these days, they’re always from Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird?

It takes nothing away from those books to say that a lot of authors had worthy things to say about the process before either of them arrived on the scene.

I recently read a long out-of-print memoir of the novelist Somerset Maugham by Garson Kanin, the director and screenwriter who with his wife, the actor Ruth Gordon, wrote the screenplays for some of Tracy and Hepburn’s most famous comedies, including Adam’s Rib. It turned out to be a trove of great quotes from Maugham, Kanin, Gordon, and the playwright Noel Coward, who wrote the foreword.

The book is Remembering Mr. Maugham, and because it’s hard to find today, I rounded up 15 of its best quotes on writing at @Medium.

In one of my favorites, Kanin takes on the question: Can you accomplish anything but writing only a few hours a day? He writes: “Charles Darwin–working only four hours a day–had changed the course of civilization.” You’ll find more like it in my post at @Medium.

April 19, 2023

What’s Wrong With ‘Expository’ Dialogue in Fiction?

Filed under: Fiction,Uncategorized,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:18 pm
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Why do critics fault writers for “expository” dialogue in novels and short stories? Is always bad? And how can you avoid it in your writing or spot it in a book you’re reading?

Short answer: “Expository” (or “expositional”) dialogue often leads to stilted or awkward info dumps. Here’s the longer answer:

April 12, 2023

Italy’s Forgotten Female War Heroes Shine In The Best Nonfiction Book I’ve Read This Year

Filed under: Books,History,Literature,Nonfiction,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:31 am
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If you’ve seen Casablanca, you’ve had a glimpse of the fierce loyalty women could have to Resistance movements in World War II. Italy’s female partisans took risks as dangerous as the fictional Isla Lund did to help her freedom-fighter husband, Victor Laszlo, in the film.

Yet while popular culture has celebrated the women of French and other Resistance groups, it has largely ignored their Italian counterparts–the thousands of female partisans who look on a vast range of tasks as harrowing as they were vital.

These women carried messages, delivered weapons, administered first aid, acted as sentries, arranged for fake papers for escaped Allied and other prisoners, and much more. One transported guns by hiding them under a baby in a pram. Another specialized in kidnapping leading civilians and German officers to use as hostages in prisoner exchanges. With large political gatherings banned, a third devised an ingenious plan for holding meetings.

Caroline Moorehead describes these and other actions by Italy’s remarkable female partisans in her gripping A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism (HarperCollins, 2020). Here’s more on these heroic women and Moorehead’s book, the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year. Here’s more:

February 27, 2023

What Should You Say On The Cover Of Your Novel?

Filed under: Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:56 am
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You have the title and, if you’re lucky, a few lines of advance praise from readers. But what else should go on the cover of your book (or the flaps or dust jacket if it’s a hardcover)?

The longtime Penguin Books copywriter Louise Willder scatters tips for writing fiction and nonfiction book-cover copy throughout her new Blurb Your Enthusiasm!: An A–Z of Literary Persuasion (Oneworld Publications, 2022).

Good cover copy, she says, has a tight narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It tells a mini-story that makes an emotional impact.

That storytelling begins with an opening hook that makes people want to read more. You’ll find an example of a strong first line for the cover copy of a novel on the Virago edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “The Republic of Gilead allows Offred only one function: to breed.”

Want more tips on what to say on the cover of your book? And a few about the things you should never say? You’ll find them in my article:

February 8, 2023

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:43 pm
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How Social Media Can — And Can’t — Help You Sell Your Book

“You have to be on social media.”

If you’ve written a book — or plan to do one — you’ve probably heard this more than once.

Editors, agents, and publicists hail social media as the potential savior of authors ignored by mainstream reviewers and news outlets. As evidence, they point to pop-fiction superstars like Colleen Hoover, whose Himalayan number of TikTok followers recently helped her land an astonishing 15 books on the USA Today bestseller lists at once.

The standard publishing advice boils down to: Books by big names like James Patterson may sell themselves, but if you’re a small-name or no-name author, you must promote yourself relentlessly on social media in order to succeed.

There’s a problem with this advice, as commonsensical as it sounds: No solid research supports it.

As a journalist who writes about books and publishing, I’ve looked for years for hard data that proves that plugging your work on social media sells books. All the evidence I’ve seen is so anecdotal and sketchy, I’ve wondered: Are authors being gaslit by all the “promote, promote, promote” messages they hear?

Two recent, gold-plated articles suggest that social media is, to put it mildly, oversold to writers as a tool for selling books. Here’s more on the best research on the issue and, if you’re an author or would like to be, how it can help you:

January 3, 2023

Shocking Abuses at Irish ‘Mother-and-Baby’ Homes Underlie the Best Novel I Read in 2022, Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:06 am
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In 2014, a historian made public her horrific discovery that 796 infants had died and were buried in secret graves near an Irish home for unwed mothers and their babies between 1925 and 1961.

Her finding sparked worldwide outrage and led Ireland to set up a national commission to investigate the deaths at the Tuam Home and others like it, known as “mother-and-baby homes.” In announcing the move, the Irish prime minister said that for decades Ireland had treated babies born to unmarried parents as “an inferior sub-species.”

An official investigation found that Tuam women who became pregnant again after their stay were sometimes sent to the now notorious Irish institutions known as Magdalene Laundries.

“Orders of Roman Catholic nuns ran the laundries for profit, and women and girls were put to work there, supposedly as a form of penance. The laundries were filled not only with ‘fallen women’ — prostitutes, women who became pregnant out of marriage or as a result of sexual abuse and those who simply failed to conform — but also orphans and deserted or abused children.”

More than 10,000 women passed through the laundries, where they suffered further abuse or neglect before the last of the institutions closed in 1996. Some of the victims reported being beaten, locked in, fed bread and water, made to work from morning until evening, and forced to stay out in the cold if they broke rules. Here’s more:

December 27, 2022

How Taylor Swift Learned the Painful Realities of a Drawn-out Copyright Battle

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:02 pm
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Authors often face murky issues when they try to decide: How much of a poem, a song, or another brief work can you legally use in book, a short story, or a blog post?

There are few bright lines about what’s acceptable and what’s not. How much you can reproduce depends on issues such as: What portion of the original do you want to use? And how do you plan to use it?

In 2017 two lesser-known songwriters sued Taylor Swift over 18 words in her blockbuster hit, “Shake It Off,” which they argued borrowed too heavily from their “Playas Gon’ Play.” The case was recently settled, with neither side admitting wrongdoing, after a bruising five-year battle.

The realities faced by an internationally known singer/songwriter might appear to have little in common with those of authors of books or articles for the print or digital media. But in both cases writers must deal with essentially the same question: What’s “fair” or “unfair” use of someone else’s work? I explore some of those issues through the lens of the Taylor Swift case on @Medium:

November 26, 2022

What’s Behind the Scary Rise in Bungled Executions?

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:25 pm
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Earlier this month, Alabama botched the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, the third inmate it has tried unsuccessfully to put to death since 2018. In each case an attempted lethal injection went horrifically awry.

The state’s latest mangled execution was so cruel and incompetent it caused an outcry. Smith was strapped to a gurney for hours as officials tried to insert the two intravenous lines needed for the lethal drugs used by Alabama.

Elizabeth Bruenig of the Atlantic spoke to Smith later and learned that his executioners managed to place a needle in his left arm. Afterward they “tortured” him by stabbing his right arm and hand and his feet in vain.

The execution was called off after the hapless team decided that they couldn’t insert the second line before Smith’s death warrant expired at midnight. The disaster eerily resembled a fiasco two months earlier in which Alabama executioners tried to kill Alan Eugene Miller but couldn’t insert an IV line in the time his warrant allowed.³

Yet — as incredible as it sounds — such blunders in the state’s death chambers aren’t new, nor are they unique to the state. In 2018 Alabama’s death squad spent hours trying to insert an IV line into Doyle Lee Hamm. They gave up about a half hour before his warrant would expire.

In July 2022, Alabama executioners did manage to kill Joe Nathan James. But they succeeded only after trying for hours to gain access to his veins and apparently performing the medical procedure known as a cutdown. Bruenig spoke to Joel Zivot, an Emory University expert on lethal injections, who examined James’ body.

I wrote about this alarming trend in Alabama and other states and what’s being done about it Medium:

November 12, 2022

Ukraine’s First Lady Is A Heroine For Our Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:13 pm
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In one of my first journalism jobs, I was the book critic for Glamour, which had its offices two flights down from sister magazine Vogue in the Condé Nast building. I also wrote feature articles for the magazine, not unlike a profile of Ukraine’s first lady that appeared recently in Vogue.

The story on Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, has drawn sharp and often ill-informed criticism. Some of the barbs have shown a startling lack of sympathy for the tragedies Ukraine has suffered since Russian invaded it on Feb, 24, 2022. Others have been misleading or seemed to reflect no understanding of how magazines work.

A number of critics, for example, have faulted Zelenska for appearing in Vogue in wartime when Eleanor Roosevelt did the same thing and when 11 of the past 12 U.S. first ladies have been in the magazine during crises such as the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Over on Medium, I’ve deconstructed the flap and described–from journalist’s point of view–what’s wrong with it. In the same article, I argue that Zelenska may turn out to be the greatest first lady since Roosevelt.

If you’re interested in the controversy, you’ll find my story here:

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