Six-ish Things That Make a Good Book

A few weeks ago, I was at trivia with some friends, and in between questions we were talking about the books we’d read recently. At the time, I was nearly finished reading Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody. I told my friends that I was really enjoying the book, but there was one big problem that I wanted the author to resolve, and whether she did or not would likely determine whether the book made it onto my list of favorite books of 2018. One of my friends said something along the lines of, “Well 2018 is really just getting started, so how can you already know if a book will be on your favorites list anyway?” Which led me to explain that I’ve never limited myself to my top ten or any other arbitrary number of favorite books of the year. Instead, I keep a running list of books I read throughout the year that I think will make the cut. This is particularly important this year, as I’ve already read thirty-three books since January 1. But after that conversation at trivia, I really started thinking about what exactly got a book onto my list of favorite books for the year.

 

I’m sure someone could analyze all the books I have listed on my book recs page and come up with some quality that they all share (I’m taking a course on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence right now and this seems like an interesting job for a computer). But in reality, my method is not a science. Far from it. Since I’ve been musing about my process, I’ve found that there are certain things I look for in a book, and some of them matter more to me than others. And so, in no particular order, here are the six-ish things I consider when deciding if a book belongs on my favorite books list for the year (and also on my book recs page).

 

  1. Writing:

This may come as a surprise, since I’m a writer and all, but writing is not the most important thing in the world to me. Of course, excellent writing is a huge plus, but if the writing isn’t fabulous and the story is there, I don’t mind so much. Less-than-stellar writing alone isn’t going to tip a book out of my favorites list. For example, I really like the Hunger Games series (Mockingjay less so but that rant is beside the point), even though the writing isn’t fabulous. I also enjoyed Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, despite the bland and often cliched writing. On the other hand, if the book has other problems, bad writing can drag it down for me. For example, last year I read The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín. Basically, think the Hunger Games with faeries. I was really excited about this book, but it turned out that I kind of hated it. The story was almost there, but it was pretty predictable, and the main human villain was so cliched, and I hated the writing. I’m not sure if it would have made it onto my list had the writing been better, but better writing may have lifted it out of the I-completely-hate-this-book bucket. And finally, if bad writing alone can’t drag a book down for me, good writing alone can’t lift a book up. I can’t think of an example of this right now, but if a book has fabulous writing and nothing else, it’s not making it onto my list.

 

  1. Story:

For me this is a pretty broad category. When I think of the story, I’m thinking about the plot, the character arcs, the world building, and so on. Ideally,I love it when all these things are done well, but I’ve also been known to love books where certain aspects of the story aren’t all there. For example, even though the world-building certainly leaves something to be desired, I really like the Divergent series (with the exception of the ending of Allegiant because oh my god what was that!?). Story is one of the most important considerations for me when I’m deciding if a book is doing to make it onto my list. There’s just a certain combination of originality, strong pacing, and characters I care about with goals I care about that you can’t beat.

 

  1. The ending:

This is another big one. For me, the perfect ending can take a good book and make it excellent, just as a bad ending can completely wreck a strong book or series. I’ve already mentioned the endings of Mockingjay and Allegiant and how in a lot of ways they ruined the series for me (though I’m more accepting of the ending of Mockingjay once the movies had a crack at it). If you’re interested in reading a much more detailed rant about what makes a great ending and what makes an ending fall flat or actively destroy a good book, I have a whole post on endings here. Go check it out.

 

  1. Representation:

This is a complicated one for me. Generally speaking, this is less important in my overall scheme of thinking about books, but if something is absolutely agregious, it will certainly tip a book out of the running for the favorites list. If a book doesn’t have a lot of diversity, I’m not going to dislike it just for that. If a book has female or minority characters and represents them poorly or problematically, that will upset me. This is especially true for me when it comes to characters with disabilities. Earlier in this post I mentioned Daughter of the Burning City, which I really really liked as a book, but I’m struggling with it because it did the blind-but-not-blind-because-magic thing that really gets under my skin. I have a whole post about blind characters with superpowers here, if you’re interested in that rant. Talking about disability representation is what I’m most comfortable with, because it’s my own experience, and I don’t want to make assumptions about groups outside my own personal experience, but I do pay attention to it in books, because I want to do it right as a writer. And if a writer does it well, that will certainly push a book from good into my favorites list. Finally, it’s important to note that my friends are very conscious of diversity and representation, and the books I pick up tend to be conscious of diversity and thoughtful representation.

 

  1. My gut:

This is pretty self-explanatory. I have a gut feeling about books, and I tend to go with it. To go back to Divergent, I know a lot of people didn’t like it. I recognize its many flaws. I really do. But I’m sorry, I like it. And my gut feeling is really important.

 

  1. Time will tell:

Finally, I keep a running list throughout the year of books that I think will make it onto my favorites list. I also have a list of all the books I read throughout the year. At the end of the year, as I’m writing up my post about my favorite books, I compare the books. Are there any books that are not on my draft favorites that still really stand out to me? Are there any books on my draft favorites list that I can’t even remember the main character’s name? Basically, if a book sticks with me in a positive way throughout the year, that’s a really good indicator that it should be on my list. I recognize that this consideration is a little unbalanced. Obviously a book I finish on New Year’s Eve, two hours before I write the final post, is going to stick with me more than the book I finished three hundred sixty-four days ago. And I don’t know how it will work this year, because I’ve already read thirty-three books and it’s not even March. This year, I probably won’t weigh how the book stands up to time as heavily as I have in past years.

 

So there you have it, the six-ish ways I review books: the writing, the story, the ending, the representation, my gut, and time. I say six-ish because these aren’t really defined categories. You could smoosh the story and the ending together or combine my gut feeling and the effect of time. On the other hand, you could expand the story consideration into separate considerations for plot, character, setting, and so on. It’s not a perfect system. I don’t weigh these considerations the same: Generally speaking, I’m more interested in the story, the ending, my gut feeling, and to some extent the effects of time than I am on the writing and the representation, though writing and representation are still very important to me. This isn’t an exact system. I’m still struggling over how I feel about Daughter of the Burning City, because if not for the blind-but-not thing, it would totally one hundred percent be making it onto my list. The story is great; the ending is great; the writing is great; the book has stuck with me, even though I’ve read a dozen books since I finished it; and my gut feeling is that it’s a really great book and the blind-but-not thing is just one eensy problem and it should be on my list anyway. But the blind-but-not problem is a really big problem for me. So right now, I don’t know if it’s going to make it onto my list.

 

There are certainly other ways to think about and review books—maybe better ways—but this is roughly how I do it. So your turn: what makes a good book for you?

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I Am Diverse

My coworkers at the Disability Rights Center asked me to share the essay I wrote for my diversity statement for my law school, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity. It’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days and with good reason. But while I hear a lot of “we need to be more diverse”—whether it’s in education or employment or the arts—I don’t hear a lot of why.

 

What I liked about the chance to write a diversity statement was that it captured the point of diversity, the essence of its value to society. It didn’t just ask if I belong to a marginalized group. It asked how belonging to a marginalized group affected my experiences and perspectives. That, to me, is what diversity is all about. It isn’t just a number or a label. I am a person who is blind, yes, but that doesn’t in itself make me diverse. Because I am blind, I have experienced my whole life differently even than someone with sight who did the exact same things I did. It is these different experiences and challenges that I have had to overcome that give me a unique perspective to add to any conversation. That, to me, is why diversity is important: it aims to add all voices to a conversation, thus enriching that conversation with the fullness of the human experience.

 

To that end, I wrote my own diversity statement about my experiences in my high school marching band: my feelings of exclusion, my struggle for reasonable accommodations, and finally success not only for myself, but also for the band and the community at large.

 

So without further ado, here it is:

 

Playing my clarinet in the school band was the first time I felt fully included in an activity with my sighted peers. But when I entered high school, the band started formation marching in the halftime shows at the football games, and our band director simply could not see a way for me to participate. I was forced to stand and play on the sidelines, conspicuously out-of-place as the rest of the band marched behind me. I no longer felt like I fit in. In fact, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, standing by myself and playing my part isolated from my section. By the end of my sophomore year, I had had enough. I did some research about other blind people in marching bands, formulated a plan, and presented it to the music department. They said I could try it if I found someone to help me.

 

So I approached my best friend, Amy, and asked if she would guide me for the halftime shows. She agreed, and after a lot of tripping over each other’s feet and several collisions with the sousaphone section, we learned to move across that football field as if we were one person. Amy stood behind me and kept her hands on my shoulders. She was like my shadow, guiding me to each exact position on the field as I played, but we moved together: Backwards march. On beat five, start playing “Eleanor Rigby”. Float sixteen. Hold twelve and dance. I was part of the band again.

 

The local news came to the championship to film the marching band with the “blind girl,” and when they said, “Where’s the blind girl?” we knew we’d done it. Amy and I changed the marching band together. And the marching band, Amy, and I changed the community and its perceptions.

 

During the summer, I joined a team of blind and sighted teenagers, and we hiked in the Andes in Peru and whitewater rafted the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest. Erik told us that when we work together, we all learn from each other, and at every step on those trips, we did. The blind members of our team were able to tackle and surmount an extraordinary physical challenge. At the same time, the sighted teens saw us climb those mountains and succeed. As we realized we could participate in sighted society, they realized they wanted us to participate—we were in fact great people just as capable and normal as they were, even if we had to approach challenges in different ways. Capable and successful people with disabilities break down barriers, change perceptions, and enhance communities.

 

And so it was with the marching band. I was not only able to march, but I showed the band, the school, and the community I could, and by extension, anyone can, given the opportunity. With our will and courage and music in our ears, Amy and I “stepped off,” together, “me and my shadow”.