Next Month’s TBR: February 2020

February 2020 TBR

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink

  1. A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh
  2. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
  3. Pantomime, by Laura Lam
  4. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
  5. Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan
  6. The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams
  7. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
  8. From a Buick 8, by Stephen King
  9. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander

These nine books cover my absolute minimum necessary reading to cover my challenges in February. Four of them are for Around the Year; six for The Reading Frenzy’s Travel-a-thon to Venice; all of them count for Mount TBR. Only four of them so far count towards PopSugar tasks, but those are more flexible–if I read something and it fits, I can always use it instead of whatever other book I had planned and hadn’t read yet. (And there are still some holes in my PopSugar list anyway.)

Nine is the magic number so far–my January TBR was also nine books, and as of today I’ve read 16 and probably won’t finish another in the next two days. This should be totally doable.

 

Flash Fiction #7: The Book of Crows and Fire

the book of crows and fire

So these post get passed around Tumblr all the time, taking a light-hearted poke at the trend of fantasy YA book titles that’s been going strong for the last several years.

I usually play along by reblogging with the title it gives me, and they’re usually not that great, because that’s the joke.

This particular one, however, generated The Book of Crows and Fire for me, and I immediately got an idea. So I spent an hour typing furiously into the Tumblr post editor and ended up with a 1700-word origin myth, which is also a bad wordplay joke, which is also wildly inaccurate. But it was fun to write, and sometimes that matters more.

Piqued your curiosity? I haven’t posted a flash fiction piece in three full years, so I might be rusty, but here goes:

In the beginning, the day was hot and bright, but the nights were bitterly cold. All the creatures of the earth whimpered in their burrows and dens, huddled together for the meager warmth they could provide each other. The wolf pups shivered, the squirrels fluffed their tails as large as they could to hide beneath, the muskrats coiled themselves around each other and waited for morning to bring back light and warmth to the world.

But the crows sat together high in the branches of the trees, and they did not shiver or whimper or wait. They plotted.

It took time to observe, and time to plan. The crows risked nothing for many days, watching the sun move across the sky. When the first crow tried to catch it, she returned limp and exhausted in the deepest part of the night. “It is too fast,” she said. “I could not keep pace with it.”

Her murder gathered around her to listen to her tale, to the distant lands she had seen in her pursuit of the sun, the territory they had never before encountered. A few days passed while they sent scouts to investigate; perhaps those lands, closer to the sun, would be a more hospitable place to live. If they could not catch it, at least they could settle where it shone more strongly.

In this new place they thrived, and a new generation hatched, and the chicks tested their wings in flight. One young crow looked up at the sun, after hearing the stories his elders had told of how they had chased it, and how it had brought them to their new home, and wondered. Most of the others had given up on the dream of having the sun for themselves, but he saw something they had overlooked. As soon as he had grown into his adult size and strength, he left the murder asleep in their trees and flew swift through the night.

It wasn’t that the sun was too fast, he deduced on his own, but that it was too far. He had to leave much earlier to meet it in the sky when it rose.

He was a strong bird, and a smart one, and as fast as he flew, the night still seemed very long and exceptionally dark. He, too, like his mother before him, saw many strange things beneath him on the earth, creatures that did not live where he lived, trees that did not look like his trees, and even vast expanses where there were no trees, only grasses. That emptiness unnerved him, so he fixed his gaze on the horizon, where he knew the sun would come up.

When it did, he landed, weary and disappointed. He was still too far away, and he knew from his mother’s stories that he could not catch up to it. He might be stronger and faster than her, but he did not think he was strong or fast enough.

He drank from a stream that cut through the grass and feasted on a small rodent he found nearby. It was strange to him, but tasty still, and he had not gone so far from the edge of the forest that he could not fly back to it for a safe place to roost while he slept. The next night, he returned to his murder and told them of his journey. Many of the elders were too old and tired to make the migration, but most of his brothers and sisters and cousins decided to go with him when he returned to the grasslands. His mother did as well, and declared herself pleased to see the new hunting grounds her brave son had discovered. They lived many turnings of the moon in peace and safety, growing bigger on the rich feeding they found, and the next generation of chicks broke free of their eggs sooner and more vigorously than any hatching before them.

The twin daughters of this new crow hero were proud of their heritage, whenever the elders told the stories of his journey, or their grandmother’s. They had never known the deepest coldness of the night as the rest of their family had, but they saw no reason not to devote themselves to improving the lives of their murder once again. They took turns scouting the lands around them as soon as they fledged, bringing back so many tales of strange places that some of the murder suspected of making them up. Surely there were not places so hot and dry that not even trees could grow, that the ground was covered in sand, like the banks of streams, but everywhere? Surely there were not places where stone thrust up from the earth in piles so huge they seemed to touch the sky itself?

But their father believed, for hadn’t he been the one to see strange new lands himself? He encouraged his daughters to fly together to the tallest peak in the sky, and from there, after a good rest, perhaps they could finally catch the sun.

When the twins searched for shelter on that mountain, they met a bone-breaking cold and a biting wind like they had never known before, and wondered if this was the death that their ancestors fled from. They squeezed themselves into a tiny niche in the rock and held tight to each other, sleeping as best they could in that terrible place. In the morning, when the sun rose, they winged into the sky to meet it. They were young and small, but swifter on the wing than any crow that had come before them, even their heroic father. They followed the sun across the sky, and soon enough, the air grew warmer around them, even though they continued to ascend.

The sun’s path led them to a strange peak, even stranger than the one they had sheltered on. The top of the mountain was a great lake of fire, bright and burning, and it overflowed so that liquid fire trailed down its sides in great rivers. There was smoke in the air that made the twins cough, but soon enough they found the clear space where the air currents carried the smoke away, and it was safe to fly. When they first landed, the stone burned their feet and they had to jump away, back into the air. But they tried again, farther from the lake, and found a place cool enough to land but warm enough to make their feathers fluff in happiness. They had flown so far that they immediately slept again, lulled by that heat and their exhaustion. When they woke, deep in the night, the light of the burning lake brightened the darkness around them, and they thought there was surely no better place to live than this. They had not caught the sun, but they had found a place where the sun lived on earth, and that was better even that the warm grasslands of their childhood.

This migration was harder on the murder, though, and when those who had chosen to go with them reached the volcano, they cried in dismay. “But nothing lives here! Yes, we are warm, but what will we eat?”

The twins looked to their father for advice, but he only shrugged. This was their idea, so it was their problem to solve. Until they did, the others would either wear themselves out in flight searching for food, or go hungry. Intense investigation turned up some very small creatures did live on the slopes of the volcano, but there were not enough to feed everyone, and their meat was tough and meager. Some of the elders died, and the twins began to fear they had led their murder to ruin.

But one of their cousins seemed to be growing healthier every day, while the others all wasted away. His eyes were bright and his feathers were glossy. They begged him to share his secret.

He looked away from them in a gesture of embarrassment. “I didn’t say anything, because I thought it was stupid. But I was so hungry one day, so desperate to feel something in my belly, that I started eating pebbles. And then I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t die, so I did it again the next day.”

This wonderful news came too late to save some of the weakest of them, and the ones who did not believe that eating stones would work and refused to try. But as soon as they told him, their father leapt down from his perch to scrounge for small stones and scooped them up in his beak. “Not much different from eating large seeds,” he said. “And I do feel better.”

They waited until the next day, to see if their father died, but he looked much improved. Then they ate some pebbles themselves, and felt better. They had enough energy to fly about again and explore, and when they tried to land close to the lake of fire again, they found their feet didn’t hurt so much on the hot ground.

They grew into adults there, and laid their eggs, and raised their chicks, all on a diet of those small black stones, some gritty like dirt and others as smooth as glass. With each generation their beaks grew larger and harder, the better for chipping stone off the cliffs. Their wingspans broadened for catching the warm updrafts that rose from the lake. Their feathers, already that beautiful glossy black, darkened further with the blackness of their food, and gained a subtle sparkle from the rich minerals. They were the proudest and biggest and most beautiful crows the world had ever seen.

It was only many years later that humans found them and did not recognize them for what they had been. Foolish humans who could not fly to chase the sun, who had to walk, creeping slowly across the landscape trying to find the best place to live, where the crows had been able to fly and find it first. They could not live here, those humans. The crows would not let them in. The humans were too stupid, even, to know them by their right name, for when the curses flew at them alongside the puny arrows they did not fear, the humans called them rocs, not crows.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #3)

8 - The Age of Innocence

#8 – The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  • Read: 1/14/20 – 1/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 8/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed
  • The Reading Frenzy: read a book set in New York City
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF around page 90. I skimmed a bit farther, but that was really where I stopped paying full attention.

When I started, I was immediately enchanted by Wharton’s wit and snarkiness. I was aware the book wasn’t full-on satire of the time period, but that it was critical of the social structure and ideals and unwritten rules of the idle rich of New York City. And as far as that went, I was on board–her observations were sharp and amusing. That’s why I gave this a second star despite not finishing it.

But I was bored. It took me three days to read those ninety pages, because I would tell myself I was going to read, sit down, read a chapter or maybe two, and come out the other side exhausted and wanting to do anything else but read. The endless details about who was related to whom, about the sorts of furniture and china they had or the food they served, the number of times Newland intercepted a “look” from May and instantly decoded it to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean. I’ll give the man credit for being a sort of proto-feminist who has high ideals for the rights of women and recognizes his gut reaction as wrong, when he tries to apply them to May and finds himself disgusted. On one level he despises the society around him, yet it’s also granted him a great deal of privilege that he doesn’t do anything to reject. He could have been a truly interesting character and I wish I’d been able to slog my way through the tedium to find out.

But at the rate I was going it was going to take me another two weeks to finish and I just don’t care that much. Too much of it bored me to keep reading for those small slivers of great language and wittiness.

9 - Break the Rules

#9 – Break the Rules, by Claire Boston

  • Read: 1/17/20 – 1/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 9/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I know I sometimes ding “office” romances for basically never having their characters be at work, but this book proves it’s possible to err in the other direction.

They’re always working or talking about work. Near the beginning sometimes they’re talking about scuba diving instead, and then after they get together they take breaks from talking about work long enough to have some sex, and then sometimes an external conflict comes up in the form of his brother and her best friend being impulsive and inconsiderate jackasses. Oh, and the tedious and heavy-handed foster-sister setup to briefly raise awareness for the political and social strife in many Central American countries, which is true but so out of place in context with the rest of the book, where it doesn’t inform anything about the plot or even do all that much to give Bridget personality as her backstory.

But 75% of the book is about being a safety manager at an oil refinery. I signed up for a romance, thanks, could you give me a real romance? Because this isn’t one. There’s attraction that gets their relationship started, sure. Then the realization that he’s her new boss cools things down, but he gets pushy (which I did not like!) about making a relationship happen anyway. Finally, somewhere around midway through, he accepts “no” for an answer and they agree to remain friends. (Which absolutely should have happened earlier if I wasn’t supposed to think Jack was a jerk. And he was mostly nice other than that, so I think he was not supposed to be a jerk.) But then Bridget almost immediately goes back on her decision, and then circumstances force them to move in together, and then disaster happens at the plant and Bridget proves herself capable and saves the day. Which was the real climax of the story, not the culmination of the thin romance. Have I ever leveled the criticism at a romance that I think it needs more sex scenes? I think that’s a first, but I do want more sex scenes, because every time the scene cut away from or glossed over their sexy times, I was denied an opportunity to see how they treated each other, how they connected. Because it wasn’t happening at work, where they were trying to play it cool for everyone else’s benefit.

This is a “romance” where the personal vindication/validation arc of the heroine took over the entire book and left very little room for actual romance, or anything else, really. Though I do question why she’s best friends with Tanya who never seems to do anything worthy of having friends, and is a constant source of irritation for Bridget, from the big stuff like “oops I got married and I’m moving out so I guess you should live with your boss” to the little “this is my party so you have to wear the dress I pick out and have your hair straightened because I say so even though I know you hate sitting in salons doing nothing for hours, do it for meeeee.” Tanya isn’t a person, she’s three external conflicts in a trench coat.

10 - The Black Tides of Heaven

#10 – The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang

  • Read: 1/18/20 – 1/20/20
  • Mount TBR: 10/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by a trans or nonbinary author
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I am underwhelmed.

I don’t think this story knows what it wants to be when it grows up, because in the small space it’s allowed, it takes on so many weighty topics that none of them get the serious treatment they deserve. If it’s about gender identity, then why weren’t the consequences and potential difficulties of “choosing” a gender after being raised gender-neutral as children explored in any depth? If it’s about politics, then why is the rebellion only in latter half of the story, barely explained, and foreshadowed by nothing? If it’s about this cool world that the author has built to accommodate a society that raises their kids gender-free and uses elemental manipulation magic, why is all the world-building so bare-bones that I literally don’t understand half of it? If it’s a personal story about Akeha’s journey through life, why so we skip so many years of it and then pick up at a different age without making any attempt to fill in the gaps and show us why he is the way he turns out to be? If it’s about his moral victory over his mother/the Protector, well, then why is she the lamest, most mustache-twirling “evil because the story says so” villain I’ve seen recently?

This novella is attempting to do way too much in far too small a space to get any of it right. Any of the things I mentioned could be the central focus of a story, but in trying to do it all at once, every aspect is left half-finished, and I’m just here with a giant cartoon question mark floating over my head, wondering what the point was.

11 - Station Eleven

#11 – Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Read: 1/20/20 – 1/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 11/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in a country beginning with “C”
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a green spine
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it and think highly of it despite some flaws.

Most impressive to me was how seamless, how effortless, the time-jumping was. I was flung between pre- and post-apocalyptic scenes, interviews, character changes, everything, and never once was I confused about where I landed or why I was sent there from where I started. One of the things I hate most as a reader is being confused by anything I feel should be clear right away, and I will ditch books that handle their structure poorly on this front. Station Eleven, in that sense, is an absolute masterpiece.

I found the tone and atmosphere unusual and captivating. This is a very quiet, peaceful apocalypse compared to others I’ve read. It can be most directly contrasted in my experience with The Stand, because both use a super-flu style virus to wipe out 99% of humanity, but Stephen King focused a lot of narrative time on the immediate and often violent fallout of “the aftermath,” those deaths that came not from the pandemic but from the collapse of society immediately following it. Mandel chooses to do little with this time, even glossing over it in some of her character’s memories. What we do see of it, in Clark’s POV, is perhaps the most genteel end-of-the-world possible. It isn’t that she does not acknowledge violence happens–the knife tattoos, the guns in the hands of the prophet’s people and what that results in–but it’s mostly off-screen, distant. That heightens the little violence we do see, a simple but effective tactic to make us care for the characters involved.

If anything, though, that’s where this falls short of absolutely perfect for me. I never quite engaged with the characters as much as I wanted to, perhaps because so much of this was focused on the world and not the people in it. There’s a great reverence for objects, for things, especially the ones that tie the various timelines together (the comic books, the paperweight, airplanes) but I sometimes felt like the narrative preferred those over the characters. One example is the tendency to reference members of the Traveling Symphony by their instruments–at first I thought it was a clever way to have the large ancillary cast such an outfit would require, without burdening the reader with too many names. And it is. But it’s also a wedge driven into the story that creates artificial distance. Most of the Symphony members who are crucial to the story do have names, except, eventually, the clarinet, who given her importance in the end probably deserved to have one as well. Another more pervasive example is that we spend a great deal of time following Arthur’s life–his final night bookends the story–but I never felt all that attached to him, and of the characters within his sphere, I liked Miranda far better, and Kirsten is our main avatar of the new world, so why don’t we spend more time getting to know her?

The other minor flaw is that it did, at times, strain my suspension of disbelief. Not with the seeming coincidences that pepper the story–all the questions I had about “how does that happen” got explained eventually through character actions in the past–but usually with simple logistics. How likely is it truly, that every single person stranded in the airport in Severn City is free from the virus? I can accept that the airport itself wasn’t contaminated, it’s not a major transport hub. I can accept the lamp-shaded “this is how lucky Clark was to survive” section. But everyone else from all the other planes that got diverted there? None of them had been exposed at that point?

So with those strengths and those flaws, it sounds like I’ve written a nice, balanced three-star review, but I still love this book and give it five. I love the way it made me feel while I was reading it. I love how unusual a take it gave me on the end of the world, and how a need for entertainment and community survived, and how beautifully sad it was in parts and how beautifully hopeful it was in others.

12 - Sing Your Heart Out

#12 – Sing Your Heart Out, by Crystal Kaswell

  • Read: 1/23/20 – 1/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 12/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a while this looked like it was going to be interesting, a cut above your usual college/New Adult smut romance, but the wheels fell off around 60% and it was just fight, sex, fight, sex, fight, sex, make up, happy ending.

Listen, I know NA romance is supposed to have a lot of sex, it’s all about the smut, but this was still excessive. Up to a certain point in the story, the sex meant something. It showed Meg and Miles connecting emotionally even though they had agreed this was a friends with benefits scenario. And the reason I thought it was interesting was that it was clearly Miles, not Meg, who was catching feelings first–this setup usually leans heavily on the heroine falling love with the distant, closed-off hero and eventually getting him to admit he’s invested too.

But not Miles. Miles is the best boyfriend-who-won’t-use-that-term ever. He’s depicted for most of the book as a real standup guy, compared to his caught-in-the-act introduction to the heroine. He’s not flawless–he does keep a big secret from Meg, and his need to have someone rely on him for support while not sharing equally of himself is definitely messed up–but he’s generally more of a person and less of a horrible mess than Meg.

Meg, who is the worst part of this story. She’s so smart that it’s her last name, thank you, very clever. But she’s only a brilliant bookworm whenever the plot demands that she use studying as an excuse to avoid Miles (which is far too frequently, might I add, that got repetitive fast) and the rest of the time she’s a hopeless ditz with no common sense, no real emotional depth, a tragic backstory that was a substitute for a personality, and no backbone. Miles, for all his flaws, is generally very clear on what he wants and what he’s going to do to get it; Meg changes her mind constantly about everything except her desire to get into medical school. When she tries not to get involved with Miles in the first place, he’s so hot and so into her that she caves; when they’re fighting and she tries to shut the door on their relationship for more than five minutes, she caves. She goes from virgin to practical sex addict in no time at all, and she allows her libido to make bad decisions for her constantly. The last third of the book is a train wreck of constant orgasms instead of plot.

At one point this was looking to be a three-star book, despite its many flaws. It didn’t take long to drop to two, and the final act puts it solidly at one. It’s bad and I don’t recommend it to anyone, even smut lovers, because honestly after a while even the sex scenes were boring.

 

Naming Characters: A Few Do’s, A Few Don’ts

I’ve just set out on the mission to rewrite #rockstarnovel, and in comparing names in the full first draft to some changes I made in the partial (unsuccessful, abandoned) rewrite draft I attempted, I’m wondering what I was thinking.

Two names got changed literally because the originals weren’t conducive to creating a memorable or useful ship name. No, that’s not vanity on my part as an author, hoping for fandom shipping. The characters are rock stars, and at one point they do something eminently shippable on stage. Social media goes nuts over it, thus, they need a good ship name.

But then, I changed another band member’s name, for no apparent reason, while leaving the other three of the principal cast untouched.

And even more strangely, if I changed the name to avoid having two characters start with the same letter of the alphabet, when I changed the name it still started with the same letter as another character’s name? Neither pair are so similar I think it would be confusing to a reader, but I still try to avoid that most of the time.

Name frustration in my reading doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it drives me batty. In a series of several romance novels I read, several main characters had incredibly similar names, to the point where I would legitimately confuse them. There was a Piper, and a Tyler, and they were different genders so that wasn’t so bad. But then came Tucker, who was friends with Tyler, and they were both men. Can I be blamed for getting T—er and T–er confused as I read? I don’t think so.

So that author had a preference for -er names that stuck out, but it’s more common that I get inundated with names that begin with the same letter, or sound too similar when spoken. In What We Need to Survive, the character Mark was actually named “Will” for a while, but in reading it out loud to myself during the editing stages, I thought it sounded too much like the main character’s name, Paul. Two male four-letter names that end with “L.” So I changed it. (Actually an astute reader pointed out to me that in the first paperbacks, I missed a single instance of that name change, and he was like, “Wait, who’s Will?” I fixed it the same day.)

All of this leads to my rough (and adaptable) hierarchy for choosing names that won’t confuse your readers.

1. If you’re writing fantasy in any form, you might be making up a lot of your names to suit your world and any language you might or might not be constructing to go with it. Either you’re putting in the work on your own, or you’re helping yourself out with name generators. Good luck, and feel free to ignore any of the rest of this list that doesn’t apply, because I’m concentrating on existing names in the real world.

2. Start with any names that need to have a particular meaning, are in a foreign language to the one you’re writing in, need to match a certain historical period, etc. Put your research in for that as necessary: as an example from my own work, in #spookyromancenovel, my hero is a Japanese-American, and I wanted a good last name that had some relevance to the story, so I chose Ishikawa, because “ishi” means “stone.” And the point of the story is to save him from being transformed by a curse into a gargoyle. Now, I didn’t stretch myself too much to make this too cute–Ishikawa is a reasonably common Japanese surname, and the other half, “kawa” for “river”, isn’t of any particular importance. And his first name, Noah, is one that I randomly chose before I’d even decided on his heritage, and no, it’s not a Biblical reference, it’s just a name I liked enough at the time to pick, and it stuck.

3. Once you’ve got those names chosen, you’ve probably still got some unnamed characters. For the sake of your readers, choose names dissimilar from the ones you’ve already set. If your main character’s name is Bob, don’t name his best friend Ben (same number of letters, same first letter) or Rob (avoid rhyming names!) If your heroine is Melissa, her coworker shouldn’t be Melanie (same first syllable) or Alyssa (not quite rhyming but really close.) Now, to some extent within families, siblings can have similar names if their parents do that to them–I knew a family of nine kids when I was growing up and all of them, boys and girls alike, had “J” names–but if you’re going to do that sort of thing deliberately, then there should be a story reason, and you should still do whatever you can to make those somewhat-similar names distinct from each other in whatever way you can.

4. Yes, in real life, friend groups and sets of coworkers and what not are going to have doubles (or more) of the same name. There were eleven Elizabeths in my freshman class at college, and most of them went by “Liz” and two of them were assigned to each other as roommates, which we all thought was cruel of the housing department. I dated two guys with the same given name in a row, once, though fortunately for me the second one went by a nickname; and that was the same name of my biggest junior-high crush, who I never actually dated. No, I don’t have a thing for men named that, it’s just really common! So if you want to reflect this sort of commonality in your work (which you absolutely don’t have to) you can get around the potential for confusion by having doubles that include an important character and a minor or offscreen one (“Yeah, I’m Brandon, and so is the head of my department at work and the guy who makes me my coffee at Starbucks every morning”) or by having two major characters with the same name go by different nicknames (Cathy or Kate for Catherine, for example–derived from the same source but quite different.) Though if you’re going to do that, you are drawing attention to their names in a way that might seem silly if the story doesn’t require it in some way.

5. One last note: we all have names that, for whatever reason, we don’t like. Either because of some past association with a person of that name, or you don’t like the way it sounds, or whatever. But you can use that to fuel your mood when you’re writing a character you don’t want your readers to like. Not that they’ll have the same association with the name that you do–that’s not likely at all–but the feelings you have in writing a character with a name you find distasteful will (probably) seep into your writing about them, and your audience will pick up on that. So “bad” names aren’t always bad, if you use them to your advantage.

I think that’s everything. I hope that’s everything. It’s a lot, and as always with any writing advice (whether from me or other sources) it might not all apply to your style in general or any given project you’re working on. Absorbing and using writing advice is always a synthesis of what you already do and what you want to try–some of which might not work for you.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #2)

5 - Golden Fool.jpg

#5 – Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 1/9/20 – 1/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 5/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that you are prompted to read because of something you read in 2019
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

How can a book where so little major happens in the plot be so good?

Things do happen. The betrothal and alliance with the Outislanders nearly falls through and is salvaged only by a challenge issued for a grand quest–which, even though that was basically the midpoint of this novel, was clearly not happening until the third book. Dutiful gets his Skill coterie, albeit an unusual one and in an unusual way. The first major overtures towards peace with Witted folk are pursued, as well as the introduction of Bingtown/Rain Wild folk to the arena of Six Duchies politics, bringing characters from the previous trilogy into Fitz’s story line.

Things do happen. But even viewing all this as setup for the culmination in book three of however many plots we’re juggling at this point, this book is still so much more.

Every assumption I could make as a reader, in keeping with Fitz’s assumptions about his own life, was challenged somehow in this book. Buckkeep is not what he remembered and he cannot seem to find his place in it, and when he tries to fall back on old relationships and old ways, he finds them absent or altered. What begins as a sad but inevitable decline of Chade as a mentor becomes his renewed magical vigor and previously-unknown ambition. The Queen proves herself to be as cunning a political manipulator as anyone else, even out-thinking Chade at one point. Hap, the good country boy, falls into bad romantic company and pays for it, even as Dutiful, who seemed like he would be a difficult boy to trust and to teach, turns out to live up to his name. Fitz loses the safe harbor he had in Jinna because, in the end, she can’t accept him for who he is, even though she seemed far more likely to than Starling, who truly does know him better and wishes him well, even if she is otherwise blatantly self-absorbed.

And most heart-rendingly of all, Fitz breaks his relationship with the Fool almost beyond the point of repair, because in the mother of all irony, between the two of them Fitz is the one who cannot fully accept what the Fool is, and all that encompasses, and stubbornly wants to put him back in the box that he can understand.

[So I wasn’t wrong in my last review that the Fool has romantic feelings for Fitz. This is not necessarily the way I would want to see my foresight justified, though. Fitz’s disgust at the thought of a homosexual relationship is off-putting to me by modern standards, and even though this book is from the early 2000’s, there were other high fantasy writers at the time who challenged patriarchal and homophobic attitudes in their world-building, while Hobb has created the Six Duchies to be as “traditional” as any medieval-informed, male-dominated society. Which is disappointing. But if I had been following the series from its start, if I had read this back in 2003 when it was published and when I still identified as straight, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at any of this. It was just the way things were, to most people I knew. It’s more of a shock to me that until the story needed Lord Golden to be a dissolute pervert as a plot point, the attitudes of their society about non-straight relationships simply didn’t matter, as those relationships didn’t seem to exist. So then when a hint of one appeared, it was reviled. At the same time, the Fool is also clearly an exploration, to what degree I do not yet know, of a genderfluid character. While Fitz has always known him as male, Amber was clearly female in presentation and lifestyle, and it’s not at all clear at this point what he “really is.” Which is to say, both, or neither. I’m sure we’ll get more on this later.]

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#6 – Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton

  • Read: 1/13/20 – 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 6/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a pink cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a cover featuring a skyline
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 98. I could have stopped as early as 10%, back around page 36, but so many people have said so many good things about this book that I was hoping it just had a rough beginning.

It did not get better.

The prose is overwritten and poorly edited. If I quoted specific examples we’d be here all day, so instead I’ll sum up the problems: overuse of ten-dollar vocabulary words, overuse of adjectives, repetition of many words or phrases too close together or simply too many times overall (“my gaze,” “the wind/breeze blowing through my/his hair”,) chaining descriptive clauses to the ends of sentences that don’t actually describe the subject of the sentence, comma splices everywhere, and a few choice sentences that simply didn’t make realistic sense if you read the words in the order they’re on the page. I’m not kidding–one of the love interests, at one point, is wearing both his pants and his shirt on his legs, if you don’t transpose a few things in your head when you read his description.

It’s bad. Bad enough that I wanted to quit pretty early on. But the story still sounded interesting, and like I said, I still had hope it would improve.

But both romances are instalove, or damn close to it. I stopped just under a third of the way through the story and Elisa, the heroine of the past, is already throwing the word “love” around in her head after meeting the guy twice and exchanging one letter with him. The modern-day romance is also cheesy as hell in spots–he’s staring up at you in the window while he plays the saxophone? Really? I laughed hard at that, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to.

I could have even forgiven that, to some extent, if the stuff about Cuba’s history, revolution, and the musings on Marisol’s conflict about her Cuban-American identity were good. But here, again, it falls flat. The characters lecture each other on history (or current events, in the past plot line) and I honestly feel like I’d be better off reading nonfiction about it. There is one, just one, moment where I was moved and sympathetic to Marisol’s struggle for identity, but out of nearly a hundred pages, that’s not enough to keep me reading any more.

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#7 – So I’m a Spider, So What? Vol. 1, by Okina Baba and Asahiro Kakashi

  • Read: 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 7/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read the first unread book you find on the highest shelf of your bookcase
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s cute. In fact, it’s freaking adorable. It doesn’t do anything for the isekai genre that at least a few other properties haven’t done already–even the “I got reincarnated as a very small, basic monster” idea starts off That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. (Which, to be fair, I don’t know if predates this or not, I saw that anime before I read this manga. And it goes in a strange direction quickly–I doubt this little spider is going to end up ruling her own empire.)

But she’s a tiny pink tarantula! Tarantulas are adorable! I want her to survive and succeed and kill the basilisks!

The main reason this manga doesn’t get five stars is that the art was not always the easiest to decipher during major action sequences. More veteran manga readers might disagree with me, but I watch anime far more than I read manga, so I’m not as comfortable with the common conventions of how they depict action.

I’m probably not going to keep reading because manga volumes are hella expensive and this is getting an anime adaptation this year, but if it weren’t, I probably would treat myself to the next volume every so often, because tiny pink tarantula.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #1

 

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I made my first (self-enforced) deadline!

As of yesterday, I have 12K worth of notes taken on #rockstarnovel, broken down into general stuff and chapter-specific, plus a transitional first-to-second draft outline, showing how many chapters are switching POVs (ten,) how many are getting cut (seven,) and how many I have to write new (five, so far.)

I also have a 55-day, 44-show tour schedule in a text file, cobbled together from five different actual tours across the continental United States from five artists across several decades. No, I’m not worrying about the actual venues (some of which might not even exist anymore) but I did want to use real-world resources for dates and cities and thus, actual travel times. I strung together logical pieces based on location, but didn’t mind the weird spots too much because this band’s tour was put together close to the last minute and so can be a little scattershot, based on what venues were even available on those nights. (Also, in researching the existing tours, a lot of their dates and jumps between cities don’t make “sense” for efficiency, so it’s not like I don’t have a realistic basis for the occasional weirdness in the schedule. One band took a two day break to travel from Louisville, KY to freaking Toronto, in Canada, then had another two-day break to get to Newark, NJ. That happened, it’s real, but like, you didn’t stop over in Detroit or Cleveland or something on the way up, or anywhere in New York State on your way over to New Jersey? Probably because there were no venues available.)

So the prep work for the second draft is done, on time. As for how long I expect the rewrite to take…hard to say for sure? A lot of the notes I have for individual chapters amount to “this is basically fine story-wise but needs a few details changed for consistency.” So there are chunks that hardly need work at all. But I’ve got those ten chapters that are getting rewritten from a different POV character, and at least five new ones to write, and honestly speaking I’ve never taken less than two months to finish a draft of any full novel at any stage except line-editing.

I’ll be generous with myself and say I need to have this draft finished by the end of March. That’s two and a half months, starting today. But I’ll check in at the end of February to reassess my progress. See you then!

Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.