We are in high summer now, if you reckon by the meteorological calendar, in which the summer months are June, July, and August.
July is lily month in this garden. Spring and early summer bloomers are fading off and tiredness is creeping into the scene. But the trumpet lily “Golden Splendor” adds a flourish of drama, as well as an incredible scent. It drifts through the window as I write.
This lily is one quality plant I’ve manage to grow successfully, despite dry, rooty soil. It declined for several years, but has recovered due to my efforts in removing some of the invading tree roots, adding compost and fertilizer, and paying attention to watering.
This summer has been relatively cool, with slightly more rain than usual. The lilies have responded with extra buds. Again, I’ve taken the precaution of draping light plastic netting over them to deter munching deer. We have a small herd of does (one or two with fawns) and at least three bucks that cruise around the neighbourhood.
I’m still learning what plants they like, although their preferences change from year to year. Last summer the bronze fennel was eaten to the bone. This year, fennel is ignored, but the flowers of Crocosmia “Lucifer” were nibbled. I hastened to apply deer repeller (smelly stuff made of eggs, garlic, and wintergreen). It works, but it’s best to apply it before the damage is done.
Sunny and warm is the forecast for the next week. Perfect July weather as garden and gardener move through the season.
Any writer who follows blogs has seen advice that certain words “stop” your reader: adverbs, “weak” words, “filter words.” Dialogue tags other than “said.” The word “that.” The word “was.” Writers carry out search and delete missions in their documents, hunting down these toxic words. No one wants to take a chance of alienating a reader.
As some of you know, I am a self-declared rule quibbler. Not that I’m a fan of bad writing, but when I read these sermons from the blog, I wonder what evidence supports their declarations. Has anyone carried out a scientific study of reading and how readers actually process written fiction?
Book sales may be taken as an indicator of effective writing, but as most of us know, buying a book does not necessarily equal reading it or enjoying it. Maybe sales are more an indicator of effective marketing than of brilliant writing.
There are peer-reviewed academic journals on the subject: Reading Research Quarterly, for example, and the Journal of Research in Reading. From my admittedly cursory look at the sorts of articles that appear in them, the main focus of the research they publish is how people learn to read and comprehend written language, and not so much what constitutes compelling fiction.
Is there a way to quantify good writing? Do certain words bore or otherwise alienate readers? How might such a study look?
Here’s my idea and thought process: test subjects are given two different texts of a piece of writing long enough to require a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. A couple of thousand words, perhaps Chapter 1 of a novel. One version follows all the rules about words not to use. The other breaks them. Both texts have the same storyline, but different vocabularies.
After reading, test subjects would be asked which version of each piece would incline them to read further. But wait — would a single test subject see both samples or only one? By the time they read the second, they will have an idea of the plot, so there would be a spoiler effect. So maybe we have two stories, i.e., four different texts. Each subject gets a text from each story, one that follows the rules and one that does not. Because the stories are different, the “I’ve seen this already” effect is avoided.
But surely it would be necessary to minimize differences in reader preference? The test subjects would have to be matched with their preferred types of fiction. If a subject reacts unfavourably to the genre of the text rather than the words used, the test wouldn’t be valid. Okay, the researcher would have to interview potential subjects so the members of the subject pool would be similar to one another, in how much time they devote to reading, types of fiction preferred, etc.
Carefully devised follow-up questions would be needed to elicit and quantify the effect of specific words on individual reading experiences. Formulating questions for studies is a field of study in itself.
My conclusion: devising, carrying out, and writing up credible experiments is not a simple matter.
The closest I got to an actual study of the kind I’ve envisioned is a paper published in 1988, entitled The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. It describes five different studies on different aspects of the reading experience. The two that seemed most relevant to my question examined reading speed and readers’ rankings of texts for preference, merit and difficulty. There was even a study of readers’ physiological reactions to reading different texts. Even a cursory look at this paper shows how complex and elaborate a scientific study of reading can be.
The works from which texts were obtained for testing are varied, including fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, classics, and genre fiction. Authors include Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Essie Summers, Arthur Hailey, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, and W. Somerset Maugham. The most recent publication date is 1975.
One thing I found interesting was that some of the books are labelled “trash” by the study’s author. The test subjects showed a preference for this “trash” as pleasure reading material, but at the same time they assigned higher ranks for merit to “elite” works that were harder to read. The final page of the paper shows extracts from three of the works, along with the ratings they were assigned.
Despite labelling certain books as “trash,” the study does not analyze the writing, only the test subjects’ responses to it. While the studies documented in this paper don’t answer my question, they are examples of the kind of effort needed to obtain solid data on reading, and by extension, on writing.
The paper does contain some great academic terms. One that jumped out at me is ludic reading, which means “reading for pleasure.” Books can be called “ludic vehicles.” So, fellow writers, that’s what we’re trying to do: turn our books into ludic vehicles to transport readers into realms of the imagination.
My final thought (for now): Read this blog post, which contains a short piece of fiction that deliberately breaks all kinds of writing rules. I couldn’t stop reading, which suggests the words an author uses aren’t as important as the way she or he arranges them (and a few other factors too, of course).
Is anyone aware of any scientific studies on the effectiveness of specific words on recreational reading? Is there any objective science to back up the “rules” for writers? Or is it just a matter of, “Well, everyone knows…”?
I recently rediscovered a book I have no memory of buying. As you can see from the price stickers in the photo, it was a bargain. Especially considering what a fun read it’s been.
Christopher Lloyd was an eminent British gardener (“horticulturist, ” as he called himself) and writer on gardening. This book is a collection of his essays first published in Country Life between 1964 and 1993. They are arranged by month, a practice that makes sense considering that gardening is an activity governed by the seasons.
Reading the thoughts of this longtime expert gardener who was also a good writer was an informative delight. I must have read this book whenever it was I bought it, but I somehow forgot doing so. That made this re-reading a fresh experience.
Gardening was both passion and profession for Lloyd. He was opinionated, but spoke from knowledge and experience. His garden at Great Dixter was open to the public, which led to opinions about the habits of garden visitors. And on the habits of plants, from trees to tiny alpines. Dogs in the garden. Thefts of plants and cuttings, including confessions of long-ago heists perpetrated by Mr. Lloyd and his mother and fellow gardeners. His thoughts on the sound of certain words — “cultivar” (ugly) or “inflorescence” (delightful). The virtues of rough grass, which made me think I’m on to something with my Boulevard Project. The death of a plant as an opportunity for something new to be added. The essays cover a dizzying variety of garden-related topics, from plant propagation to cooking.
Great Dixter Garden is now managed by a charitable trust as a biodiversity and educational centre and is open to visitors. Its official website may be found here.
As well as enjoying Mr. Lloyd’s thoughts on gardening, I’ve been bustling about in my own patch, so thought it was okay to borrow his book’s title for this post. Deadheading continues, as well as staking, snipping, weeding, lugging watering cans, and fretting about when to activate the soaker hoses and sprinklers.
I can’t really complain about the weather so far this season. We haven’t had unseasonable cold or heat, and there was adequate rainfall from April through June. Today (June 27th), as I write this, however, we have dull clouds and a blustery wind, but without rain. My least favourite kind of weather, since the wind batters plants and tugs on them and dries out the soil. And it’s unpleasant to be in the garden with flying debris whizzing by as branches clash and clank overhead. (Okay, I’m complaining after all, but whining about the weather is a gardener’s prerogative.)
Update: today (June 28th) has been a complete contrast — sunny and clear with a little breeze. And we had a few millimetres of rain overnight; not enough to make much difference, but it was nice to hear its patter on the leaves. Summer rain here is a blessing.
Since this is a Garden post, a few photos are obligatory. About the middle of June I ran around trying to get decent close-ups of flowers. Being a lazy photographer, I didn’t work too hard at it, and my camera isn’t intended for macro work. These are the best of a dubious lot.
My patch of garden is not comparable to the size, sophistication, and magnificence of the one at Great Dixter, but all gardens and gardeners have something in common.
Here are my thoughts on four more books I read and greatly enjoyed in the first six months of 2020.
First, books by writers from Australia, which seems to be a beehive of creativity in the 21st century.
The Old Woman & the Mad Horse – Case File for: The Big Three Mining Investigation by Cage Dunn and Rose Brimson The tension starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until nearly the end. Hella Solaris is an investigator for a shadowy organization opposing a mega-corporation’s efforts to gain technological domination of the earth’s population. Her intent to step back from active service in a small rural community is thwarted, first by the presence of an angry horse, and then by a criminal element who wants to drive her away, and finally, by discoveries and developments that entangle the personal with the professional.
This is a thriller of sorts, but much of the action is internal. Hella gathers information, processes information, formulates theories, has “aha” moments and “oh shit” moments, weighs priorities and calculates risks. The point of view is close third person. Very close; for most of the book the reader is inside Hella’s head, seeing what she sees—often on the screens of various electronic devices—following her thoughts, experiencing her emotions. The pace is dizzying and there are opportunities to lose the thread, especially when tech-related acronyms and initialisms abound. I ended up reading the book twice, to make sure I picked up on all the crucial details.
Hella is an interesting character, for a number of reasons. I can’t say she’s entirely likable, mainly because of her conscious and deliberate use of manipulative techniques in relating to others. She does have good reasons for this, and the two characters she ends up working with—Cam the cop and his daughter Cella—are totally relatable. There are lengthy scenes in which the three test one another’s capabilities and work on trust issues. The climax scenes involve a showdown of sorts, full of revelations and twists. I have to say, a few points seemed a bit implausible to me, but on the whole, the book comes to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion.
Two other books by Cage Dunn worth checking out are: Diaballein and Herja, Devastation (co-authored with poet Frank Prem).
A.C. Flory is another talented Australian writer whose books I have enjoyed greatly.
Vokhtah (The Suns of Vokhtah #1) is remarkable for the imagined world on which it’s set. Vokhtah has two suns. Its dominant life forms are the Vokh, creatures I visualized as similar to pterodactyls, and their smaller cousins and supporters, the iVokh. Most of the story is about the latter. These creatures are not human. Humans do not exist on this world, but human readers can relate to the thoughts, dilemmas, and emotions of the iVokh who are the primary actors.
The Vokh reign like feudal lords over their eyries, which are managed and maintained by the iVokh, who are divided into a variety of physical types with different abilities, including (in the case of a few) telepathy and mind control. Traders are a clan who distribute goods among the eyries, and Healers are a guild with skills and knowledge to maintain life, and end it when necessary. The interactions of the groups are governed by iron-bound protocols and traditions, complicated by secrets and enmities. Sex, especially for the Vokh, is a brutal, violent business, but outside of mating occurrences, there is no gender. The only personal pronoun is “it.”
This is not a quick, easy read. I re-read the first half of the book before writing this review to make sure I understood some of the details. The characters, even the sympathetic ones, don’t actually have names. They are designated by ranks and titles, some of which change over the course of the story. The reader is plunged into this alien world on the first page and has to figure out how things work while following the action. Some might give up in confusion, but the dilemma of the Drudge who is the first character encountered is eminently relatable. By the time that’s resolved, I was thoroughly engaged in the world and the story, keen to find out more about the strangely fascinating creatures with two hearts and inflatable wings.
The book features a constructed language (conlang), but it does not appear frequently enough to be daunting. There is a helpful glossary at the end, which also explains how the creatures vocalize. Otherwise, the prose is clear and straightforward, with description kept direct and businesslike. There is no hyperbole. Dialogue is minimal, even though the iVokh have a characteristic (and curiously attractive) way of expressing themselves.
Setting aside the alien aspects, the theme of this book is change and difference. Individual characters, and the groups to which they belong, must come up with ways to cope with situations they find unacceptable or challenging. Both the physical environment and the social structure are harsh and unforgiving. Transgressions come with a high price. It appears this is the first book in a series, and indeed much remains unresolved at the end. I was delighted to read in the author’s blog that a second volume is forthcoming.
Flory’s Innerscape trilogy offers another fascinating reading experience. It’s set in a 22nd century world where artificial intelligence and virtual reality tech are used to create a kind of paradise. But it’s not without trouble.
Next, a book set in British Columbia.
Slow Curve on the Coquihalla (A Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery #1) by R.E. Donald.
I like a mystery with more to it than just the whodunit. This one delivers. The main characters are fully developed and memorable, each one with quirks and distinctive characteristics, especially tough El Watson and biker dude Dan “Sorry” Sorenson. A variety of shifty, shady types add a bit of grit. There’s a lot (but not too much) info about the trucking business. And it’s set in a place I happen to know well — British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and southern interior. The changing scenery and weather are sketched in to give the reader a picture of this scenic region.
Hunter Rayne is no longer in the RCMP so must conduct his investigation into a fellow trucker’s death unofficially, calling on former colleagues for help. Sometimes his efforts take a back seat to his regrets and worries about his relationship with his daughters, who have grown up without much of his presence in their lives. Many miles are logged while he figures things out, and many encounters in bars and roadside eateries. Something I found a bit excessive was descriptions of characters’ clothing in almost every scene. On the other hand, typos and errors were not an issue, and the ebook formatting was excellent. All in all, I enjoyed riding along with Hunter.
For the final book this time around, we head down the west coast…
Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan.
From the book description: When the thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco doctor meets her new patient, a handsome British expat with the unlikely name of Dylan Cakebread (and an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law), she’s convinced it’s the start of her own relationship novel.
My review: The most striking thing about this book is that its author is a guy. Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men. I appreciated the development of Sarah’s relationship with Dylan, anticipating some aspects and being surprised by others. I really liked the presentation of San Francisco and environs as a setting — scenery, streetscape, restaurants, food, wine. Lots of food and wine. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was Sarah stepping out of the story to present it as a “relationship novel.” It didn’t spoil the story for me, but didn’t really add anything useful either. In fact, seeing that term in the first sentence sort of told me how the book would end. Not the actual ending, of course, just the nature of it. But it was still an engaging, entertaining, and ultimately compelling read.
It’s hard to believe 2020 is almost half done. Given how it’s gone so far, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Let’s hope it gets better. In the meantime, a good book is always helpful. I’ve read nearly 30 books this year. Here are some of the best.
You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas. This novel of contemporary India is a clever interweaving of setting, characters, plot, and issues. The plot revolves around a series of shocking crimes against women. New Delhi in winter was a surprise to me — foggy, smoggy, and cold. The intricate plot zigs and zags from wealthy enclaves to slums, from shopping malls to back alleys. The characters are real people with flaws and fears, trying to do what is expedient and figure out what is right. Family relationships play important roles, churning up emotions and stretching endurance to the breaking point. As investigations proceed, the realities of policing and politics force choices with serious consequences. I read quickly to find out what and who, but I think a reread is needed in order to appreciate subtleties and nuances I probably missed. There are quite a few sentences and phrases in Hindi, but the meaning or at least the gist is conveyed sufficiently that I did not find this a problem; on the contrary, it was interesting to see the interplay of languages among the characters.
The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part Seven: Fifth Island in the River: a biographical fiction by Lorinda J. Taylor This is the seventh book in a very long story. It continues the excellent writing of the previous books, with the additional thrill provided by the fact that the long-planned and much-deferred mission from Earth to the stars finally takes place. It wouldn’t make sense to start reading with Part 7 of the series, so here is my review of Part 1: Eagle Ascendant
Combining hard science fiction with a heartfelt coming-of-age story, this is an engrossing read. Much of its appeal for me was the methodically constructed society in which it is set. By the 28th century, human beings have learned some hard lessons and mended their ways. With a democratic world government, no military forces or organized religions, and an economic system that looks like a benign form of socialism, space travel within the solar system is highly developed, carried out by an organization whose structure and culture is reminiscent of present-day navies. The main character, Robbin Nikalishin, grows up in this world, experiencing family problems, school days, friendships, and love affairs. He is drawn to a cutting-edge space exploration program based on temporal quantum theory. This fictional science sounded plausible to me, but then, my understanding of actual quantum physics is practically nil. Step by step, the story builds to a gripping climax, ending with an irresistible situation that compels one to read Part Two. I am not a real fan of the SF genre, but I can heartily recommend this book.
In fact, I heartily recommend the entire series. The terrible event that ends the first book devastates Robbin Nikalishin and the interstellar program. Parts 2 through 6 relate the many trials and tribulations endured by both before the phoenix rises again. What I love about this series is the balance between realistic human drama and plausible future technology. Readers who expect space combat in their science fiction need not look here, but those who dislike too much science with their fiction will be pleased.
The Huralon Incident (Springbok Chronicles Book 1) by E.A. Wicklund Readers who do enjoy space combat will be delighted and entertained by this book. I was surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did, given my dislike of long and detailed fight scenes of any kind. Captain Evander McCray of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium is a distinct and memorable personality. He’s bold, intelligent, somewhat impulsive, and totally loyal to the principles of the Navy. He has a softer side, displayed by his interest in reconstructing Earth’s fragmented history (sometimes with amusing misinterpretations), and even learning how to bake! Intelligence officer and assassin Aja Coopersmith, McCray’s lover, is also memorable, notably for a certain ruthlessness combined with a “farm girl” background and a surprising desire for a peaceful life. Supporting characters have enough distinctive traits to be distinguishable from one another. Technology is almost a character in itself. The Q-ship ESS Springbok is a technological wonder, and its crew are equipped with “nanites” that enhance their physical capabilities and enable them to communicate nonverbally. These abilities certainly come in handy at moments of crisis. Nanotechnology does everything from shipbuilding to laundry. Artificial intelligence systems also play a major role in getting things done. And there are killer robots called Reapers. Some of the bad guys are almost comically evil, although aspects like media manipulation and political corruption appear quite plausible.
Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt When I saw a mention of this book in someone’s blog, I had to read it, because I had recently read another book on the same subject and wanted to compare them. Both describe visits to the limestone quarries under Paris and other fascinating legal and quasi-legal adventures. I thought Underground was a more straightforward approach to the topic of things subterranean than Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, also published in 2019. Like Macfarlane, Hunt writes about his own experiences, but uses them as starting points to look at human experiences of and attitudes toward being underground. From a theory that all life on earth originated underground, to the physiological and psychological effects of sensory deprivation, to the use of caves as sacred spaces, every chapter contains fascinating facts and intriguing observations. I’m left with the apparent paradox that to us creatures of earth’s surface, underground spaces are at the same time realms of terror and irresistible attractions.
When I read brief descriptions of books, I must admit my first reaction is often, “So what?” So what if young Miranda and her cat must save the world from the ultimate evil? So what if Devon Hope has stumbled on a secret that will mean the end of the world if he can’t find a missing artifact before someone kills him. Meh.
The problem here might be failure to engage. For me, and maybe for other readers, it takes more than the bare bones of a dire situation to pique interest, especially when that situation is just another variation on a well-worn theme. Saving the world while escaping death — what’s more dire than that? Except generic peril is as bland as no peril at all.
But it might be something else.
Observing myself while reading book descriptions, I think the reason for “blurb failure” is not always the fault of the person (author or publisher) who wrote it. The real problem is what used to be called an “embarrassment of riches.” There’s a deluge of information coming at us all the time. Posts, tweets, ads, promos, news, views, warnings, tips, tricks, sounds, images, etc., etc. Aaaaargh, I can’t take any more!
When the brain is overloaded and distracted, not even the most artfully created blurb will do the trick. The eye skips, the brain misses, and the conclusion (barely registered by the person who experiences it) is “Sure, okay, seen it before. So what? Next!”
In this environment, it takes more than a well-written blurb to bring a potential reader to “Yes, I’m going to buy this book.” Maybe it’s repetition; if someone sees a cover image and description twenty times or a hundred times, eventually the tipping point is achieved. Maybe if it arrives via a personal recommendation from a trusted friend. Or maybe it’s a totally random conjunction of temperature, air pressure, hormones, and the angle of the light coming through the window.
So what’s an author to do?
Authors sweat blood writing the brief descriptions (“blurbs”) that appear next to their book’s cover image and on the back cover or jacket flap. They have to be short and intriguing. “So what?” is absolutely NOT the reaction a book description should provoke.
And a book description is absolutely necessary, despite the fact that it will be another drop in the flood. When I see book recommendations by bloggers, without even a brief indication of what the book is about, I pass them by.
If nothing else, creating a book description is a good writing exercise. It demands effective word choices constructed into powerful sentences. It’s a distillation of a book’s essence, an enticing whiff that makes the reader want more.
A book description may be field-tested by running different versions past critique partners, blog readers, or even friends and family. Along with the question “Would any of these make you want to read the book?”
Turning the topic over again, when I take the time to read a book description carefully, giving it my full attention, I’m not always inclined to think “So what?” Hmm, how would Miranda’s cat help her save the world? What sort of person is Devon Hope, and what is the crucial artifact he has to find?
Dang! Neither of those books exists; they’re just examples I made up.
How do you read book descriptions? Do you ever get the “So what?” feeling?Do you have any tips for writing an effective blurb?
Before May of 2020 fades into memory, here are a few memorable images from my garden, along with a thought or two.
As a new gardener, I read a lot of books and articles about garden design that suggested using plants as an artist uses pigments to create stunning colour combinations. In fact, I recall the term “plant palette” being tossed around. After years of striving to do this in reality, I’ve decided it’s not a realistic goal, outside of “great gardens” with staffs and resources. For the small gardener, failure and fits (apoplectic and otherwise) are guaranteed. Plants aren’t pigments. They won’t all bloom at the intended times. A key component of the design will die or rampage through the planting. Something else will creep in and introduce a clashing colour. But delightful conjunctions do happen. My best combinations are happy accidents, not carefully selected groupings. The thing is to see and appreciate them when they happen.
The header image shows a happy combination of Siberian irises (finally blooming well here), with orange poppies (Papaver rupifragum) and the white flowers of Libertia grandiflora in the background. I planted the Libertia a couple of years ago. It didn’t bloom last summer, so I was beginning to think the conditions here didn’t suit it (it’s a New Zealand native), but it’s performing beautifully this year.
While “painting” with flower colours is a dubious proposition, it is possible to create effects of contrasting and harmonizing forms and colours with foliage. Leaves, after all, are present throughout the growing season, whereas flowers are fleeting whims.
The garden and environs are home to a number of wild creatures. Birds are the most numerous. I’ve come to recognize quite a few different ones since I began hanging up feeders in 2015. A couple of days ago, I saw a family of red-breasted nuthatches near the pond, and the following morning there was a family of Bewick’s wrens in the lilac bush. Sadly, I think one of the nuthatches is no more; today I found clusters of small grey feathers that match one of that species’ colours. I have seen Cooper’s hawks here from time to time, and I know they prey on small birds. So do crows, for that matter; I’ve noticed one visiting the bird bath recently.
May really is this garden’s best month. June also, if there’s enough rain. By July, grass starts to brown off and the spring bloomers get that tired look. Of course, there are the drought-tolerant stalwarts, the “tough plants” I’ve mentioned in quite a few posts. And the gardener (that’s me) racing around frantically with watering cans and hoses, ministering to plants that aren’t so tough.