This Week, I Read… (2017 #23)

73 - Melusine

#73 – Mélusine, by Sarah Monette

What this book does well, it does exceptionally well. It has worldbuilding of the “throw them in the deep end” variety–lots of evocative place names, colorful idiom, definitive customs and rival schools of magical thought. It can be overwhelming, and from time to time I was more than a little confused–I still don’t understand how the Lower City calendar reckons dates, which makes it hard to place historical anecdotes in order–but overall, the effect worked. I feel like this world is real.

Where that worldbuilding fails is in a sense of purpose. The book starts by following two separate protagonists through a world of magical intrigue, but that story-thread fails completely when the two meet and set out together to go to a distant land where one’s magic-induced “madness” can, in theory, be lifted.

That isn’t to say that arc of the story isn’t wonderful–it is–but it ends abruptly there, having resolved the relationship between the two protagonists (long-lost half-brothers who have progressed, through trials and tribulations, from strangers to family) but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE. If I had read this when it first came out, with the rest of the series merely a possible mote on the horizon, I would have been pissed.

Strangely, it is that satisfying-relationship ending that has me troubled. The overall shape of this story reads much more like a romance than it does a more standard fantasy novel–the two leads are introduced separately, the story throws them together, and they develop feelings for each other through internal and external conflicts, then the story ends when the relationship solidifies. Which is what happened there, only…

…they’re brothers. I would be applauding that, having a romance-style narrative applying to a brotherhood relationship, if not for two things:

  1. The story had whiffs of M/M fetishization to me. At first I was thrilled to see gay relationships totally normalized in this fantasy world, until I realized partway through there’d been no mention of F/F pairings. And there wasn’t by the end, either. Prioritizing M/M so clearly in a dark, often sexually-charged fantasy setting is ringing some alarm bells for me.
  2. There is one scene where Felix, in one of his more lucid moments, experiences sexual attraction to/tension with his brother. He’s instantly sickened and ashamed by it, which is natural and understandable…but if it weren’t going to be relevant to their relationship somehow in the future, why include it at all?

I have the three remaining books in the series, thanks to finding this one and the fourth at library sales, then recently (finally!) acquiring the middle two from Thriftbooks. I’m committed–I’m going to read them all. But I strongly, strongly hope that I’m not setting off down Incest Road, here.

74 - Sandman Vol 4 Season of Mists

#74 – The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

After more than a year away from reading the Sandman comics, this was a marvelous place to come back to. What happens to Hell when Lucifer walks away from it and hands Morpheus the key?

We get a story that is a clear precursor to American Gods, that’s what. Watching the various gods and faeries interact with each other as guests of the Dreamlord was a treat, one that had me laughing out loud at Thor ineptly making a pass at Bast while Loki schemed quietly in the background.

While the bulk of the compilation is devoted directly to that storyline, I loved the one-issue arc following the sad story of little Rowland, who finds his school turned upside-down by the return of the dead to earth after their expulsion from Hell. Clearly, none of them learned their lessons, because they were all just as evil, and in the same ways. I was alternately terrified and saddened by the boy’s story, until he refused to go with Death in the end. (Who was rocking some excellent legwarmers–I love her wacky, myriad styles!) Finding an odd kind of freedom in living death seemed like a happy ending, if a temporary one.

It was an excellent side-trip, dealing with the consequences of emptying Hell, and while the story would have felt mostly complete without it, taking the time to address the issue is well worth it. That’s exactly the sort of plot hole I wish other authors were better at avoiding–how come you never deal with the extremely obvious fallout of Plot Point X?

I do have to wonder what Morpheus and Loki are up to at the end, though…

75 - Little Birds

#75 – Little Birds, by Anaïs Nin

My little bird has never looked so disapproving.

Off and on since college, I’d heard about the great, classic author of erotica, Anaïs Nin–so when I spotted this tiny paperback at a secondhand shop I scooped it up.

But who knew sex could be so boring?

The style was flat and practical, giving technical and mechanical detail but entirely lacking in emotion or nuance. It was like reading a transcript of a robot describing sex.

On top of that, most of the short stories had no ending to speak of, they just stopped. They hardly had any meat to them anyway, plot-wise, so I’m not sure what I expected, but the endings they had struck me as abrupt and devoid of any sense of completion.

I’ll stick to my modern erotic romances, thank you.

76 - Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

#76 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

My strongest criticism of this book is one I don’t often have: it’s too short.

Everything about the story seemed to me to be Neal Stephenson Lite, and I know Sloan is at least passingly familiar with his work, because Stephenson gets name-dropped. And applying that label to this book isn’t meant as an insult–not everyone wants to read nearly-thousand-page tomes with that level of historical or scientific detail.

This was a techno-puzzler, and it could have been a great one, if only it hadn’t been so rushed.

Nearly every conflict the protagonist, Clay, has is solved by him knowing the right person to ask for help, and the problem magically vanishes. He needs to get to New York to find someone? Ask his rich friend to come along and “sponsor” the trip. He needs a piece of tech for a clandestine operation against a secret society? He fires off an email and gets what he needs the very next day through a dead drop at a pizza joint. He nearly gets caught at the end of said clandestine operation? He hides himself long enough to not-quite formulate a plan before one of his co-conspirators finds him and manages to smuggle him out.

The only puzzles or conflicts Clay actually handles himself are the very first, the one that sets him on this mysterious road, and the very last, the resolution of his “quest.” The entire middle section of the book feels like a string of luck and deus ex machina. Which means very little time needs to be spent stumbling on these hurdles, which in turn means the book races through the plot as quickly as possible, leaving no time to develop any characters with personality.

Clay is nearly an everyman except for some programming know-how, which makes him a suitable every-nerd instead. Kat, his love interest (though fortunately the romance subplot is incidental) is such a stereotypical Tech Industry Geek that she’s never explored beyond that. Mr. Penumbra is probably the most interesting, being the eccentric one who leads Clay into this strange story in the first place, but even he is fairly flat. And the rest of the cast is so thin that they seem only to be there to be called on to solve Clay’s problems when he needs them. (His two roommates do also get a thin, background-level romance, which is the only exception that comes to mind, and I’ll admit that was nice, to see side characters have independent lives. I wish there had been more of that.)

So, it’s not terrible, but it is on the fluffy side, all cleverness and no depth.

Getting Serious About Series

Yesterday I saw an interesting Top Ten topic over at Bluestocking Bookworm, and since a major goal of mine this year is to finish some series up, it’s a perfect fit. Erin did five series she needs to finish and five she doesn’t plan to, but I’ve got more than five I’m in the middle of right now!

Let’s break this down.

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

I Own Them But Haven’t Read Them All Yet

I’ve Read the Ones I Own But Not the Rest

I Own The First One But Haven’t Started Yet

I hadn’t actually realized it was this bad until I made the list…

From My Art Journal, #9

Lace 3-25-17

Though I didn’t care for the book at all, the cover of Symphony was too awesome not to be repurposed for an art journal page.

Lace 6-11-17

she feels as the society acts

This small slip of paper fell out of the first chapter about Hatsue in Snow Falling on Cedars. I have no idea who owned the book before me, who wrote that, but I liked it, so into the journal it went.

Lace 6-12-17

Always looking for new ways to use Zentangle patterns.

Windflower 6-12-17

I’ve made time in the last few weeks to start “real” drawing practice again, using exercises from The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I got a copy of the original edition from Thriftbooks and started working through it last fall, but fell out of the habit as the holidays approached. The binding of the book was crumbling, pages falling out every time I touched it–so when I discovered a pristine copy of the updated edition at a library sale, I jumped on it, and here I am, doing hand studies again.

Lace 6-13-17

I liked that particular exercise so much I did it again in my altered-book journal. Extra practice is a good thing.

As much as I want to get my nose back to the grindstone with writing, focusing on honing a different skill has done me good, helping with the long climb out of depression and grief. I’ve always been told I’m good at art, in a general way–I’ve taken art classes and earned good grades, back in school–but none of them were specifically devoted to drawing, and whenever I see one of those 30-day drawing/painting/art challenges and the first day is (nearly) always “self-portrait,” I cringe. I’m terrible at faces. That’s what enamored me of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain when I first heard about it–the ultimate goal is portraiture, building up from learning the fundamental mechanics of engaging the right brain’s ability to “see” things instead of the left brain’s incessant need to “name” things.

And, honestly, I hate being bad at things, so it frustrated me to feel like I was “good” at art without being “good” at drawing.

So there you have it from my artsy side, I’ll be back on Wednesday with something much more book-related, and Friday, of course, with this week’s book reviews!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #22)

69 - The Ocean at the End of the Lane

#69 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Another example of Gaiman doing what he does best–creating a world that is both our own and not quite our own, making magic seem so believable that it’s almost (but not quite) ordinary, and telling a story though the eyes of a child so well I can remember, as the narrator does, how wonderful and terrifying the world seemed when I was young.

I honestly don’t know what else to say about it, other than it was brilliant.

70 - Be Careful, It's My Heart

#70 – Be Careful, It’s My Heart, by Kait Nolan

The trouble with basing a story around some other real-world media is that sometimes, no matter how famous or popular that iconic thing is, there will be a reader who hasn’t ever seen it.

Just like I have never seen the movie White Christmas, so when the two main characters are cast in a last-ditch, save-the-theater musical version of the movie (very pointedly NOT the original musical) I was adrift at the story references.

On the upside, I’m a former musical theater geek myself, so it won some points for that. I was never in a leading role and I certainly never got to have a musical-fueled romance, but I’m absolutely down with that as the basis for a story, color me swooning.

On the downside, this is a second-chance romance based on a breakup that was A STUPID COLOSSAL MISUNDERSTANDING THAT COULD HAVE EASILY BEEN SOLVED IF THE CHARACTERS HAD ACTUALLY TALKED TO EACH OTHER.

They did at least admit that, when it came out that their entire eight-year interlude of misery could have been prevented, but my feelings on misunderstandings as conflict are dim at best.

So this was a mixed bag for me, because I loved some parts while hating others. Definitely continuing on with the series, though.

71 - Snow Falling on Cedars

#71 – Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson

Mixed feelings about this one.

The story structure is intriguing. A short current narrative about a small-town murder trial, liberally seasoned with key flashbacks, it actually manages to keep the reader in the dark about whether the accused is guilty or innocent for most of the book, so that’s a win. And using that murder trial and the history of those involved to explore American racism toward the Japanese during and after WWII was an inspired choice. Sometimes the actual dialogue invoking the racism seemed heavy-handed to me, but then this is set in the mid 1950s, and I was nowhere close to being born yet–even my parents were children then. So I guess people really did talk like that.

Unfortunately, draped over the bones of this gripping story was layer after layer of unnecessary detail and repetitive imagery. Some aspects of boat layout and net fishing are key to understanding the ins and outs of the trial, and some are just filler. I didn’t need a treatise on the subject. And in the first chapter, wind is mentioned seven times over just four pages: a wind from the sea, wind-whipped, the sea wind, wind-whipped (again), wind-beaten, the sea wind (again), and finally, wind-driven.

Okay, it’s windy there, I get it.

Sadly the level of description never really improved, but finding out how the trial turned out did keep me going. The denouement was short, repetitive, and ultimately weak, but the climax of the trial itself was satisfying. Glad I read it, not going to keep it.

72 - Good Girl

#72 – Good Girl, by Mira Stanley

I picked this up for free last year when it was newish, and I didn’t realize at the time it was only a novella. Good thing I didn’t pay the $2.99 asking price for a mere 75 pages, especially when it ends on a silly cliffhanger without even the slightest hint of story resolution. If your pricing model is to give me a book over ten parts (as the author’s note at the end states) then you’d better not be charging me $3 each, stretching one story into a $30 investment. That’s predatory pricing.

(If you’re not as current with digital romance pricing norms as I am, I don’t blame you–but for novellas, they’re generally either free or 99 cents. The free ones are usually by authors with established series trying to get you hooked with a taste, or offering extra, nonessential content involving side characters.)

Which is too bad, in a way, because I do kind of like the foul-mouthed narrator, Joe. This is one of the only romances I’ve ever read with a male first-person POV, and that part of it was refreshing. As was his strong emphasis on consent.

What I wasn’t as crazy about was his constant and total (internal) insistence that Sunshine/Kelly was a “good” girl based on her appearance, clothes, and the semi-random assumptions he made about her. In a full-length novel, this could work as a flaw for Joe that he could learn to move past–but in a quick, half-hour read, there’s no time for character development.

Write the whole book and charge me five or six bucks for it, next time, and I’ll bite. I want to support independent authors. But I don’t want to be deliberately exploited by a cliffhanger serial designed to part me from my money.

Writing Homework #11: Prep a Name Master List

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Every author handles choosing names differently, but speaking for myself, it’s often a struggle. Consulting baby name websites and lists of the most popular names in a given era are great places to start, but I often find myself wading through tons of blah names without feeling inspired.

What struck me lately is that I keep meeting people with fantastic names that I wish I could use. I can’t–not in full, anyway–but there’s a way around that.

If you’re like me and you have a notebook on you at nearly all times, simply write the name down for later. (Not in front of the person, that would look weird!)

But for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to draw names to work with from a pool. Head over to IMDb and find a favorite show or movie, then click through to the full cast and crew listing.

I’ll be pulling names today from Stargate SG-1. I miss that show.

To keep this small, I’m going with ten, though a master list you could make as long as you want to start, and keep adding to it whenever you find something new. My only criteria at the moment is to pick a name I like, which is vague–maybe the first name is pretty or the last name is one I haven’t heard before or the two just sound good together.

  1. Amanda Tapping
  2. Andy Mikita
  3. Charles Correll
  4. Jonathon Glassner
  5. Jacqueline Samuda
  6. Claudia Black (okay I picked her because I’ve loved her since Farscape, I confess)
  7. Gillian Barber
  8. Karen van Blankenstein
  9. Kevin McNulty
  10. Jennifer Calvert

So, realistically speaking, we authors can’t/shouldn’t use any names as they come. If I write a book where the main character’s name is Amanda Tapping, even if the story has nothing to do with any Stargate elements and the character looks, sound, and acts nothing like the actor…well, you get the situation I had last year when I read The Summer of Chasing Mermaids. And also, if Amanda Tapping found out, she might not be pleased.

So, it’s time to break the first names free of the last names and do some rearranging. On my first pass, I got these shiny new names, all perfectly usable:

  1. Karen Tapping
  2. Jonathon Mikita
  3. Gillian Correll
  4. Jennifer Glassner
  5. Andy Samuda
  6. Kevin Black
  7. Amanda Barber
  8. Claudia van Blankenstein
  9. Charles McNulty
  10. Jacqueline Calvert

My criteria for rematching the names was simple. Everyone had to be shuffled, and I wanted them to sound good together. Which made me wonder what that means, so it’s time to take a look.

Many of these new names share sounds. “Gillian Correll” has the Ls, “Andy Samuda” the Ds, “Jennifer Glassner” shares the -er ending, and “Jacqueline Calvert” doubles down by sharing both the L and the hard C.

In the names that don’t share sounds, the rhythm of stressed syllables flows well. The hardest on the mouth is probably JON-a-thon mi-KI-ta, but it’s not terrible, and maybe that character will go by Jon instead.

There’s nothing stopping me from rearranging the first names again to switch up the ones I don’t like quite as much, but some of these names are already forming characters in my head. “Claudia van Blankenstein” is a Gothic Romance heroine name if I’ve ever heard one. “Charles McNulty” could easily be a teenage introvert whose parents insist on calling him Charles even though he’d want his friends to call him “Charlie,” if only he had any. (Poor Charles!) “Amanda Barber” would make a great real estate agent, with easy-to-spell-and-remember name gracing billboards and bench-seat ads all around town.

Go forth, my lovelies, and make yourself master lists of names, so when you’re tumbling through your draft and suddenly you need a real estate agent, you have a name ready to go.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

On Reading Seasonal Books

Yesterday, the temperate was in the mid-90’s with a humidity index of Face-Melting, but as I lay in bed reading with the fan turned on high, I was swept away into a snow-lashed courtroom in 1950s Washington State.

I’m currently reading Snow Falling on Cedars, and though it’s riddled with flashbacks spanning all seasons, the story of the trial that holds them all together is set in the depths of a rough winter.

I don’t recall ever making an effort to match my reading to the seasons when I was younger. I read whatever I wanted to, when I wanted to–but I also don’t remember many of the books I read having a strong seasonal component to begin with.

Now, I’ve got one Halloween romance and probably half a dozen Christmas romances waiting for me on my Kindle, because I feel like reading them out of season would be weird.

But in my effort to clear out some of my older unread books, I’m running down the list of my acquired-in-2015 shelf, and of the ones I had left to read, Snow jumped out at me. Never saw the movie, only had the vaguest idea what it’s about before I started. I admit, I didn’t think I was going to like it much.

Yet, here I am in the middle of a heat wave, reading about snowdrifts and the wind-lashed seas of a winter storm, and enjoying myself, perhaps because it’s so far removed from the sticky heat in the air around me.

What is your experience with reading books seasonally? Do you prefer to match, deliberately mismatch, or disregard the concept altogether?

This Week, I Read… (2017 #21)

65 - People of the Book

#65 – People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

How could I not love a brilliantly crafted historical fiction piece about chasing down the history of a book?

Through the course of this story, I learned about manuscript conservation and restoration; Bosnian politics in both the WWII era and the 1990s; Jewish family customs, holiday practices, and burial rites throughout a good chunk of history; the Spanish Inquisition; inter-faith tensions in the Middle East; and brain surgery.

Yep, all that in one book.

On top of bringing so many scattered subjects together under one narrative umbrella, which is a feat itself, the pacing was just perfect. It begins with a first-person section from the POV of Dr. Hanna Heath, the conservationist who’s asked to work on preserving the book, and as each mystery in its pages is investigated, the story switches to a third-person section detailing the story the anomaly, ranging from WWII Sarajevo to 15th-century Spain.

Just when I was used to that pattern, one of the final sections threw me for a loop–a historical first-person section from the POV of the manuscript’s illuminator. A brilliant move, to make that particular section more immediate and personal by breaking the 1st-person-present/3rd-person-past seesaw.

And then, Lola, a character from the first flashback section, comes back in the present day for a first-person POV of her own. I’m not going to lie, I almost teared up. I was moved and charmed and really, this story was amazing. If you like books and small mysteries and history, at least. Which I do.

66 - Asking For Trouble

#66 – Asking for Trouble, by Rosalind James

As the youngest sibling in my family, and as a woman who struggled for years with What I Wanted To Do When I Grew Up, I found the heroine Alyssa easy to relate to. Her successes always seem small when compared to those of her twin older brothers (Gabe and Alec from books 1 + 2) and her failures seem bigger. She starts the book suddenly without either a job or a relationship, trying to find something to do with herself that matters.

And finding herself in close proximity to our hero, Joe. This romance works two tropes pretty successfully–the childhood crush (she’s known Joe since she was a teenager) and the sibling’s best friend (Joe was one of Alec’s roommates in college and is currently his business partner.) So tension abounds, and for good reason.

What I liked best about this story is that that tension never felt false or forced. Joe is a classic workaholic introvert who is big and tough physically, and stoic to cover up a surprisingly vulnerable heart underneath. I praised Gabe in book 1 for being thoughtful, a trait I value highly in my own relationships, but Joe’s lack of awareness of what Alyssa expects of him feels genuine, and is something he learns to overcome.

The conflict points in the relationship make sense, and the two actually talk about them instead of letting them fester. Something I desperately wish more romances did instead of relying on blatantly fixable misunderstandings to create tension.

I like this final book in the Kincaids series best of the three, and I look forward to starting James’ Escape to New Zealand series soon, of which I have the first three books in a bundle pack. Despite my qualms about some of the things in the previous book, overall James has proved to be a solidly realistic writer with a smooth narrative style which doesn’t rely on lazy tropes to move her stories forward. The romance world needs more like her.

67 - Seveneves

#67 – Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I’m not going to talk about the plot. The only thing I could do would be to spoil it, because BOY HOWDY DO YOU WANT TO GO INTO THIS BOOK BLIND. You shouldn’t even have read the book blurb on the back cover (it’s got major spoilers) or have peeked at the first line. Nope.

What I do want to talk about is how amazing this hard sci-fi is. I enjoy science-fantasy just fine, if the piece knows that’s what it is, but bad science fiction that gets science horribly wrong just exhausts me.

But Stephenson is a marvel of incorporating accurate, actual science into his works and then extrapolating it so far that it’s simultaneously unrecognizable and perfectly logical. It’s brilliantly accessible. In an 880-page tome, I didn’t have to look up a single word I didn’t know. Any scientific term I wasn’t already familiar with from my studies (and some of them I did) was immediately explained in a non-condescending way. Any word or abbreviation Stephenson made up for the story was immediately defined. I never felt lost or confused by the rigorous science, and it all served a purpose in the story.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how feminist this was. Not in the flaunting or agenda-touting way, just that women are the most important characters in the book. A strong female friendship is the backbone of the first two-thirds of the story, which threw me for a loop. Other women don’t get along so well, but it’s never jealousy over a man, petty backbiting, or gossip–the antagonistic relationships develop out of serious root causes.

I wish the fact that I read a book by a male author who treats female characters like actual people weren’t so surprising; but then, of what I’ve read, that list of authors is quite short, so I’ll take it where I can get it. And if it comes with a gripping, epic sci-fi storyline, so much the better.

68 - Light Years

# 68 – Light Years, by James Salter

DNF at a miraculous page 53. Yes, I usually give books til page 100 before I toss them, but I didn’t need to read any further before my opinion on this work solidified.

This is some of the worst Old White Male Fiction has to offer, and it wasn’t going to get any better.

From a technical standpoint, I can’t believe this made it past editing into print. Light Years has some of the most florid, overworked prose I’ve ever read. There is no noun to minor to be matched with an adjective, no verb strong enough not to need an adverb. I waded through entire paragraphs, sometimes even pages, where the only verbs were “to be” conjugates, which was an exhausting experience.

Then there’s the rampant head-hopping, and its strange baby cousin, room-hopping. A great deal of time is spent describing the house, the river, the bathroom, the kitchen, and sometimes it’s all at the same time. There were descriptors I honestly couldn’t match to a place or object–Salter could be describing gulls one sentence and Nedra in her kitchen the next, and pronoun confusion abounded. Sentence fragments piled up into word heaps that held no meaning. Similes assaulted me like cold rain. (See what I did there? That’s about the level we’re talking.)

Even setting aside the dumpster-fire aspect of the language, the story is beyond boring. Did we really need an entire chapter of stilted conversation between Viri and his new tailor about how he wanted his shirts made? How many books about shallow rich people and their shallow problems do we need? How many tales about failing marriages and adultery? What could possibly still be interesting about bored people making trouble for themselves because they don’t appreciate what they have? Why is this tripe still lauded as brilliant when it’s nothing more than literary masturbation?