Book Comparison: Still Water Bending and Happiness

Over the years, I’ve reviewed books, compared e-books to paper, and talked about the relative merits of self-publishing and traditional publishing. What I’ve never done before is compare two different books that represent opposite ends of those two approaches. So here goes.

Still Water Bending

I stumbled onto this book in the newsletter of Boating Writers International. Author Wendy Mitman Clarke is a familiar name to anyone in the boating journalism world, and I’m always eager to read novels based on the water. So as soon as I read the book’s description (“In the river-born community of Ophelia, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, there are three religions: The Water, The Family, and The Land.”) I hopped over to her site and hit the “buy now” button. $5.99 later, a Kindle copy automagically downloaded to my iPad. (It’s also available in paperback for $13.60.)


A short New Yorker review is what sparked my interest in prize-winning author Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, which I checked out of the library. Hardcover, published by Bloomsbury (UK) and Grove Atlantic (US), and based in central London rather than the watery creeks of the Chesapeake, it could not have provided a stronger contrast to the previous week’s novel. The ebook version would’ve cost me $14; the price inside the hardcover’s jacket is $26.


I read the two books back to back without intention; that’s just how they stacked up in my To Be Read pile. I devoured Still Water Bending, eager to find out what happened next to characters who quickly seemed like people I might meet at a coffeeshop the next time I get to the Chesapeake.

A week later, I sipped nightly at Happiness, enjoying the word choices and imagery but often tempted to skip ahead, in search of the next plot point—and usually forced to start off my pre-sleep reading with a skip back to the previous chapter, to refresh my memory about what had happened the night before. Two days ago, I reluctantly decided to abandon Happiness halfway through; I’ve just added it to my “not-finished” list on Goodreads (where it has some fantastic company). Despite excellent design, formatting, and writing, the story just didn’t tick enough of my What Makes a Book Memorable boxes. 

Still Water Bending had some formatting issues right from the first page. It reeked of self-publishing and could definitely have benefited from a copy editor’s sharp eye. But that’s what I noticed as a fellow author; as a reader, I didn’t care, because I was too busy getting lost in the story and the characters and the setting. It stuck with me during the day, so I never had to struggle to remember who the characters were or reread a few pages to get going again.

Both novels could be considered “literary.” Both include fresh descriptions and analogies that paint a clear picture of their worlds. Both are about places I love to explore, either through books or in person—though admittedly, if I had to choose between living in London and living in Ophelia, Maryland, small waterfront town would definitely win out.

One author garnered a traditional publishing contract and a review by Salman Rushdie. The other published under the imprint “Head to Wind,” and (guessing here) had a family member do the cover illustration—which is lovely, but probably wouldn’t have passed muster with a traditional publisher’s marketing department. And yet the less polished ebook is the one that kept me up too late, the last night of reading.

Format counts, but story counts more

Clarke would’ve received a five star review if not for the sloppiness that distracted my author’s eye from her story. Just like grade school, spelling counts. But the most important thing is telling a tale well. I read to escape, and it simply doesn’t matter who published a book or how well it’s polished if it takes me effortlessly into a different world.

Have you read something recently that seemed better (or worse) than its formatting led you to expect? I’m always looking for book recommendations, so share away in the comments below.