Booking Through Thursday: Plot or Characters?

I don’t often participate in bookish memes anymore, but this week’s question over at Booking Through Thursday sent me sliding down a thought spiral, so I thought I’d post a bit about my conclusions.  Here’s this week’s question:

Which is more important when you read — the actual story or the characters? I’ve read books with great plots, but two-dimensional characters, and I’ve read multi-layered characters stuck in clunky stories, and I’m sure you have, too. So which would you rather focus on, if you couldn’t have both?”

I’ve said before that I’m largely interested in language and character, followed by setting, with plot or action as probably the lowest aspect in the hierarchy of what I’m looking for when I read.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  all these aspects are important, and if an author lets any one of them languish, it can ruin an otherwise perfectly enjoyable book.  But in general, I’m not as plot-centric a reader as manyI know.

So it’s probably rather easy to guess which aspect – plot or characters – I would rather focus on if, as the question stipulates, I couldn’t have both.  I’d choose the characters most every time.

An analogous situation that feels appropriate for me:  Would you rather attend a party with wonderful food, excellent atmosphere, great music and enjoyable entertainments but at which all the other guests are deeply unpleasant people? Everything about the setting of the party and the action of the evening is great, but your choices for conversation or dance partners are self-centered jerks, boors who spend more time staring into the screen of their phone than actually looking you in the eye, drunken louts who shout and spill things on your nicest outfit, people gossiping in a very rude fashion about other guests and some guy who crashed the party hoping to round up more rubes for his latest pyramid scheme.  I’ve got to say that no matter how beautiful the decorations or how divine the canapés, I’m not going to enjoy myself at this theoretical party.

On the other hand, let’s say the host has had a few setbacks setting up this soirée.   His sister offered to whip up the food, and she’s prone to over-salting everything.  The sound system cuts out, the air conditioning dies (on a balmy summer night,) and the only entertainment is an old game of Monopoly with half the pieces missing.  But your fellow party-goers are awesome people.  They’re easy-going about the party’s failures, they’re funny, articulate and know how to actually listen, as opposed to just talk.  You make the best of the evening and have a lot of fun despite the less-than-eventful situation, because you’re in great company.

I would much rather find myself at the second hypothetical party, hanging out with awesome characters, than suffer through the first party, miserably stuffing my face with delicious hors d’oevres while surrounded by terrible characters.  Great characters can make a lousy party, er, plot worthwhile, whereas no amount of exciting plot can distract me from flat, boring characters.


P.S.  I hate parties.  I am not a party girl.  Nope nope nope.


Top Ten Tuesday (December 24, 2013)

Top Ten TuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly book meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is “Top Ten Books I Hope Santa Brings.”

I’m honestly more hopeful that the Birthday Fairy will bring these (via the Magic of Gift Cards) on the 29th so I…er, I mean she…The Birthday Fairy, that is…can take advantage of after-holiday sales.  But if Santa wants to spread the love with books, I wouldn’t kick him out of my reading nook. (Santa can bring me a reading nook if he likes, too.  I’m not picky.)

Here’s my short-form wish list, with synopses from Goodreads:

S - Abrams and DorstS. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013)

One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire.

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.

The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.

The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.

the orendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden (2013 Canada, 2014 US;  Santa needs to go to and nab me one before I perish of waiting, please and thank you.)

History reveals itself when, in the seventeenth century, a Jesuit missionary ventures into the Canadian wilderness in search of converts-the defining moment of first contact between radically different worlds. What unfolds over the next several years is truly epic, constantly illuminating and surprising, sometimes comic, always entrancing and ultimately all too human in its tragic grandeur.

Christophe has been in the New World only a year when his native guides abandon him to flee their Iroquois pursuers. A Huron warrior and elder named Bird soon takes him prisoner, along with a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, whose family he has just killed, and holds them captive in his massive village. Champlain’s Iron People have only recently begun trading with the Huron, who mistrust them as well as this Crow who has now trespassed onto their land; and her people, of course, have become the Huron’s greatest enemy. Putting both to death would resolve the issue, but Bird sees Christophe as a potential envoy to those in New France, and Snow Falls as a replacement for his two daughters who were murdered by the Iroquois. The relationships between these three are reshaped again and again as life comes at them relentlessly: a dangerous trading mission, friendly exchanges with allied tribes, shocking victories and defeats in battle, and sicknesses the likes of which no one has ever witnessed.

The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love, that comes to a head when Jesuit and Huron join together against the stupendous wrath of the Iroquois, when everything that any of them has ever known or believed faces nothing less than annihilation. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is also timeless and eternal.


Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand (2012)

This is the latest collection from one of my favorite authors.

No one is innocent, no one unexamined in award-winner Elizabeth Hand’s new collection. From the summer isles to the mysterious people next door all the way to the odd guy one cubicle over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.

the wall

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (2013, orig. pub. 1962 in Germany)

First published to acclaim in Germany, The Wall chronicles the life of the last surviving human on earth, an ordinary middle-aged woman who awakens one morning to find that everyone else has vanished. Assuming her isolation to be the result of a military experiment gone awry, she begins the terrifying work of survival and self-renewal. This novel is at once a simple and moving tale  — of potatoes and beans, of hoping for a calf, of counting matches, of forgetting the taste of sugar and the use of one’s name — and a disturbing meditation on 20th century history.

Here’s the trailer for the movie adaptation, which I have a copy of and am psyched for watching on my birthday.  In this case I, uncharacteristically, don’t mind seeing the film before reading the book:


The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

The final novel of Hermann Hesse, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, The Glass Bead Game is a fascinating tale of the complexity of modern life as well as a classic of modern literature

Set in the 23rd century, The Glass Bead Game is the story of Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in Castalia, the remote place his society has provided for the intellectual elite to grow and flourish. Since childhood, Knecht has been consumed with mastering the Glass Bead Game, which requires a synthesis of aesthetics and scientific arts, such as mathematics, music, logic, and philosophy, which he achieves in adulthood, becoming a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game).


Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai (2013, orig. pub. 2008 in Hungary)

Seiobo — a Japanese goddess — has a peach tree in her garden that blossoms once every three thousand years: its fruit brings immortality. In Seiobo There Below, we see her returning again and again to mortal realms, searching for a glimpse of perfection. Beauty, in Krasznahorkai’s new novel, reflects, however fleetingly, the sacred — even if we are mostly unable to bear it. Seiobo shows us an ancient Buddha being restored; Perugino managing his workshop; a Japanese Noh actor rehearsing; a fanatic of Baroque music lecturing a handful of old villagers; tourists intruding into the rituals of Japan’s most sacred shrine; a heron hunting…. Over these scenes and more — structured by the Fibonacci sequence — Seiobo hovers, watching it all.

an imag life

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (1978)

In the first century AD, Publius Ovidius Naso, the most urbane and irreverant poet of imperial Rome, was banished to a remote village on the edge of the Black Sea. From these sparse facts, one of our most distinguished novelists has fashioned an audacious and supremely moving work of fiction.

Marooned on the edge of the known world, exiled from his native tongue, Ovid depends on the kindness of barbarians who impale their dead and converse with the spirit world. But then he becomes the guardian of a still more savage creature, a feral child who has grown up among deer. What ensues is a luminous encounter between civilization and nature, as enacted by a poet who once catalogued the treacheries of love and a boy who slowly learns how to give it.

six-gun snow

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (2013)

…a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents–a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

the man with the compound eyes

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi (2013)

On the island of Wayo Wayo, every second son must leave on the day he turns fifteen as a sacrifice to the Sea God. Atile’i is one such boy, but as the strongest swimmer and best sailor, he is determined to defy destiny and become the first to survive.

Alice Shih, who has lost her husband and son in a climbing accident, is quietly preparing to commit suicide in her house by the sea. But her plan is interrupted when a vast trash vortex comes crashing onto the shore of Taiwan, bringing Atile’i with it.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Atile’i and Alice retrace her late husband’s footsteps into the mountains, hoping to solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance. On their journey, memories will be challenged, an unusual bond formed, and a dark secret uncovered that will force Alice to question everything she thought she knew.

miss m - m young

Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young (1965, must have the 2-volume set)

According to Wikipedia:  “The novel is 11th on the Wikipedia List of longest novels, and 5th among novels written in English” and “was typeset by computer,” (a rarity for the time) consuming “38 miles of computer tape.”  It took the author 17 years to write, working every day.   It was blurbed by Kurt Vonnegut AND Anaïs Nin, for heaven’s sake!  Why has it practically been forgotten?

“One of the most ambitious and remarkable literary achievements of the twentieth century, Miss Macintosh, My Darling might be called the Arabian Nights of American life. In prose that is poetic, incantatory, and extraordinarily rich, Marguerite Young takes us on a search for reality in a world of illusion and nightmare, touching on subjects as varied as drug addiction, women’s suffrage, murder, suicide, pregnancy (both real and imagined), schizophrenia, love, gambling, and perfectionism. With precise detail, Young defines the characters in this phantasmagorical journey: Miss Macintosh herself, from What Cheer, Iowa, a seemingly forthright and normal woman with an incorruptible sense of humor and the desire to put an end to phantoms; the opium lady Catherine Cartwheel, a recluse who entertains imaginary guests in a great New England seaside house; the gentle Mr. Spitzer, a lawyer, composer and mystical space traveller who is wholly unsure of himself and of reality; his twin brother Peron, the raffish gambler and sports virtuoso; Cousin Hannah, the horsewoman, balloonist, mountain-climber and militant Boston feminist; Titus Bonebreaker of Chicago, a wildman of God dreaming of a heavenly crown; Mr. Weed of the Wabash River Valley, a very efficient Christian hangman; and many others. The masterwork of a genius, Miss Macintosh stands by itself as one of the greatest works of our time.”

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?: November 18, 2013

It's Monday!It’s Monday!  What Are You Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.  As you might have deduced, it’s a place to talk a bit about what we’re currently reading, have just finished reading, and what we are about to start reading.

China Mtn Zhang

This week I finished China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. I expected to like it, but I ended up loving it!  It was subtle, clever and intriguing with wonderful characterization and deep, believable world-building. In short, it was one of the best pieces of “soft” or socio-political science fiction I’ve read in a long time.   Written in 1992, this novel was prescient in many ways.


The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleAs to what I’m currently reading, I am about 100 pages into Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami is one of my favorite authors, yet I’ve managed to never read this one, which is arguably his most popular work.  I am liking it so far and am looking forward to the slow slip into surreality for which Murakami is so well-known.


I am also nibbling away at Yoko Ogawa’s recent short story collection Revenge. Another contemporary Japanese author with a penchant for the strange, Ogawa seems good to pair with Murakami.  What I’ve read so far has been quite good.  Ogawa does have a similar vibe to Murakami, but there is a slightly darker, more melancholy and more feminine wash over everything.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.


Next on deck (while I’m waiting for my library hold for my Classics Club Spin pick, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, to come through) will probably be Heart of a Dog/A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov.   Bulgakov is probably best known for The Master and Margarita, one of my favorite classics, and I’m really looking forward to exploring some of his other work.


That about wraps up my upcoming reading week.  I hope you have a great week of reading lined up, too!

Friday Finds (June 28, 2013)

Friday Finds is hosted weekly by Should Be Reading.  This is the place to list the books we’ve learned about this week – online, at the library or bookstore, via word-of-mouth, etc. – and added to our to-be-read lists.

Here are my finds of the week:


TGWATG The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. J. Carey (2013) (author of:  The Steel Seraglio, many graphic novels)







TBT The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett (2013) (author of:  The Fat Lady Sings)







CousinB Cousin Bette, by  Honoré de Balzac (orig. 1846) (author of: Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, The Wild Ass’s Skin, etc.)







Asylum The Asylum, by John Harwood (2013) (author of The Seance, The Ghostwriter, etc.)







TheGAte The Gate, by Sōseki Natsume (orig. 1910) (author of Japanese classics:  Kokoro, Botchan, The Three-Cornered World, etc.)







Arrivals The Arrivals, by Melissa Marr (2013)  (author of Graveminder, the Wicked Lovely YA series)








What new-to-you books did you discover this week?

WWW Wednesdays (June 26, 2013)

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a weekly book meme hosted by Should Be Reading.  The idea is to answer three questions:

MidwichCuckoos1.  What are you currently reading? –  I am about to finish up The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, which I am finding to be a wonderful – and underrated – example of mid-20th century speculative fiction, with a slow-handed, thoughtful style more often found in non-genre writing.  This may sound strange, and maybe it’s because I recently read my first Barbra Pym book, but I keep thinking this is what it might be like if Pym took a turn at writing science-fiction/horror.  There is something similar about the gentle prose, subtle and knowing characterization, quiet bits of humor and general “Englishness” of the setting that gives me that feeling.  (This is the book upon which the film Village of the Damned – with the freaky blond children – was based, but the book is much better and less lurid than that movie, in my opinion.)  I definitely think this 1001 Books List entry would appeal to fans of Ray Bradbury, who also wrote in a thoughtful, “literary” style.


I am also slowly nibbling my way through Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore, which is my Classics Club Spin pick, so I need to try to finish it up by July 1st.  It is good but also quite dense.  I am hoping it will pick up a bit so that I might find the pages turning a bit faster.







OnlyForward2.  What did you recently finish reading? – Yesterday I finally finished Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith.  I am still digesting this one and trying to decide how I feel about it.  There are moments of pure genius spinkled between messy, meandering passages that can try the reader’s patience.  It had the surreality (and cats and dreamworlds) of Haruki Murakami but without as much control of the overall narrative, and it had a number of very disturbing, hyper-violent scenes that feel more like they might have been taken from the playbook of “the other Murakami,” Ryū Murakami.  It was brilliant and infuriating and incoherent and funny and horrifying and…and…and…  Let’s go with “It’s hard to describe” for now.


3.  What do you think you’ll read next? – Around the 1st, I expect to start both Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, which I won from the Goodreads Firstreads program and want to review, and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann for an online discussion group.  I try to alternate speculative fiction of any kind with non-genre fiction or nonfiction (or read both simultaneously) so that I don’t get stuck in a rut.  I am looking forward to both of these titles.