Writing Homework #23: Book Titles

Photo by Stephen Phillips – Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash

Earlier this month, I wrote about how I feel when a book title misleads me by including the name of a character I didn’t ultimately think deserved in-title status.

Though annoyance isn’t something I seek out when I’m reading, there’s no reason not to turn those negative feelings into something useful, because writing that post gave me an idea.

Book title practice.

I’ve usually struggled with titling my books, even my works in progress. I often come up with the title late in the process, and usually not on the first try.

So what if I took one or more of the books I felt were improperly titled and applied various advice on how to come up with titles to their stories?

Today I’ll play around with The Hangman’s Daughter, because it’s the fiction book I mentioned that I read most recently, so the story is freshest in my mind.

Hold on while I turn to the Internet for advice on book titles… I’ll reference this article simply because it was the first to turn up in a search and it’s reasonably comprehensive. (Though I’ve found several typos just skimming it…)

A. Use Common Phrases: how would this apply to The Hangman’s Daughter? I could try to come up with a different “common phrase” that would reference the plot, but “X’s Daughter” already is a common phrase, especially in media titles. This advice won’t help in this case unless I had a light-bulb moment hearing a phrase I thought applied.

B. One Word Titles: Hmm. What was the book about? Torture. Witches. Alchemy but not really? Collective hysteria. Assigning blame. Nothing I can boil down to a single word easily. Often these titles are what the book is about thematically, and honestly, I’m not even sure what the thematic arc of The Hangman’s Daughter was.

C. Use Parts of Your Story: Including characters, settings, main events, the season, etc. This already applies–the title is a character–but could we improve on that? Would it be more interesting to name the book for a different character–“The Man with the Skeleton Hand.” Upside, he’s a bigger part of the story, downside, now it sounds like an old-timey serial rather than a work of historical fiction. Could we name it for one of the major story elements? Most of the book is about the mystery of the dead and missing children, so “The Stolen Children” has potential–it’s properly grim to match the tone of the work, and it accurately describes the heart of the main conflict. It’s not flashy, but it’s solid. Maybe not as intriguing in a “huh what does that mean” way, but certainly with a certain air of mystery–what’s happening to these kids?

D. Set Word Phrases & Formatted Templates: This advice is basically saying “use words and phrases from your previous attempts, plug them into the blank spaces in these titles, see what comes out.” I’m skeptical of the usefulness for book titles rather than the attention-grabbing clickbait it’s modeled on, but tools are tools, so let’s give it a try. “The Secret to Torture.” “What Everybody Ought to Know about Witches.” “Who Else Wants Hysteria?” These are just giving me joke titles that don’t match the tone I’m aiming for.

E. Look at Your Genre: ie, don’t stray too far from established styles of titles among your peers. This section of advice gives a link to several title generators based on genre. There is no list for historical fiction, but there is one for crime/thriller, so I checked all of those out. Only one was a true working “generator” that would create titles when I hit a button. (One didn’t work in my browser, one was just a long list of titles somebody else made up, and one was a predetermined list of components, ie, if your first name starts with A, B, C, etc.)

The working generator mostly gave me titles with the general pattern “[noun] of the [adjective] [noun]” and “[past tense verb] for [noun.]” I used to love Mad Libs! So, many of the townspeople believed the conflict was caused by the witch’s curse, which would make that first title something like “Curse of the Angry Witch,” though there are a lot of different adjectives I could try in that spot. Because the dead children all share a mysterious mark on their body when they’re found, the second title could be the oh-so-generic “Marked for Death” or possibly “Marked for Murder.”

Are they more descriptive and accurate? Sure are. But are these better? Because of their incredibly generic nature, I’m going to say no. But this approach certainly has potential, even if I had to do most of the work myself analyzing the patterns the generator gave me rather than it spitting out useful titles unprompted.

F. Hooks in the Title: This concept is fantastic, but it relies on wordplay or another form of cleverness to somehow catch a potential reader’s attention while still being relevant to the book. One example given is basically a spoiler: “John Dies at the End.” (I’ve also read They Both Die at the End, and credit where credit is due, I was intrigued by that title.) Spoilers, I can do. How about “The Witch is Innocent,” no, too obvious. “There Was Never a Curse.” “Those Meddling Kids”–no, wait, that’s a different book. “It’s Actually About Greed,” because of course it is. I’m calling this attempt a failure, though I still like what the advice is trying to do.

As for the rest of the article…well, there’s a few more concrete instructions, but one is aimed specifically at non-fiction, and the rest don’t seem particularly relevant in this exercise, so let’s call it here–I still tried six approaches!

Did I successfully re-title The Hangman’s Daughter? No. Did I really expect that I would? Also no, though it would have been cool if I had to my own satisfaction.

Was that really the end goal of this exercise? Of course not! It was to get me (and hopefully, you) thinking about title creation and how different approaches might apply!

Further thoughts based on my own work: What We Need to Survive got its title during the final drafting phase, and also got its chapter titles that way; each chapter is named for an important physical object in that scene, and collectively, they are the title. (But also not, because the title is also referring to intangible concepts like love, resourcefulness, and hope.) What We Need to Decide and What We Need to Rebuild follow similar patterns, but focusing on other aspects of the journey. My upcoming release, Fifty-Five Days, spent over three years being called #rockstarnovel, until a few months ago when I sat down to rewrite, hammered out an actual tour schedule to work as a structure to hang my timeline on, and then realized the tour length was symbolic of both the difficulty of the situation for the main characters, and how long (or quickly, depending on your outlook on romance) they had to fall in love and decide to make major changes in their lives. The trilogy titles are hooks; 55D is based on setting. And if/when I release future installments in the rock-star series (I am attempting one now) I’ll be locked in to the “[Number] [Noun]” format for my titles, though I don’t know yet if they’ll all be related to time or not. I don’t have a proper title for the NaNo20 novel yet, which is a sequel to 55D–I never worry about titles before the end of the first draft. I’ve got months/years left with this story, that I started less than a month ago. No rush to name it yet.



Need to catch up on your assignments?

From My Art Journal, #17

Because I post these before the end of the month, I still have a few Planttober spreads worth sharing from October, my favorites of what’s left.

That last one with the oak leaves might be my favorite of the whole project!

While NaNoWriMo has been going on, I’ve only been art journaling when I have the extra time and energy, so not daily. But I still have quite a few pages, because NaNo’s been going so well, and also now that I made journaling a habit, I still get the itch to do it frequently.

My reward for “winning” NaNo, I decided, is new art supplies! So next month I’m sure I’ll have a lot of art to pick through while deciding what to share.

Since I’ve started doing this more regularly, I genuinely think I’m feeling better overall (not that I don’t still have bad days, of course I do) but now sometimes when I’m upset, I tell myself, “go make bad art!” And after an hour or so of being messy with no real plan, I have some maybe-not-so-bad art and I feel better, so really, what’s the drawback?

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Didn’t Mean Any of It”

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,470 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, reunion, homecoming
  • Content Warnings: for once in this story line, none that I can think of
  • Explicit?: No

It was three days before Mila was allowed to see Belken.When she woke from her long sleep after the rescue, she was starving for good food and company. She went to the mess, with faint hope Belken might be there. He wasn’t, so Mila didn’t linger, but ate quickly before asking a page where she could find him. There were several places a visitor to the compound might be housed, and where he was would tell me something about how Petralla viewed his situation, and how he was being treated.

But the boy looked puzzled. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you mean.”

Ah. So our triumphant return was public, it had to be, but my lover’s rescue was a secret. She had a good idea where to look.

The Guild had no official jail, but in one building there was a secret. If one was high enough in the ranks, one learned the trick to open a section of paneling near the back exit and go down a hidden staircase to a small cluster of dry, dusty rooms long ago used as a smuggler’s storage, before the Guild had annexed the property during its expansion. Very few knew of it, and it was a convenient enough place to keep anyone whose presence need concealing.

Mila found Nicora there, standing outside one of the doors.

“Guard duty isn’t usually one of your tasks,” Mila observed.

Nicora’s tone was gentler than Mila expected. “I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I have orders not to allow anyone in other than Petralla, Evran, or Simmoon. I’d appreciate it if you accept that and leave.”

Drawing knives on Nicora was more trouble than Mila wanted to get into, no matter how much she wanted to see Belken. “I will, in a moment. May I ask how he is?” Because Simmoon was their best approximation of a doctor, in-Guild. They couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees to keep a properly licensed physician on staff, though they would pay for one to visit when the need was dire. The rest of the time, Simmoon patched everyone up as best she could.

“He’s not in any immediate danger,” Nicora answered. “I don’t know more detail than that, but whenever Simmoon comes to check on him, she seems at ease.”

“Thank you,” Mila said, and meant it.

She tried her best to go back to her old routines, her daily life. For three days, she slept and ate and bathed and went to the practice yard for weapons training. She repaired her armor, cleaned her gear, and replaced the small stock of items she had lost during her abduction. When she had to go into town to accomplish this, she took along an apprentice she hardly knew, someone not already known to be a friend, so that he was both her chaperone and her witness that she only did what she said she was doing.

This was her holding pattern between missions, but it chafed, knowing both that Belken was nearby, and that no missions for her were forthcoming. Not if she was a potential traitor.

On the fourth morning, she was summoned to Petralla’s office. Usually her desk was nearly bare, but the giant Guild ledger, the record of all their dealings, part diary of the commanders and part business account, lay closed in the center. Mila had never read it, not a single page.

“Sit down,” she ordered. “I’ve been over this ledger from back to front, through almost a hundred years of history, and I found two dozen specific pieces of information the Bone Traders could use to their advantage if they wanted to push us off the map,” Petralla stated. “And for the life of me, for the life of this very Guild, I can’t see how you would have known a single one of them, or why you would choose to aid our enemies. If you are a plant, you are the best I’ve ever seen. If you are a convert to their ways, a traitor, I can’t find a whisper of it. You should know that this incident will cloud the thinking of others about you for a long time, possibly to the end of your days. I can’t help that. But here, now, I want to make it unequivocally clear that I trust you. More than that, I am choosing to trust you.”

“Thank you,” Mila responded, her voice shaking.

“So you’ll go back to your regular duties. And we’ve spoken to your lover about living here, on the compound, where we can protect him. We don’t know that the Traders will seek his recapture, now that their plan is foiled, but it would be foolish to risk it. Which means we’ll need to move you out of the barracks. An apartment in Garden Hall would normally come with a promotion you haven’t earned yet, but I am making an exception for your odd circumstances, on one condition.”

Whatever it was, if it kept Belken safe, she would do it. “Which is?”

“They took you from us. They have undermined the trust I have in my people. These assaults upon us cannot go unanswered. You will be the arrow I shoot at the heart of the Bone Traders. I am going to work you harder than I have ever done. You will hunt them down, and you will kill them, until I am satisfied you have earned your new rank and privileges. I had not made you an assassin before, though I know you have killed in self-defense, and borne the cost of it well. So now I must know, can you harden your heart enough to kill in cold blood? Because this quiet war we wage on them will be the Guild’s revenge, but you must not let your own personal anger rule you. This is a hard thing to ask, but I believe it must be done.”

Mila didn’t hesitate. She rose from her seat, set her hand flat on the top of the Guild ledger and swore again the simple vow she had made upon her acceptance, as a girl barely out of childhood, so many years ago. “I pledge myself and all of strength I possess to the Guild. Whatever skills I acquire as I mature, I will offer in service.”

The lamp caught the suspicious gleam of tears in Petralla’s eyes. She nodded once. “The quartermaster will give you the keys to your new lodgings. Fetch your man and take him there.”

It was hard, but Mila managed not to sprint from the room. If there was a certain spring to her step and haste to her stride as she headed for the quartermaster’s office, no one remarked on it. She accepted the ring with two keys on it, and also the wink the older man gave her. She headed for the building above the secret underground chambers, but changed direction when a voice called out to her. She had to pass the gardens, and thus Garden Hall, to get there, but Evran stood outside the main entrance with Belken beside him. But she held her decorum and didn’t race to embrace him, as much as she wanted to. She endured the polite small talk that surrounded their meeting, even though on one level it felt more like the transfer of a prisoner. Would Belken agree to this? Would living here interfere with his business too much, could he accept the change or would he leave the Guild’s protection?

Would he leave her?

She followed him up the stairs and down a hallway as he checked each door for the number Evran had told them. When he found it, she passed him a key. “I didn’t mean any of it,” he said suddenly.

“What?”

“Our last fight, before. We never quite made up from it, did we? I don’t even remember what it was about, now, so I can’t still be angry. I must not have really meant it.” He turned to face her. The bruises on his cheek, around his eye, were fading to a hideous yellow-brown. “I wanted to make sure I said that, that we go forward with a clean slate.”

Then she did embrace him, gently, because she didn’t know the extent of his injuries. “Completely clean,” she agreed, then made it more formal. “I’m choosing to trust you, and to love you.” She pulled back, grinned at him. “Once we walk through that door, no wondering, no suspicion.”

He leaned forward to rest his brow against hers. “Let’s go see what they’ve given us, shall we? I’m only sorry I’m too hurt to make love to you properly in our new bed. That may still have to wait a few days.”

Mila kissed his unmarked cheek. “I look forward to it.” 

This Week, I Read… (2020 #44)

#162 – Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/10/20 – 11/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 140/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This gets five stars despite some issues I have with the pacing. After the first book’s intense cliffhanger, I really didn’t want this one to take 200 pages to get to the point where Fitz found out about the tragedy at his home. It felt like killing time, it felt needless, it felt heart-wrenching in a way that came more from a place of frustration than sympathy.

Then things move along more briskly, though there’s still obviously tons of ground to cover. There’s a lot of travel and hopping back and forth and dashing about, interspersed with periods of slowness and inactivity, that I think reflects the strange duality of tension existing alongside of grief. Because Fitz is grieving even before he believes Bee completely lost to him, he’s grieving his failures as a person and a parent.

I cried a bit while reading this, not gonna lie.

But to some degree, the strange pacing issues return at the end, with a trip to Kelsingra that felt somehow momentous but also oddly pedestrian squeezed in at the very end, taking up so little space in the narrative that I was scratching my head when they got there and thinking, “Where the heck are we going with this? What does this mean for the larger story?” And the cliffhanger here, while still intense and obviously dangerous, feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story, both because the lead-up to it is so short, and because it takes place in an “exotic” location to Fitz, despite the time we as readers have spent there earlier in the series.

I see how the pieces of the climax fit together, and I see how they were laid out earlier in the book (and throughout the series) so I understand this is a culmination of an awful lot of groundwork; for the most part I think it’s successful. But it’s just so abrupt! There’s very little space for such a big event–the on-page union of what were previously two ENTIRELY SEPARATE narratives in the larger story, both structurally and stylistically–to breathe and unfold properly. Like, I remember that Rapskal was dangerous so I know it’s bad news when he’s the commander of the militia, that can’t be good, but he hardly has any time to remind us why he’s a jerk before he’s trying to seize the Fool…ugh. It’s strange to me that I want this book to be longer, but I guess I really don’t. I just want some of the page space in the beginning, which felt too long, to be reallocated to the end, which felt too short.

Emotionally, still, five stars. I’m beyond invested, I’m more than a little heartbroken. This is by far the longest-running series I’ve ever read and I am so attached to these characters, it’s a little nuts.

#163 – Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/15/20 – 11/19/20
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s been a long time since a book made me cry this much.

When I read Fool’s Fate, when Fitz seemed to get his well-deserved happy ending, I enjoyed it, but I knew something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but because I didn’t read it when it was first published, I was fully aware that there were more books in the series, and some of them were about Fitz.

This is his real ending, and as bittersweet as it is, it’s much more fitting. From an emotional standpoint, I’m pretty well destroyed.

From a technical standpoint, once again my only real complaint is pacing. The buildup in the first half of the book, the arc of them getting to Clerres, felt like it took too long, and yet, once we got there and the action got moving, I felt like we didn’t spend long enough there to justify the journey, and it seemed odd to me to spend so much of the book belaboring details about the island, the Four, the libraries. All that richness seemed to get in the way of what I wanted to know, which was what was going to happen. I know it’s my impatience talking, and that it’s foolish to expect Hobb to suddenly start writing fast-paced books so that I can get my answers faster, but even so, there was enough repetition here that I sometimes felt frustrated. (How many times was the quote about considering your actions used? Twelve times? Fifteen? Twenty? I get that it was important but I got so tired of hearing it.)

Despite those complaints, throughout this final trilogy I have fallen in love with the new characters who stand by Fitz’s and Bee’s side, so I was pleased to see them play their roles with such enthusiasm and be rewarded in the end accordingly. It was also nice to see a few old familiar faces, and meet as adults the children who had not yet been born when we last left their part of the world behind–both Boy-O and Kennitsson, for their minor parts, struck me as exactly as they should be, given their parentage and probable upbringings. And I continue to be impressed with Hobb’s ability to juggle so many plot threads, so many characters, and tie them off relatively neatly in the end to make a satisfying conclusion.

I’m happy it’s over, that I made it this far. I couldn’t have read 16 books set in the same world, following largely the same characters, if I weren’t invested, but that very investment is what is now tearing my heart out, because this ending is fitting, and comprehensive, and sad. And hopeful. But very sad. Ah, dammit, now I’m crying again.

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge: Complete!

This was a new challenge to me this year, which I decided to do on impulse at the very end of 2019. Originally I intended to stick strictly to the one-book-a-week schedule, but once I realized that I had to read The Picture of Dorian Gray during one calendar week for ATY, but much later in the year (for Banned Books Week) for PopSugar, it stopped mattering and I read some books early. At the start of each month, I put any books for those weeks I hadn’t gotten to yet on my monthly TBR, but no longer worried about reading them during the correct week.

So, what did I read?

  1. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
  2. Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
  3. Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb
  4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  5. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
  6. From a Buick 8, by Stephen King
  7. Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan
  8. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
  9. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
  10. Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint
  11. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  12. Bayou Moon, by Ilona Andrews
  13. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson
  14. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  15. The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
  16. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller
  17. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
  18. Wasted Words, by Staci Hart
  19. The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb
  20. Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs
  21. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  22. Room, by Emma Donoghue
  23. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  24. Love on My Mind, by Tracey Livesay
  25. The Art of Peeling an Orange, by Victoria Avilan
  26. The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang
  27. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  28. Fake Out, by Eden Finley
  29. Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier
  30. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
  31. Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, by Maziar Bahari
  32. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  33. In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
  34. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
  35. The Great Passage, by Shion Miura
  36. Dirty, by Kylie Scott
  37. Insomnia, by Stephen King
  38. Sleeping Beauty and the Demon, by Marina Myles
  39. Autiobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  40. Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King
  41. Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer
  42. The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
  43. Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
  44. The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch
  45. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey
  46. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
  47. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  48. This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples
  49. The thing About December, by Donal Ryan
  50. His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare
  51. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
  52. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Would I do this challenge again? Probably. A large part of the reason I liked it when I found it was that I keep wanting to go back to the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, which I did back in 2016, but the prompts every year have become increasingly narrow and specific, to the point where it seems like only one or two books would even qualify. Which is not a good match for me reading down the huge piles of books I had sitting around at the start of this year!

Will I do it again next year? Probably not. I still have a month and a half to change my mind, but so far, my plan is to do Mount TBR only, while prioritizing my 2018 backlog (assuming I’ve finished my 2017 by then, but I’m making good progress.) Also continuing to polish off series I still have hanging. But even with those constraints, I intend to put a lot less pressure on myself in terms of reading next year, because I’ve been going hard for five straight years now.

Halfway Through NaNo20: Checking In

As of yesterday, the 15th, I have written 39,726 words on my new novel project, #rockstarnovel two: electric bugaloo. (Ignore that last dot showing no progress, that’s today, and I haven’t started yet!)

This is the farthest ahead I have ever been. I usually “win” around Thanksgiving Day, though some years it’s been as early as the 23rd. Right now, I’m projected to finish my 50K on the 20th.

Why is this happening? Of the fifteen days so far:

  • Six days, I’ve written more than 3,000 words
  • Six days, I’ve written between 2,000 – 3,000 words
  • Two days, I’ve written between 1,000 – 2,000 words
  • Only one day, I’ve written less than 1,000 words

My daily average? 2,648. I’ve never been this productive for this long before!

In terms of the story, I feel like I’m about 40% through, right on track. I’m only planning ahead a few chapters at a time, based on what I’ve already written (the “headlight” method of planning) and in a day or two I’ll hit the scene I have planned as the midpoint climax. My first drafts usually run around 100K (though Fifty-Five Days was more like 115!) and get bigger in the second draft when I fix story issues, then much smaller again when I start editing rather than rewriting.

I often finish the month with around 60K written in total–I think my record is around 65K–but I’m on track now to end up with as much as 80K, though I’m honestly not sure I can keep that momentum going for another fifteen days. I had my first “bad” day yesterday, it was going to happen eventually, and with lockdown Thanksgiving coming up, we won’t be spending it with my family as usual, but we are having our own feast, and I’ve never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner myself before! So who knows what I’ll get written that day?

I intend to write as much as possible today while still getting my chores done–several years ago, for fun, I put together a writing crawl to help you keep your house clean during NaNo. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’ve got to put in a load of laundry!

So, to my fellow Wrimos, I wish you good luck and fast typing speeds, I hope everything is going as well for you as it is for me!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #43)

#159 – Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/4/20 – 11/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 137/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it nearly unreservedly. I was so invested, so quickly, and I guess I’ve finally wrapped my head around the way foreshadowing and clues to the mysteries in these stories work, because I figured out many of the things that were available to be figured out, while still being surprised by several turns of events.

Fitz is still, in many ways, the half-feral and bumbling idiot we’ve watched grow up and mature from his mistakes, but now he’s got a shiny new arena to flail about in–fatherhood. I’m sure he made a credible stepfather to Molly’s children, but they were already out of babyhood by the time he came along, and by the time this story is set, they’re adults and all out of the house. This is the first time Fitz has to play a real, direct role as a parent in a child’s life, and you really see the conflict between his genuine love for Bee and acceptance of who she is (eventually) with the expectations of the society around him, and how that goes against the way he was raised himself, which he both recognizes was often unconventional and harmful, yet in some ways still thinks is good enough. He would never want Bee to be hurt in the ways he was hurt as a child, but he sees little problem for most of the book allowing her a large amount of freedom to dress and act and spend her time as she likes. It’s a really interesting dynamic, that when Fitz feels he had to impose rules on her, for her safety or to meet the expectations of others, that’s when the two of them show the least understanding of each other. Despite being mostly under Molly’s care for the first years of her life, Bee still turned out to be a half-feral kid, talking to cats and hiding in spy-ways and not getting along with her school mates because they (mostly) don’t understand her.

I could talk about plenty of other things, because WOW did a lot of this book punch me straight in the chest repeatedly, but it would just be more gushing thinly disguised as book analysis, because if the point of this deeply detailed domestic tale was to reinvest me in Fitz and his life so that the cliffhanger ending hurt as much as it possibly could, this book was a runaway success for me, and I am still reeling the next day as I write this. (So glad I don’t have to wait for years for the next one!)

#160 – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

  • Read: 11/8/20 – 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to time
  • Mount TBR: 138/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Nope. DNF @ page 145. I slogged through the introduction of the first three narratives in this “sextet”–and boy does Mitchell love that word, once it starts showing up, everything is a freaking sextet–but I’m not invested. This book is clearly not for me; I value character over style, and I found the experimental structure tedious. Why have just one cliffhanger when you can have several? The first narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, and I actually turned the page back over to see if my used copy of this book had pages stuck together, but no, that’s intentional.

So my first cliffhanger was “is this random dude whose narrative purpose I don’t understand going to die from a real brain parasite or is this quack doctor telling him he’s got a parasite to make him buy drugs?” Except he was treating the guy for free, I think, so…

The second was…I’m honestly not sure. “Does this adulterous little shit get caught by the husband first, or the guys after him for the money he owes?” Maybe. There was more direction to that bit of the story, but not by much.

The third was at least solid, with our intrepid reporter getting run off the road and at great risk of drowning in her car. Legitimate cliffhanger there. But that’s when I realized I didn’t actually care. These story bits are so short and heavily stylized, and I’m too busy scratching my head trying to figure out the meaning of the obvious-but-unexplained linkages between them, that I never managed to care about the characters themselves (even the reporter, who was clearly trying to Do Good) so I really don’t have the energy to wade through three more story styles, then do it all again in reverse order, to find out if the reporter doesn’t drown or what becomes of the musician or if the dude from the first story actually has a brain parasite.

I started the fourth section but immediately disliked the character voice after only a few pages, so I knew it was time to give up. I always knew I was either going to love or DNF this book, because it seems to be so divisive among readers and their reviews; and I came down on the DNF side.

#161 – His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare

  • Read: 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a silhouette on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 139/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Cute, quick, charming. My only complaint is my usual one for novellas I enjoyed–I liked it enough that I would have preferred it to be a full length novel! There’s enough going on here in terms of plot and backstory that got shorthanded to fit the bite-size format, and I think a lot of it would have benefited from more space to breathe.

That being said, it was still well-characterized and interesting, and as my first exposure to Tessa Dare, it more than justifies all the praise I’ve heard of her. Historical romance still isn’t my favorite subgenre, but I’d read her again.

Literary Pet Peeves #2: Misleading Titular Characters

Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash

Alternately, the post title could have been “Why Did the Title Make Me Think This Book was About This Character When They’re Irrelevant, or They Don’t Show Up For Half the Book.” But that was too long.

It doesn’t happen often: I think the first time I formally complained about this in a book review was after reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender back in 2016, but it’s come up again a lot this year: The Miniaturist was, at best, a randomly mysterious but ultimately unnecessary minor character in her own novel; The Necromancer wasn’t primarily about Johannes Cabal; The Hangman’s Daughter was barely present in the book named for her and was usually a plot object rather than an actual character when she was present; and perhaps mostly surprisingly, I got hit one more time with a nonfiction book, An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, where Ms. Tew was little more than a narrative thread barely holding together a succession of historical vignettes about the men in her life.

I’m peeved every time. I get that titling books can be difficult, believe me, I do. But if an author puts a character in the title–the most visible, prominent thing about a book, the very identification that differentiates it from other books–isn’t it reasonable for me, a reader, to expect that the book is about that character?

Am I wrong in my disappointment? Should I stop expecting a titular character to be a protagonist, or at least a villain if that’s applicable? Should I stop squandering my expectations?

Of course, it’s not universal. I’m so irritated by it because it keeps happening, but it’s far from every book. Coraline was clearly about Coraline. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a wholly accurate title for its contents. Even if I didn’t end up enjoying the book, The Bone Witch was about a bone witch. I could go on, but I’m not actually interested in titles that get it right. I’m questioning why it seems so many titles get it wrong.

(It would be a fun exercise to look up general title-writing advice and try to re-title the books that have irked me in the past according to that advice. I think I just created a new Writing Homework post for later this month!)

I’m hesitant to ascribe a single, reductive motive to all these poor titling choices; it would be easy, but useless, to simply say “these authors were lazy.” In some cases, it might be publisher pressure–character titles are memorable, and titles are one of the things that can get changed in the publishing process (though I have no hard information on how often that happens, obviously. You just hear things.) In others, the author might truly think they gave their work an appropriate title, and I happen to disagree. In yet others, I’m sure there are reasons I haven’t considered for why the title is what it is, and I’ll have to accept that those titles set me up for disappointment.

But it has become a literary pet peeve of mine, and the point of this post is to whine about it, not fix it. I can’t fix it. I can only hope that writers reading it will take my whining into account when they someday publish their books that I might someday read, so that I (and other readers) won’t be disappointed next time I pick up A Book Clearly Named for One of its Characters.

The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge 2020: Complete!

Earlier than last year, too–there wasn’t space to post about this until now, but I finished the final book on this list at the end of October. So, in the order I read them:

  1. A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it: Sunshine
  2. A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club: Full Dark, No Stars
  3. A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character: Autonomous
  4. A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title: Golden Fool
  5. A book with a pink cover: Next Year in Havana
  6. The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed: The Age of Innocence
  7. A book by a trans or nonbinary author: The Black Tides of Heaven
  8. A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live: Station Eleven
  9. A book that passes the Bechdel test: Hold Me
  10. A book about a book club: The Bromance Book Club
  11. A book with a map: Red Rising
  12. A book with a made-up language: The Singer
  13. Your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge (next book in a series I’m reading): The Secret
  14. A book with a main character in their 20s: Breakaway
  15. A book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads: Barefoot with a Bodyguard
  16. A book by an author who has written more than twenty books: From a Buick 8
  17. A book published in the month of your birthday: Make Him Wild
  18. A book with a three-world title: A Secret Affair
  19. A book you meant to read in 2019: Pantomime
  20. A book with a great first line: Beauty is a Wound
  21. A book with more than twenty letters in its title: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
  22. An anthology: Return of the Black Widowers
  23. A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins: The Miniaturist
  24. A book published in the 20th century: The English Patient
  25. A book that won an award in 2019: The Only Harmless Great Thing
  26. A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics: I am a Cat
  27. A bildungsroman: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
  28. A book about or by a woman in STEM: State of Wonder
  29. A book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics: The Night Watch
  30. A book with a pun in the title: Tikka Chance on Me
  31. Read a banned book during Banned Books Week: The Picture of Dorian Gray
  32. A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name: Wasted Words
  33. A book published in 2020: Girl Gone Viral
  34. A book with a character with vision impairment or enhancement: Lost Lake
  35. A Western: The Birchbark House*
  36. A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics: Room
  37. A book on a subject you know nothing about: Stamped from the Beginning
  38. A book by a WOC: Love on My Mind
  39. A book about or involving social media: Get a Life, Chloe Brown
  40. A book that has a book on the cover: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
  41. A book by or about a journalist: Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival
  42. A book with an upside-down image on the cover: Witchmark
  43. A book written by an author in their 20s: Homegoing
  44. A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader: The Other Boleyn Girl
  45. A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title: Eat that Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
  46. A book you picked because the title caught your attention: Autiobiography of a Corpse
  47. A medical thriller: Wilder Girls
  48. A book with a bird on the cover: A Song for Arbonne
  49. A book from a series with more than 20 books: Acheron
  50. A book set in the 1920s: An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew

Note*: chosen via recommendation and didn’t actually fit the prompt well, but didn’t want to read a replacement book.

This is my fifth year in a row both attempting and completing the PopSugar Challenge, but honestly, I think I’m played out for next year. I’ll miss the peculiarly specific kind of joy I get from pondering the tasks and assembling a reading list proposal for it (and other challenges) but this year really hammered home how much I overthink and overplan my reading, and I already anticipate next year just being Mount TBR (because I still have SO MANY unread book in my possession and as it’s a number-based challenge there’s no prep work for it.)

What started as fun, and a good way to stretch the boundaries of my reading, has felt like a chore and a hassle, which means it’s time to give it a rest. Who knows, maybe I’ll miss it so much in 2021 that I’ll go back to it in 2022!

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Under the Blanket”

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Naomi and Joanna
  • Setting: Contemporary, no specifics
  • Length: 1,318 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship
  • Content Warnings: should I tag sex toys here? Or are we all comfortable with sex toys?
  • Explicit?: Yes

Joanna peered at Naomi in the morning dimness. “Do you mean that in a sleepy way, or a sexy one?”

“I hadn’t thought ahead that far,” Naomi admitted. “I was just being cute.”

“I do love your cuteness.” Joanna giggled. “I also love licking you like an ice cream cone.”

“Oh,” Naomi breathed softly in surprise. “If you’re offering…”

Joanna’s head disappeared under the edge of the blanket and there was a great deal of shuffling, which somehow involved tickling, and by the time Jo had Naomi’s fuzzy pajama pants pulled off, they were both shrieking with laughter.

Naomi couldn’t remember ever laughing in bed with any of her previous lovers, man or woman. If you got right down to the deepest reason she had fallen in love with Joanna and married her, when no one else had ever made her think of wedding bells, it was because Jo could always make her laugh, no matter the mood, no matter the setting.

Sometimes that got them into trouble when Jo was whispering inappropriate jokes to her in public places, but in private, in bed, no one was there to judge them for their sex involving as much laughter as passion, and loud shrieking for more than one reason.

Joanna’s hands were much warmer than Naomi’s, but not warmer than her inner thighs, so there was some squirming happening when Jo tried to get started. She said something, but it was too low and muffled by the blankets for Naomi to figure out. She got the message when Jo slapped the side of her ass, and spread her legs to give her wife room.

She loved the way Jo teased her, scraping her thighs lightly, blowing a thin stream of cool air over her heated flesh, not touching her in the ways she was suddenly craving most. If this went on too long, she’d end up cursing a blue streak, or even begging for something more substantial, but at the beginning, when she was still laughing and excited, the gentle torment of waiting was just as good as the main event.

She lifted her arms and wrapped her hands around the top of the headboard, because that very first night together, which seemed simultaneously forever ago and just yesterday, she had discovered Joanna hated having her hair pulled or her head directed while she was giving oral. It went against Naomi’s instincts not to touch her, not to give her that feedback, but sometimes that made it hotter, to have to stop herself from doing something she wanted. She was only recently exploring what that penchant for denial did to her, something she hadn’t known about herself before falling into bed with Jo. But this slow, lazy morning, barricaded against the winter cold, she didn’t want to wait too long. “More,” she said, making it enough of a command that she wasn’t sure how Joanna would react. She might give Naomi what she wanted, or she might not, not yet.

The first slow lick startled another shriek out of her, but she relaxed quickly into the rhythm of the tongue and lips against her, and soon she was rocking her hips in time. She was already close when Joanna stopped, a pattern they had fallen into, because Joanna usually paused in the middle of things to check in and find out what Naomi wanted next. Seconds later, Jo swept the blankets back, gulped in a huge breath of air, and grinned at Naomi’s renewed shrieking from the wave of cold air. “So do you want to finish on a dildo or my fingers?”

The avid look in her eyes was something Naomi wanted to surrender to. “You pick.”

The grin got wider and took on a deliciously wicked tinge. “Oh, honey, you are going to come so hard.”

Naomi pulled the blankets back over her but lay still as Joanna climbed out of bed and went to their stash of toys in the closet. She returned with a slightly curved dildo with a suction cup on the base. She went to the wall on her side of the bed, which was only a few feet away. Naomi perked up–this was new. They’d only used it in the shower before. “Will it work on the wall?” she asked.

“Let’s find out.” She glanced at the height of the bed, positioned the toy, then looked again and moved it a little lower. Once she had it attached, she tugged on it a few times to test the seal. “I think so. Now get over here and fuck yourself on it for me.”

Despite the rough command, Joanna was gentle with her, helping her get positioned and slide on. When her butt and thighs touched the cold wall, she shivered. She still had her pajama shirt on, but Jo was already unbuttoning it to play with her breasts. “That’s perfect,” she purred. “Now go slow, while I get undressed. Really slow, as slow as you can.”

Naomi set her hands on the edge of the mattress and worked herself against the toy, which dragged through her swollen folds and set off a needy ache in her to go faster, to pump harder. She concentrated instead on watching her wife peel off her own pajamas, going instantly from a cozy body for cuddling to a sexy body for touching, licking, worshiping. A brief shiver ran through Joanna, but she spread herself out on the bed facing Naomi, spreading her legs. “You know what I want, honey. Keep going slow, because you don’t get to come until I do.”

If that wasn’t the hottest thing Naomi had ever heard in her life, it certainly felt like it in the moment. She pressed her face to her wife’s pussy, desire and enthusiasm briefly triumphing over skill. There was nothing she wanted more than to taste Joanna, to drive her mad, to make her cry out in ecstasy. And all while she slowly rode the toy on the wall, a constant source of distraction and pleasure. Her clit ached for direct stimulation, but if she touched it, she would come too soon.

She resisted until Joanna leaned her head back, no longer watching her. With one hand, she drove two fingers into her wife’s quivering folds, and with the other, she furiously rubbed herself, trying to make up for the maddeningly slow pace she still maintained with her own body. Trying to do so many things at once nearly broke her, and tears started to leak from the outer corners of her eyes. She moaned against Joanna’s mound, curling her fingers upward, trying to speed Jo’s release so she could have her own.

She knew she’d won when Joanna’s hands went to her own breasts. Jo loved nipple play, and since Naomi’s hands weren’t free, she had no problem doing it herself. She pinched and pulled and tweaked and twisted. “Fuck, Naomi, do it. I’m coming, I’m coming.”

And she was, a rush of moisture meeting Naomi’s tongue, coating her hand. She kept stroking her fingers inside until the squeezing muscles made it too hard to keep doing, and she withdrew. “Can I go faster now?” she asked, her voice needy, almost pitiful.

Joanna lifted her head. “No,” she said clearly.

Naomi whined. “I need something more,” she explained.

“Okay.” While Naomi was surprised by this quick agreement, Joanna untangled herself from the bedclothes and Naomi’s reaching arms, going back to the closet and reappearing with a small vibrator. “This should do.”

When she turned it on and pressed it against Naomi’s clit, the reaction was instantaneous. Naomi saw stars and felt her knees buckling, but Jo caught her before she fell too far forward.

Not before the sudden motion broke the suction holding the dildo to the wall, though. The rough, urgent sounds of her orgasm morphed into laughter, and Joanna looked bewildered, until she looked past Naomi’s butt and saw what was missing. “Oh, wow. Good thing there wasn’t a person attached to that dick, right?”