This Week, I Read… (2020 #41)

#153 – Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King

  • Read: 10/22/20 – 10/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a place name in the title
  • Mount TBR: 131/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

For most of the first half of this book, I was enthralled and convinced it was going to be a five-star read. Though this came earlier, in many ways it reminded me strongly of Under the Dome, which I read several years ago and LOVED. Stephen King likes to put small towns through absolute hell, and I’m here for it.

Ultimately, though, this had issues I couldn’t ignore.

While I don’t mind a large cast of characters in general, this one felt too big, the subplots surrounding them too repetitive. At first I was intrigued by the mini-portraits of these flawed people, any one of whom could have been the focus of a much more developed character study, some of whom could even be the protagonist of their own novel. But others were less interesting, and eventually the pattern of “goes to the shop, gets hypnotized, makes a deal with the devil” simply got old, especially when we had a parade of truly minor characters doing it in addition to the main ensemble. Did we need to see so many people wander into Gaunt’s lair and hear the specifics of their agreements? Could we not have glossed over any of them to pick up the pace?

Also, I found the end incomplete and less than ideal. In the final act, after being a non-issue for most of the book, the Casino Nite Catholic/Baptist rivalry escalated into an all-out brawl, and I simply wasn’t invested in it enough to enjoy the amount of space it took up, because none of the primary cast (even as large as it was) were involved. It was filler-disaster, to add to the body count, but it wasn’t gripping compared to how much I wanted to know what was happening to Alan and Polly. (I did read The Dark Half prior to this, by chance, not knowing Sheriff Alan Pangborn was going to have a starring role in a later book. It was nice to see him again, and I like him better now. TDH was only an “okay” book for me.) The very end itself was not to my taste, making a near deus ex machina out of Alan’s idle habit of magic tricks, and cutting off without any insight into what will happen to the town in the wake of dozens of its citizens dying in a single day. The denouement I was hoping would explain even a little bit, show even the tiniest hint of the rebuilding process beginning, simply wasn’t there–hard cut to a brief epilogue that mirrors the opening and implies Gaunt has moved on to victimize another town. I don’t object to that aspect of it–of course he did–but the complete absence of any resolution, any aftermath to the destruction he left behind, was unsatisfying to me.

Did I mostly enjoy it? Yes. Am I glad I read it? Also yes. Did it stick the landing? Not really. Maybe I’ll like it better down the road when I get around to rereading it–I often do with King novels.

#154 – An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, by Annejet van der Zijl

  • Read: 10/27/20 – 10/29/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in the 1920s
  • Mount TBR: 132/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I sometimes have this problem with fiction, but never before with nonfiction: this work has a name in the title, but it’s not about that person. Allene Tew is our nominal protagonist, so to speak, but very little in this tale is actually about her, instead following the lives of her husbands, children, ex-husbands, “adopted” children, and in some cases, her husbands’ or ex-husbands’ friends.

Obviously she interacted with many people in her life, but apparently she did so little herself of note that the bulk of her “story” is actually about other people and what they did before/after becoming a part of her life. How many times did we cut away from a narrative about a man to return to Allene, who was “shopping in London” or “buying and furnishing a new house” or “writing letters”? Listen, I understand that the lives of high-society women were circumscribed quite greatly at the time, and this woman in particular did manage to flout the system in many ways (like having five husbands and marrying into royalty) but a history built on social climbing isn’t inherently interesting if the person doing the climbing is basically a non-entity in the narrative who exists to marry the next husband.

The few personal details we get are thin and repetitive: she loved surrounding herself with active young people. She stopped caring about being fashionable when she gained weight in her later years. Look at how high this woman has flown when she was born in a backwoods town with basically nothing.

Even the big selling point of the concept–a Dutch writer takes on the tale of an American “princess” because of her connection to the Dutch royal family–isn’t much of a payoff, because the baptism ceremony where Allene becomes a royal godmother was apparently incredibly boring to her, and then we breeze right past it to tell the rest of the story, which again, is mostly about men.

I realize this is coming across as harshly critical in ways I don’t necessarily mean it to be–this book is obviously well-researched, and sources from the era would naturally be more inclined to discuss men than women in their pages (rampant sexism we’re still fighting today, of course.) So it’s not surprising that there’s so much information available on all five of Allene’s husbands and her son and her stepson. But this circles back to my point about putting her name in the title and making me (and other readers too, judging from other reviews) expect that the book is actually going to be about her and not an endless set of vignettes about every man in her life? Why frame the narrative this way when she’s basically a shadow we follow along through the history while watching other people actually do things? The only chapter that is truly about her in any substantive way is the final one about her death, and even that’s sharing space with the fight of her heirs over her will.

I didn’t find this particularly interesting or satisfying and basically only bothered to finish it because it was short.

Next Month’s TBR: November 2020

The rest of the year is going to be a little bit different, in terms of my planned reading.

I’ve been doing three major year-long challenges (Around the Year and PopSugar, both task-based; Mount TBR, number-based) and most months I’ve also been tackling the Reading Frenzy’s Travel-a-thon challenges.

I’m three books away from finishing ATY, and the last book for PopSugar, I’m hoping to finish in time to review on Friday. I’ve got slightly less than twenty books to go for Mount TBR, which works out perfectly, because I had another year-long, non-official challenge: get through everything in my 2017 backlog.

Well, I’ve got fifteen of those left. Plus three books to go in Robin Hobb’s Realms of the Elderlings series, which was my other major 2020 reading goal.

Once I put all these goals together, I get a list of twenty-two books I need to read between now and the end of the year:

  1. Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story (which I am either currently reading or have just finished, I’m writing this post early!)
  2. Four Past Midnight
  3. The Regulators
  4. Rose Madder (wow, four Stephen King novels!)
  5. Cloud Atlas
  6. Screw Up
  7. Flight Behavior
  8. Yellowstone Heart Song
  9. The Buckhorn Legacy
  10. Forever Buckhorn
  11. Dreams of a Dark Warrior
  12. All Riled Up
  13. Secrets in the Attic
  14. Sell Out
  15. The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
  16. The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin
  17. Nemesis Games
  18. His Bride for the Taking
  19. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew
  20. Fool’s Assassin
  21. Fool’s Quest
  22. Assassin’s Fate

If I just look at overall numbers, this seems doable. Eleven books a month, when I often read at least 12-13 and sometimes as many as 18. But NaNo is coming. But I have a novel to finish up and release. But many of these books are 500, 600, even some 800+ pages.

This is going to take some dedication. And even then, I might not finish. But even if I feel daunted by the tasks I have set myself, I’m going to try! For this week’s reading (Needful Things and An American Princess, to finish my October TBR if possible) I added their page counts together and took an average to give myself a daily reading goal, and it looks like I might make it in time for Friday’s reviews, which will give me two extra days before NaNo starts to dig into something from this list and get ahead.

I’ll be back at the end of November to strike as many books from this list as possible and see what December looks like.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #4

Photo by Ingridi Alves Photograph on Unsplash

My goal for this month was to finish draft five of Fifty-Five Days, the listening edit. I’ve got a week left to get that done. How am I doing?

I’m exactly halfway done! (by the time this posts)

Can I finish by my original deadline? I sure can. My lack of progress has mostly been because I’ve been focusing my energy elsewhere, not because it’s going poorly. I simply haven’t devoted enough time to it. But the good news is, I crunched the numbers and I know exactly how much I have to get through every day between now and Halloween to get this done.

As for my other novel-related goal, making a cover, I have been through so many ideas and plans for this I’m going to stop talking about them ahead of time because they’re constantly shifting. One thing I did realize, however, which I think I’ve “realized” before when commissioning covers and never remember between books: I can mock up ebook covers all I want ahead of time (and I have) but I can’t do any real work on a real cover that I can use for a paperback until the entire editing/formatting process is complete, because I need a final page count.

I have, in lieu of actually making the damn cover, researched and read and bookmarked many useful resources to help me through the process of attempting my own, when the time comes. But I absolutely have to have the print manuscript ready to go before I start, which is a delay to my original plan, but not a fatal one.

I just don’t understand why I forget that, every time.

With NaNo starting in a week, this is the last you’ll probably hear about 55D until I’m ready to announce a release date and send out ARCs! (Unless something else goes horribly wrong! Which I hope it won’t!) So until then, I’d better get my nose back to its novel-shaped grindstone to make that happen.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Hell or High Water”

Photo by Igor Lepilin 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: 1,500 words
  • Key Tropes: reunion, and still maybe betrayal, we’re not sure?
  • Content Warnings: death, torture mention, imprisonment, weapons, brief violence
  • Explicit?: No

After half an hour of careful, quiet searching, their luck gave out. Mila turned a corne, ill-lit by smoky torches, and came face-to-face with a Bone Trader in full ritual gear, their mask a horrifying caricature of a human skull, their robes a deep red splotched with deeper stains. A foul smell came from him–Mila now knew the rumors were true, that the robes were never washed, that whatever bodily fluids came from their victims was considered a sacrament.

How wretched was a person’s soul, that they could believe trafficking and torture was holy?

Evran had given her one of his knives, as her own gear had been taken. The blade found a home in the Trader’s gut without thought, and before the man could react. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have aimed higher–belly wounds were generally fatal, but not instantly so. Still, this man’s eyes rolled upwards as he slid backwards off the weapon with only the faintest sigh.

If he had been alone, it would have ended there, a silent death deep in his own compound. But two others stood behind him, and their shock didn’t last long.

Evran’s shadows flowed through the darkness, one for each Trader. Mila didn’t see the blow that felled the first, but Evran had time to snap, “Don’t kill the other.”

The larger companion, a burly man with walnut-brown skin and black eyes above his mask, pivoted and dug the point of his knife into the slim neck of the now-captive Trader.

“Excellent,” Evran said. “Show us the way to your prisoner.”

The commander had realized instantly what it took Mila a precious few seconds to work out–these were likely Belken’s torturers on their way to fetch him. This was good news, if true; it meant they hadn’t already started. It meant no general alarm had been sounded because of the guild’s infiltration and Mila’s own rescue.

And, on a more personal level, it meant Belken was probably telling the truth.

The Bone Trader held up her empty hands. Mila was sure it was a woman; the build was skinny, tall, and the robes they wore were shapeless enough to hide any obvious attributes. But they were also relatively unstained, and the outstretched hands were soft and slim and pale. A woman, a young and rich one at that. A new initiate? Would she be more likely to give in than one of her dead counterparts?

Her shoulders sagged. “This way.”

She led, with the others keeping her corralled, one to each side, one behind. Mila fell into position as rear guard, watching their backs as the woman took them down unexplored ways. As they passed new doors, Mila’s tension spiked, waiting for new assailants to spill from them at some unknown signal.

The door she indicated was locked, but Evran had taken a key from one of her dead brethren. His guards nodded at each other from either side before the smaller of them opened it and the larger jumped through. Inside lay complete darkness. Mila waited, not sure what she was waiting for, until a soft voice said, “Clear.” Evran motioned at Mila to take a nearby torch from its holder, and they all went in.

Belken lay on his side on a dirty pile of rags and straw that might have been a mattress, once. He curled protectively around his stomach in a way that made Mila think he was already injured–someone had kicked him repeatedly, or punched him hard enough to vomit, then left him to await a worse fate. Though it might not be his vomit she smelled, because the air was so laced with vile odors it would be impossible to tell.

She handed the torch to Evran while the shadows secured their captive with manacles attached to the wall. “I don’t know where the keys even are for these,” the woman hissed. Mila lost the thread of any further protests she made when she knelt beside her lover and touched his shoulder.

He startled, shifting away with a low cry. The torchlight showed tear tracks and blooming bruises on his face. “Hey,” Mila said softly. “It’s me.”

After a few heartbeats of shock, Belken sat upright and seized her roughly in his arms. “Oh, gods, Mila. You’re here. You’re free.”

“Not quite yet,” she corrected, “but almost. Can you move? How badly did they beat you?”

He grunted as he tried to rise. Mila shifted to a crouch and helped him to his feet. “Worse than I’ve ever gotten in a bar brawl. But I’ll live, which I wasn’t sure about five minutes ago.” He glanced at the Bone Trader, who hung limply, her feet barely brushing the stone floor. “They were coming for me.”

If this was all still an act, a farce for her benefit, neither Belken nor the Trader showed any hint of it. “But my people came for me, and now we’re here for you.”

Evran cleared his throat behind them. “Hell or high water, Mila,” he said gravely. “We don’t leave our own to rot.”

Belken stared at him for a moment, then turned to Mila. “So you believe me?”

She wished she could give him an unconditional answer. “As much as I can.” She leaned in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Come on, we need to get moving before an alarm’s raised.”

Belken didn’t move, though. “What about my sister?”

“We’re already stretching our mission, fetching you,” Evran answered. “Do you know if she’s being held here, and not somewhere else? Because as far as we’re concerned, you have equal odds on being a civilian we’re rescuing or a traitor we’re capturing. Unless you can produce concrete information on this captured sister, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Belken’s throat bobbed visibly as he gulped. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They showed me a necklace, a locket with a miniature of our parents in it. I never saw her.”

Evran stroked his mask meditatively. “So they have her, or they stole it to convince you they did.” Or you’re still lying, Mila thought as Evran paused. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do. If by some astronomical stroke of luck, we stumble into her on our way out, we’ll take her with us. That’s the best I can promise you.”

“I understand,” Belken answered, his eyes cast downward. “Thank you for even bothering with me.”

They were about to leave when the woman on the wall began to laugh. “How touching,” she said, her voice cruel, and her cultured tone and accent confirming Mila’s earlier suspicions. A Bone Trader from the nobility. “As if any of you will make it out alive.”

The smaller shadow took two steps toward the woman and belted her solidly on the chin. Her head snapped against the hard stone wall, and she fell instantly silent, slumping farther in her bonds. The shadow shook out their hand. “Ouch.” Their voice was ambiguous, deep for a woman’s or light for a man’s. “Should’ve taken off the damn mask first. I caught my knuckles on one of those bony bits.”

“Did it puncture your armor?” their companion said, his voice low, booming. Mila almost felt dizzy with surprise to hear them speak; another rumor about Evran’s shadows–and Petralla’s, too, for that matter–was they had taken vows of silence, or worse, had their tongues cut out. No one truly believed the latter, but still, in Mila’s five years of service, she had never heard a single whisper from any shadow.

Evran only smiled indulgently. “They’re fine, I’m sure. Let’s get moving.”

Mila wedged her shoulder into Belken’s side to support him as he took his first limping steps. “Do me one favor, love,” she whispered to him, hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m wrong, and you’re a Bone Trader after all, show me the mercy of killing me quickly in my sleep some night, so that I never have to know I was wrong about you.”

Belken returned her kiss on the cheek with one of his own. “I swear, Mila. You’ll die of old age, running the Guild someday, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and I’ll be by your side. If your death comes any other way, it will not be by my hand, in your sleep or otherwise.”

Her heart glowed at that, as they carefully backtracked through the compound. By the time they rejoined the others, who were no worse for their expedition, Belken’s limp had eased and he was walking mostly under his own power.

It wasn’t until much later, after her debrief with Petralla, when she tumbled into one of the bunks in the common barracks to sleep off her misadventures, that she realized Belken had quite beautifully dodged every aspect of her request, leaving her no more sure of his loyalty than she had been when he showed up unexpectedly in her cell.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #40)

#151 – Acheron, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

  • Read: 10/16/20 – 10/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book from a series with more than twenty books
  • Mount TBR: 130/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The story of how and why I came to be reading the 23rd book in the Dark-Hunterverse after only having read the first two (and not particularly enjoyed the second one) is long and complicated, but suffice it to say, I undoubtedly would have liked this better if I’d known who more of the minor characters were and more about how various powers worked, but that wouldn’t have solved most of the problems I had with this book.

It’s too long, no question. The first 56%, before the present-day story line and romance begin, is a viciously repeating cycle of “Acheron is miserable and has no agency, things gets better for about ten seconds, then some new betrayal or torture happens to him and he’s miserable again.” I understand that his past is one of abuse, but were over three hundred pages of it necessary to make that point? Absolutely not. It went on so long that my feelings mutated from the initial pity and “I hope he gets to be happy someday” to disgust and horror that his agony was so drawn-out, so indulgent, so sexualized.

The second part of the book was better by comparison, but still not great. The emotional development between Acheron and Tory was generally okay, and their banter as they went from enemies to friends was genuinely adorable (and most of the reason this gets a second star.) Was their catapult from friends to lovers/soulmates/fellow godlings rushed? Despite the overall length of the work, yes, it was rushed, because we had to spend over half the book wallowing in Acheron’s horrific past.

The rest of the reason this wasn’t a one-star read for me was actually Artemis. For all the other flaws I found in this book, it does succeed at one thing I think many other works inspired by Greco-Roman mythology fail to achieve–the absolute arrogance and total lack of a humane moral compass found in the gods. Artemis is unquestionably evil from a human perspective, for her delight in inflicting pain and suffering, and her complete indifference to anything that doesn’t benefit her in some way. She inspires hate in me to a far greater degree than I managed to get invested in any other character, Acheron included–Artemis is THE WORST, which is almost hilarious to me, because as Greek gods go according to the classic myths, she’s not even close to the most “evil.” So I applaud this book (in a very limited capacity) for managing to give me a villain I love to hate.

#152 – Blindness, by Jose Saramago

  • Read: 10/19/20 – 10/22/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring a disease or sickness
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

From other reviews it appears as if I dodged a bullet by listening to this rather than reading a print edition; it seems as though the style of the text would have been a sticking point for me. But I did listen, and while I might criticize the narrator for lack of differentiation between character voices, especially the female ones, he might have done me a favor overall.

Many years ago I watched the movie, and when I learned it was adapted from the book, told myself I would someday read it, to see if it was better, or if it solved any of the flaws I felt the movie had. (Brief movie review: I thought the central part of the story, the quarantine within the mental institution, was a brilliant commentary on man as a social animal and the differences in how people’s moral compasses and general outlook on life influenced their behavior under stress. The very beginning and ending, in the outside word? Hated it, felt so flat in comparison.)

So after all this time, how does the book compare to my memories of a film I watched only once but often thought about afterward? About the same overall quality, though their strengths lay in different areas. The narration’s verbose style irritated me at times, but provided insight into the characters the movie lacked; the movie gave me a more tightly plotted story–for example, the movie removes most of the final quarter of the book, and I can’t say that’s a bad idea. The movie let me have visual representations of the nameless characters, rather than the book’s endless “the doctor” and “the doctor’s wife” and “the first blind man” and so on; but the book often gave me better tension within the scenes.

I enjoyed this enough to be glad I went back for it, but based on my dislikes of Saramago’s style as presented here, I’m not particularly interested in seeking out his other work. There was an over-reliance on aphorisms to make a point, which was strange because they were aphorisms I’ve never once heard in my life; whether this is because they are Portuguese sayings in translation, or if the author made them up to contribute to the setting’s lack of definite country, I don’t know. There was also a tendency towards heavy-handedness in the philsophizing, especially in the final act, which simultaneously made me wonder “Am I getting what he’s really saying?” and “Damn, I get it, you don’t need to hammer your points so hard.” The constant equivalence drawn between blindness and death made sense to me, to a point (re: the loss of a person’s “humanity”) but since it kept coming up and alluding to some apparent (even) deeper meaning, I’m left with the sense that I thought I got “it” but I didn’t get it at all. Which is frustrating.

Finally, there was also just some instances of “men writing women” that irked me, though considering a large point of the quarantine story involves rape, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse. There were times when I thought “women aren’t like that” or “I would never say that,” but they were small, individual complaints, a lack of connection, rather than any larger issues surrounding portrayal of female characters in general. The author sometimes stripped them of their dignity, but in most ways no more so than the male characters, and in the direst circumstances, it is mostly the women who band together to affect change, so while I wouldn’t call this a feminist piece, it’s at least not a misogynistic one.

From My Art Journal #16: Planttober

With my renewed motivation to “learn” to draw again, and to play with my art journals more, I had decided to tackle the popular Inktober event this year, which I’ve half-assed once or twice in the past.

Then there was the plagiarism controversy surrounding the creator’s book, and though I haven’t examined the evidence myself so I don’t know for sure, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I searched for alternatives–of which there are many–but didn’t like the strong Halloween/horror/gore focus of many of them.

I found a more generic “botanical” challenge that is just a list of thirty plants to draw, and that’s totally my speed, so I named my personal challenge Planttober and off I went.

As of writing this, I’ve only missed one day, but I doubled up the prompts in one spread the day after, so I’ve actually done all of them so far.

For this month’s artsy post, I’m going to share my favorites!

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Don’t Ever Doubt Us”

Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy
  • Length: 1,253 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: imprisonment, torture mention, dead body, wounded enemies
  • Explicit?: No

Mila expected, when the three hours were up, to see Belken pushed back into her cell by their captors. For the torture to be effective, she had to see it. She waited, and steeled herself against the horror she expected to witness, trying not to imagine what techniques would be used. She knew of many, but also knew a devious, sadistic mind could always find new ways to torment the human body. Belken might be tortured in ways she could not possibly imagine on her own.

She waited longer. Surely it had been three hours, at least, even with her skewed sense of time. Belken hadn’t blown out the candle nor replaced her blindfold when he left, and she studied what she could of the room by its light. She learned nothing that her other senses had not already told her–stone walls, damp and cold, a single door. The only true use of the candle was to gauge time passing by the wax it lost as it burned.

When the screams started, she couldn’t tell how far away they were. For any sound to reach her, it had to be loud and close, funneled to her by the hallway she expected lay beyond the door of her cell. But it didn’t sound nearby, by the quality of the echoes. These screams were faint, distant, and strangely enough, scattered and surprised.

If they were torturing Belken close enough for her to hear, to wear her down, why not do it in the room with her?

Because then they couldn’t fake it. That would explain why something sounded off to her about the cries of pain. She had seen a woman tortured, once. This didn’t compare.

The noise ceased abruptly, replaced by something else, fainter. At first Mila couldn’t tell what it was, and she leaned forward in her chair as far as her bonds allowed, closing her eyes and straining to hear more clearly, to make sense of the new sounds.

Footsteps on the stone. Fast. Heavy. People running. She couldn’t guess how many, only that it was more than one person.

The thudding slowed and stopped, but not at her door. There was a scrape of something along the stone, another door being opened. “Empty,” a deep voice said.

She had learned something new–there were other rooms here, other cells. And Belken wasn’t in the one next to hers.

Another door opening, closer. Across the hall. “Empty,” another, lighter voice said.

Those screams she’d heard had been Belken’s torture, real or faked. They’d been the cries of battle, of a quick, surprise attack. Her guild had come for her. She was being rescued.

She straightened and opened her eyes as her door swung open. When she saw the familiar gray leather armor, the black masks covering the lower halves of their faces, the soft black hoods, she sagged in relief. “Hey,” she said weakly.

The largest of her three guild mates crossed the room to kneel at her back, his fingers making quick work of the ropes. Their newest recruit six months ago, Peres was already proving himself a capable, silent asset. “Mila,” he greeted her briefly.

“Thanks for coming for me,” she said to all of them, studying the shapes of the other two, unable to recognize the small bits of their faces visible in the poor light. Neither was small enough to be the guild leader–Petralla wasn’t here. One she was certain was Nicora, a veteran she had seen around but rarely worked with or spoke to. The other was almost certainly Girard, who had joined up within a year of her and never seemed to like her.

Three people who don’t know me well and have no personal loyalty to me. Either this is a test Petralla set for them, or caution, in case I’ve been compromised and need to be put down. She suspected none of them would flinch at it, especially as no one had responded to her thanks.

Girard was hanging back, watching the corridor. The distant clang of battle song, blades against blades and bodies striking other bodies, filtered into the cell, coming from the other direction, not the way they’d come. When it stopped, Girard stuck his head out and whistled sharply, imitating a bird call. The answering whistle came instantly. “Let’s go,” he said.

Mila stood, and opened her mouth to tell them about Belken. But behind her, Peres grabbed her shoulders and propelled her forward, nearly tripping her in his haste. She wouldn’t make much headway, appealing to them to go after him–they clearly had one assignment, to secure her and her alone.

They brought her to a crossing of two corridors, where three more guild mates stood amid scattered bodies. Only one was obviously dead, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, while the others might only be incapacitated. Mila shrugged free of Peres’ grip, drew herself to her full height, and addressed the guild’s second in command. “Evran.”

“Mila, glad to see you in one piece. Now, report.”

Evran was always like that with her–a moment’s kindness before business, but serious as soon as that switch was flipped. She filled him in on what she knew as quickly as possible, constantly aware that they were not in a particularly defensible position.

“Hmm.” Evran stroked the mask over his chin, as if he were touching the beard underneath. “Peres, assessment.”

On her left, Peres snapped from scanning the empty hallway behind them to focusing on their commander. “If this Belken was coerced, as he said, we have a responsibility to protect him. He was targeted because of us.”

Mila held in surprise that their rawest member supported a secondary rescue. She drew breath to speak, but a look in Evran’s eyes warned her not to.

“Girard.”

“If he’s betrayed Mila, we still need him. Whether the threat of torture was a bluff or not, I’d rather we be the one to punish him. And we might get information in the process.”

“Nicora.”

“I agree with them both, but if you’re asking for a contrary opinion, commander, I’ll play. Petralla was clear in her instructions to get in, get Mila, and get out. We’re not here to start a war with the Bone Traders, not until we know it’s necessary. If they want our guild ledger, they’re up to something, and that war is probably coming soon. But that’s the leader’s call, not ours.”

Evran didn’t ask his aides, the two shadows who attended him everywhere, bodyguards, assistants, and sometimes, speculation said, lovers as well. They were guild mates, but their loyalty was to him–Mila didn’t even know their names, and had never heard either of them speak. “Mila,” Evran said.

She made herself say the right thing. “I don’t believe my opinion should be considered, commander. Whether he’s complicit or not, I can’t set aside my feelings.” Even if he had betrayed her, her heart burned at the thought of leaving him behind. Would their enemies punish him for his failure, for her escape?

Evran nodded. “Fan out and find him. Stealth when possible, fight when necessary. Mila, describe him for us, then you’re with me.”

After that was done and the others left, Mila followed Evran and his shadows down one of the hallways, the four of them moving slowly on silent feet. She leaned close to  the commander. “Thank you,” she breathed.

His eyes crinkled, evidence of a smile beneath his mask. “You love him–he’s family. We protect our own, and we punish them, too. You believed we’d come for you, right?” She nodded. “Don’t ever doubt us,” he added. “We all know the price of loyalty and love.”

Writing Homework #22: Write a Book Review

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Let me tell you a story, even though this isn’t a Let Me Tell You a Story post. (Another neglected series of mine, sigh.)

So I’m looking over the topics I’ve already covered for Writing Homework, attempting to brainstorm new ones for this post and future entries.

I’d just written a book review beforehand, so I decide to mine it for inspiration. What didn’t I like about the book, and how could I turn that into a homework assignment? What problems had I already covered in past assignments? Were any of the new issues too large for the scope of this series?

I turned up one idea, which I’m hanging onto; I skimmed backwards on my Goodreads list to remember other recent, disappointing reads that might give me topics.

After five books, it struck me–I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. All of these new topics I was listing, that I want to cover in future assignments–they all came from writing book reviews.

I wrote my first formal review for this blog in January 2016; since then I have written over 800 book reviews. And I have learned so much about writing in the process.

I’ve identified tropes I love and tropes I can’t stand. I’ve slogged through poorly-paced nightmares that inspire me to self-edit rigorously and try not to let my plots wander. I’m continually teaching myself to spot harmful representation. I’ve examined my own writing genre–romance–extensively, while also reading beyond it to incorporate other elements into my work.

The common advice to be a better writer is to read frequently and widely; but the reading itself is only part of the equation–you have to analyze what you read and reflect on how it relates to your writing.

So your assignment is to write a review of the book you’re currently reading, or the next one, if you’re in between. Now, you don’t have to post it anywhere if you don’t want to (and I obviously have no way of checking that anyway–these are all on-your-honor assignments and they always have been!) So if you’re worried that you “don’t know how” to write a review, don’t worry. There are tons of different reviewing styles, and my “word vomit like a journal with only minimal structure if my thoughts will fit into one” is not at all standard. Someone in my indie book club has an elaborate system of weighing different aspects of the book proportionately, giving each a separate rating, and combining them to get an overall score; I’m impressed with it but could never do it myself!

So don’t stress about format, just open a document and start talking to yourself, or a hypothetical audience of readers, about what you thought of the book. You don’t even have to give it a rating if you don’t want to, especially if you don’t intend to post it. Just jot down your experience, what you liked, what you didn’t. And then think about that in terms of your own writing. What strengths does this help you identify? What similar mistakes might you be making? What did you read that you would never, ever, ever want to include in your own work? What do you want to emulate about other writers?

If you truly don’t enjoy the book review process, even without the pressure to post it, then just do this once, for the experience of it; but if you find it helpful in any way, consider doing it again, if not for every book like I do (which even other book reviewers in my community sometimes find excessive, yeah, I know) then for particularly good or bad ones that make you think or make you happy or make you angry. You can learn an awful lot from “bad” books…

This Week, I Read… (2020 #39)

#148 – Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

  • Read: 10/9/20 – 10/13/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring the undead
  • Mount TBR: 127/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

As usual with a review where I have strongly mixed feelings about a book, let’s just break it down into what works and what doesn’t:

The good stuff: fantastic alternate-history setting with zombies, while I’m not up on every aspect of American history of this period all the changes that the book made flowed easily with what I knew and I never had a head-scratching moment. Strong criticism/commentary on racist ideas by portraying racism constantly and unflinchingly throughout the story. Surprise bi and ace representation! Well-developed, unapologetic, flawed heroine.

The not-so-good stuff: what the heck is up with this pacing? with this semi-directionless plot line? I understand to some extent because of the setting Jane can’t be proactive, only reactive, but the vague “I’m going to get back to Rose Hill someday” motivation doesn’t do much to carry the story forward or spur her decisions, because for most of the book she’s too busy trying to survive. And that return-home arc doesn’t even start until the second part, because in the first part, while she’s still at school, she doesn’t actively want to go home. She’s too busy there trying not to get kicked out, because graduating is necessary even if she hasn’t totally bought into the system.

For the whole 400+ page book, stuff just happens, and a lot of doesn’t really make sense. Most of the semi-mysterious goings-on at Summerland were never explained to my satisfaction–there had to be a huge fight with zombies, I guess, and the town had to be under threat from the looming horde, but why exactly where there giant breaches in the walls? That were repeatedly stated to be impossible to have been the result of zombies? But also there were never any explosions that I recall to account for them, and the town residents tearing holes in their own walls doesn’t make sense either, so all that danger in the final fact felt so incredibly contrived. Also its a big deal in the middle of the book that there are actually zombies inside the town for Reasons, but that doesn’t go anywhere. And everybody’s complaining about rations being cut as more families come to town, yet at the same time, townfolk are disappearing left and right, and only towards the end do we learn they’ve been turned, so they weren’t exactly collecting their food, right?

I had heard so often that this was amazing, so I’m mildly disappointed that I think it’s just good. It’s a solid historical-fantasy with lots of meaty, gory action. But it never achieved greatness for me, because it’s a string of zombie attacks held together with just enough world-building to make it work, and in the spaces that framework leaves, there’s a whole lot of typical villains, unsurprising “is this character dead or not” twists, and at the very end, our heroine revealing she’s more unreliable that I ever suspected, but not really in a way that made her or the story more interesting.

Some elements worked, some fell flat.

#149 – Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

  • Read: 10/13/20 – 10/14/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a spooky cover
  • Mount TBR: 128/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after chapter 3, page 58, over 25%. I will drop books as low as 10%, and after the first chapter I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be finishing this, but I stuck it out through two more to be sure.

The concept is, a bunch of people go to an extreme writing retreat, where they’re cut off from their lives the whole time in order to foster creativity. The three chapters I read have the same components: a few pages of “real” time, where the narrator (whose identity is not yet disclosed by the time I quit) tells us about weirdly-named characters with a narrow selection of highly repetitive details; a poem about one of the other characters that somehow explains their life situation before coming on the retreat; and a short story by that character.

The format is experimental, and I would dig it, probably, if it weren’t incredibly obvious that everything was written by the same person, the actual author of the book. There’s no differentiation between author and character voice anywhere. All three stories had basically the same tone–bitter at the failure of their lives not being what they “should” be–and dealt with nearly the same themes–mistakes that changed the course of their lives somehow.

I’d be okay with the stories being thematically similar, because who, as a person, is likely to attend such an extreme workshop? People who feel they’ve failed at life and think they need a radical attempt to alter course. But I don’t see any excuse for three different characters with wildly different background sounding precisely the same in their writing. They wouldn’t, if they were real, and they still shouldn’t, even if they’re fake.

I’m not going to read the next twenty characters also being bitter cynics with nothing to distinguish them from each other. I’m just not.

As for the style, well, that first chapter managed to include a lot of off-putting gore without actually being horror, and while I was grossed out, I was also cautiously impressed. Though this is my first attempt at reading Palahnuik, because this is the novel of his that happened to fall into my hands at a used book sale, I’ve been aware of him since watching Fight Club, which I enjoyed, and I’ve been curious since one “who do you write like?” website spit out his name when given a chapter of my writing. (I know they go by grammar and word ratios and sentence length, not content; but I was still curious.)

I’ve gathered that for many the author is a love-him-or-hate-him creator, but I haven’t read enough by DNFing this novel to know for sure. I like some of the concepts of this work while being sorely disappointed in its execution–I don’t think it’s an unfair ask for a novel built around the stories of twenty-three different writer-characters to have them all not sound like the same person. I think that’s a fundamental necessity for my suspension of disbelief, and I didn’t get it, so I’m not bothering with the rest.

#150 – The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch, illustrated by M.S. Corley

  • Read: 10/14/20 – 10/15/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to witches
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring witches or magic users
  • Mount TBR: 129/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

First, the best thing: I did not know there was such a thing as a “Kindle in Motion” book that has animated illustrations, so when I started this I was pleasantly surprised to find them, and I really loved the art style. Anytime I flicked a page over and found a new one, I was delighted.

Too bad I didn’t think the story deserved the effort, though. This plot did not need to be nearly 450 pages long, maybe 300 at most. The story moved at a glacially slow pace, because it often took a character an entire page to perform one simple action, and many conversations between different sets of characters retread information I, as a reader, already had. The prose was plodding and simplistic, and the author over-relied on epithets stylistically, even for characters who had names; though in fairness, many didn’t, “the devil” in particular. But why was “the hangman” or “the midwife” or “the hangman’s daughter” or “the physician’s son” so prevalent when we know their names are Jakob, Martha, Magdalena, and Simon?

In addition, the scenes jumped from character to character in different locations abruptly, often without any sort of scene break, which made the narrative difficult to follow in places. I would be following Simon along his tramping through the forest, then next paragraph, I’m with Sophie in her hiding place; this isn’t a movie, it’s a novel, smash cuts don’t work mid-scene without something to tell me I’ve changed locations, like a scene break.

Overall, the writing struck me as amateurish, and as historical fiction, more concerned with accuracy and detail as proof of research than it was with plot and character.

At halfway through, I made the decision to skim instead of fully read, and I don’t regret it.

As for the plot, it’s not complicated, witchcraft is a sensationalized smokescreen for what’s really going on, and several key points are fairly predictable, though I didn’t solve the overall “mystery” myself. (I’m not particularly torn up about my failure to, because I wasn’t deeply invested.) Also, I’m on record disliking this about several other books, and it’s equally true here–why is this titled “The Hangman’s Daughter” when she’s nearly the least important character? She’s barely in the book for the first half, and in the second half she’s mostly an object, for Simon to lust after, for Jakob to yell at, for the villains to kidnap. She’s not interesting, she’s not vital to the central plot, but she’s the title, for some reason.

I did not enjoy this, I do not recommend it, and I won’t be continuing the series.

NaNoWriMo 2020: Project Announcement

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Last year, I hemmed and hawed about what project to work on, then wrote a weird experimental fantasy-romance I haven’t touched (barely even looked at!) since. Not every NaNo novel is worth publishing, and I don’t feel bad about it–plus, it’s always there if I decide I need to mine it for story parts.

This year there’s no doubt in my mind what project I want to work on, and I’ve already started brainstorming for it. Since Fifty-Five Days had an entire romantic subplot cut in the early stages because it wasn’t working, I’m moving that plot forward in the timeline to a second book, and adding some new elements.

Folks, I’m going to try to write a queer polyamorous romance novel.

So the project name (for now) is Rockstar Novel 2: Electric Bugaloo–because of course it is–and aside from lots of brainstorming notes and an extremely loose outline of the early chapters, I’m pantsing it. No hard outline, not even an outline of the whole story, just the ideas I have on how to start and what needs to be established early, then the rest of the novel will sort itself out.

Given that I tend to write first drafts in the 90-110K range, I will not finish during NaNo itself (I never do) but will continue to pound out the draft into December for as long as it takes to finish.

I have some qualms about doing NaNo at all this year, given my health struggles and the fact that I’m still trying to get Fifty-Five Days released by year’s end. But I think I can do it. I have a work plan for 55D that should accommodate both. And of course, I don’t have to win NaNo, though I generally do. I just want to keep my participation streak, if nothing else–I’m a proud NaNo veteran with a five year/six-project streak (thanks to me winning Camp NaNo as well one summer.) I’d honestly be sad if I didn’t attempt NaNo this year, no matter what else is going on!