Friday, July 14, 2017

What's up with the book blurbs?

When I pick up a book by an author unknown to me, the first thing I read is the blurb on the inside cover. If I'm interested, I then go on to read the first few pages. If I'm hooked I either borrow the book, if I'm in the library, or buy the book, if I'm in a bookstore. But here's the thing. I have noticed lately that the book blurbs are often misrepresentations of the book! The blurbs are either misleading, focus on minor characters or events, or sometimes downright incorrect. This is confusing, aggravating and unnecessary.

What is the purpose of a blurb? It has been described as a sales pitch, an online dating profile (stretching it) or an endorsement. In this blog I am referring to the description of the story, not the quotes from other writers or readers endorsing the book. The descriptive blurb will entice a reader, or turn her off. Now I'm not sure who normally writes these blurbs, but it should be the author. I have a sneaking suspicion that the publisher or editor writes them, which is why they are often inaccurate and misleading. I almost feel as if I were snagged by a 'bait and switch.' The blurb leads me to believe the book is about one thing, whereas the focus is on something else.

I understand blurbs can be tricky to write. The writer needs to give away enough of the story to attract a reader, without giving too much away--no spoiler alerts. However, the blurbs should not overemphasize minor elements in the story, nor should they be patently false or misleading. Don't you agree?

Here are a few samples from the books I have read over the past month:

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, by Jennifer Ryan:
"... This story tells the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past."
Technically most of this is true, though they were not all active members of the choir. The artist wasn't really an artist. The refugee is a very small part of the book and the "secret" is revealed in one paragraph and never mentioned again. So to me, the blurb is misleading.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, by Gail Honeyman:
"Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she's thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy....
When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living."
First off, Eleanor does not chat with her mother on the weekends, but on Wednesday nights. Secondly, only Eleanor is isolated; the other two men are not really isolated. So the blurb misrepresents and misleads the reader. It may not seem important, but why not just tell the truth! Also, I would describe Eleanor as having "Asberger's like" qualities. I might also mention her traumatic childhood.

The Mother's Promise, by Sally Hepworth:
"Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope...  As the four of them come together..."
The four of them don't really come together. The two women help Alice, but the blurb is misleading in the way it represents what happens with the four main characters.

Why should we care? These are all very good books, I recommend each of them, but when I finished each book and looked back at the blurb, I felt it did not represent the essence of the book well, and it should!

What do you think? Have you had a frustrating experience with misleading book blurbs? Please share in the comments section.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What makes a book "good" - Part 3 - Alliteration

Originality is a vital element to good writing, and we have looked at prose and similes thus far. Let's turn our attention to alliteration. I really enjoy alliteration, but in small to moderate doses--too much and it becomes annoying. There is a line in Martin Luther King Jr.'s essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail" that I really love - I share it with my students every time we cover the essay, and see a mixture of expressions on their faces, from awe to boredom! As Dr. King writes about his disappointment with the inaction of the white church during the Civil Rights movement, he notes that while some Christian leaders have joined the cause, others have been
       "more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of
         stained-glass windows." 
The repeated "s" and "c" sounds combine to make this an auditory feast. It borders on being too much, and ends up being just right.

I offer here a few more alliterations from books I have recently read:

     "Everything else depended on largeness of spirit and liveliness of the intellect, he said when
      anyone complained of the cramped quarters or unpretentiousness" (Allende, Of Love and 
      Shadows, 26).

     "We were sitting down for luncheon, the sun spilling into the dining room as the gramophone 
      played Vivaldi. I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother's body as she hit the 
      floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware" (Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, 4-5).
There is not a lot of alliteration here, but enough to make it interesting, and her description evokes a real sense of time and place.

       "Emma enjoyed herself extremely," (Austen, Emma, 95).
A Jane Austen quote is an absolute necessity!

And Will...
    "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life," 
     (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet).  Enough said!

     "He'd stand at the cooker, simmering tomatoes with fresh herbs, reducing them to a rich sauce,
      slick and slippery with a sheen of olive oil," (Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, 21). This is a new book, and a great read. Just don't believe the blurb. I'll write about book blurbs in my next post.

Please share your own alliteration "finds" - the ones you enjoy reading, and those that drive you nuts!