You know what I never do? Review a book. Mostly, it’s because I generally suck at it. I want to say things like: Read it, you’ll like it. That’s not a review. I’m also one of those jerks that usually gives books I like 4-stars, with a few exceptions. I mean, like, Harry Potter, yeah, 5 stars, but most everything else I like – 4 stars. It’s just how I think. As a writer, I know nobody wants to see that, they want to see 5 stars. With that in mind, I read a book over the weekend that I want to talk about. Yes, I gave it 4 stars, and I like it and think you should read it. The book I want to talk about is a novella, Wish for survival, by Jessica Marie Baumgartner. It’s really the middle part of a trilogy of novellas that have been turned into a book Embracing Entropy which was released today (03/15/2016). I haven’t finished the 3rd book, yet.
I did a couple of brief reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, about the book itself, to be honest, these reviews are only a little bit more informative than: read it, you’ll like it. I’m not going to directly re-hash those because this blog is supposed to be about writing, and one really interesting thing about this book is the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong, the story is good too, and if you want to read it for just the joy of reading a good book, do that.
First off, it’s in first person present tense. If I were forced at gunpoint, or knife point, or just asked politely to choose a single piece of writing advice to dole out it would probably be: “Don’t ever, ever, ever write a book in first person present tense”. However, and this is truly interesting, Jessica M. Baumgartner pulls it off. It works. Why does it work? I don’t know for 100% sure, but I’ve got an opinion, but first another observation. The book isn’t just a series of events that builds to a climax where, against all odds, the hero pulls off a win. I mean, it is that, that’s what books do, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s from a completely different angle. It’s for this reason, I think, that it works. So what is the angle?
As a reader, you experience events through the ‘right now’ emotion of it more than a description of events that have already occurred. Thinking about first-person past tense, I’d argue that the focus on emotion wouldn’t be nearly so complete and might even be a little distracting. This style gives the flow a slightly clipped, raw feel, where the reader is bouncing through the emotions of the main character, it’s a bit like each event being a slightly larger wave crashing into the reader.
In spite of the unusual approach, the story is engaging and doesn’t prove a difficult read, it reads quite as well as anything else. As with so many cleverly constructed books, I did find myself stopping to ask: “What about…?” This happened to me when I read the Martian. For the first pat of the book, I found myself being not super impressed, until I realized that the writer was being intentional and, in fact, it was all very well done.
For most of us (writers), having a reader stop to ask a question is a bad sign. You don’t want that. In this case, I think that’s the point, perhaps not intentionally, I don’t know, but the reader isn’t meant to know the answers to a lot of questions. The main character doesn’t know the answers to the questions we’re asking, she’s asking the same questions, or would be if there weren’t more important things to think about. We’re supposed to be experiencing her part of the story through her feelings and the narrow band of what she can see. By the end of the book, I reached the point where I realize that the questions I was asking myself: Why are the bad guys attacking? What do they look like? What sorts of weapons are they using? didn’t matter. What really mattered was what the main character was feeling, the immediate need to resolve the right now concerns. Who cares about the motivations of the bad guys when a close friend might be dead? Does it matter what they look like if there’s no future for the children? That’s what is important in the moment, not motivations or the mechanics of the enemy weaponry.
See that? It’s the right now that’s important, and that’s why this story could pull off the first-person present tense, and actually, in order to have the same impact and feel, it almost has to be written from this perspective. We as readers are meant to be standing in the moment where we’re blind to so many of the events going on outside the direct sight of the main character.
So, from that perspective, I’d recommend reading this one. Not just because the story is solid, but because the execution of the story is unique and compelling.