Let’s start by checking in with the loose goals I set myself at the end of last month:
I would like to start working on Fifty-Five Days again, in small bites if necessary, but with no deadline in mind.
DONE. It took me a week of working half an hour a day to get through the chapter that I stalled out on at the beginning of lockdown, but once I finished that, I rewrote the mostly-okay next chapter and just finished another new fix-this-plothole chapter. I’m so close to the end of this draft I can taste it–my Camp NaNo plan is to rewrite the rest of the draft and then go back to the beginning and start the line-editing/polishing draft. I am working again, and it is good.
I would like to start running again.
No to the running, but yes to the exercising in general. Turns out I’m not up to anything so strenuous yet, my lungs can’t handle it and my poor, sore, formerly-ill body isn’t doing so great either. I am walking, I am doing yoga and light strength training, and when I feel capable of it again, I will get back to running.
I would like to finish the new shawl I’ve just started for someone’s Christmas present by the end of the month as well as continuing to work on the BIG HUGE cross stitch project.
No on finishing the shawl; I worked diligently on it while listening to audiobooks, but when the serious heat wave hit mid-month, I set it aside. It’s too hot to knit with wool! But yes to the cross-stitch; I didn’t quite finish the chart page but I came really close. Here’s my progress:
In reading news, I read SO MANY BOOKS thanks to a read-a-thon on Tumblr. How many? Eighteen (with two DNFs.) If that’s not my monthly record, it’s got to be close.
My goals for next month? I’ve got a big TBR planned that I’ll post about soon, possibly even too big considering I’m also doing NaNo, which is obviously the biggest goal. I may not get back to the knitting, because it’s still too hot, but I want to keep stitching when I can. Exercising everyday to the best of my capability is the most important thing, though, because I need a functioning body again, please and thank you.
After I finish writing this and set it up for posting, I’m going for a walk!
Sex is a part of many’s peoples lives, and good fiction should reflect that reality. But not every story needs sex, just as not every person wants sex, and there are certainly genres that suffer for its inclusion (don’t ask me why a cozy mystery I read years ago had a steamy, raunchy sex scene in it, so out of place, I can’t explain that, please don’t do it.)
But sex abounds in many genres; if you’re writing romance, it’s often a reader expectation, and if you’re writing erotica, well, then it’s the entire point. If you’re not prepared for the idea of writing a sex scene when you start your story, stumbling later across the need to include one can prove a serious block.
In my years of digging through writing advice on the internet, “how do I write a sex scene?” and “how do I not be embarrassed writing a sex scene?” are, anecdotally at least, two of the most common questions I see being asked. I’ve handed out dribs and drabs of that kind of advice before, but I’ve never bothered to put together my thoughts formally, so here we go!
Question #1: Does your story actually need sex?
I touched on this above with genre, but even that isn’t always a clear guide. Plenty of romances end with a first kiss and are still romance, because while sex scenes are common, they’re not universal. And if you’re writing something else, it’s really going to depend. There’s always heat in the YA universe about how much sex there should be in titles aimed at teenagers and how to depict it responsibly when it’s included. Any Hero’s Journey sort of tale, regardless of the parent genre, could include a romantic (and thus, possibly sexual) element when the Hero gets the Girl in the end as his reward–but that’s a pretty toxic view on female agency, so really dig in and decide why it needs to be there. (Or subvert the heck out of it, but that’s another topic entirely.) James-Bond-style action has sex baked into its DNA, but in thrillers, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s absent. It’s going to depend, and some of your decision may be driven by how genre-saavy you are.
But across all fiction, the ultimate common-denominator answer for including sex should be the same standard for questioning other actions or plot points: does this tell the reader something about the characters that they can’t get any other way? If the honest answer to that is no, then the sex scene you were wondering about is probably unnecessary.
Question #2: What are the different styles of sex scene and how do I use them?
First choice: the “fade to black” scene. It’s not sex, it’s implied sex. The characters involved get a little cozy with each other, maybe engage in some PG-rated foreplay, and (hopefully) there’s clear intent and consent established. Then the metaphorical lights drop and the scene fades out before any more blatant sexual acts happen.
When to use it? Well, anytime, if that’s all your comfortable doing as an author. But more specifically, it’s best deployed when it’s crucial to the story to establish the characters have a sexual relationship, for whatever reason, but the sex itself wouldn’t drive the narrative forward.
When not to use it? Erotica is right out, obviously. But while I’ve seen a handful of lighter romances use it successfully, I’ve seen plenty that handle it poorly, even to the point where there’s no scene transition, just a paragraph break between the “characters get handsy” and “basking in the afterglow” stages. Be aware that cutting the “actual” sex out of a scene too abruptly can leave readers annoyed, disappointed, or even confused about what did or didn’t happen–it’s most effective to use a clear scene break and establish that time has passed.
Second choice: show the sex happening, but a) keep it short, and b) don’t go into much detail. When I’ve read these types of scenes, that can range from a single paragraph overview that focuses more on the emotions being felt, to a full page or two of dialogue and/or internal monologue mixed with the most basic mechanics of the situation.
When to use it? This is partially reader expectation–as I’ve mentioned, many romance readers do expect sex in their stories–but also this is the better choice when the sex “matters” more than a fade-to-black scene transition would allow for. If the sex sparks some kind of emotional turmoil or epiphany in the POV character, you’ve got to have a place for that to happen, narratively speaking; off-screen won’t do. But again, if the nitty-gritty of the characters going at it in detail won’t enrich your plot, then keep it zippy and move on.
When not to use it? If you’ve established a sex scene needs to happen at all, there really aren’t serious downsides to this option, excepting reader expectations. But that’s a tricky beast to handle and you’re never going to satisfy everyone, because any given group of readers can have opinions ranging from “this took to long to get to the sex/the sex wasn’t sexy enough” to “OMG I can’t believe these two jumped in the sack like that so fast/how they did/where they did.” (And since I often skim other reviews of the romances I read, yes, this has really happened, one reader will complain about a lack of enough sex scenes in the same book another will insist had too much or the wrong type of sex. You can’t please everyone, and sex especially is so personal. Do your best to your own comfort level, and at least some people will enjoy it.)
Third choice: As graphic as you want to be, baby, no holds barred for as long as it takes.
When to use it? This is obviously the go-to choice for erotica, but it has its place in romance, too, if the sex scenes themselves don’t overwhelm the story through sheer quantity. While erotica may focus more on titillating and arousing the reader, in romance these prolonged, detailed scenes are often about demonstrating sex as an opportunity for bonding and emotional growth. If you want to give your characters plenty of narrative time to fight, or banter, or laugh together, or realize deeper feelings, then a longer and more substantial sex scene allows you that time.
When not to use it? Lots of times. Were you on the fence about including a sex scene to begin with? Then you probably want a simpler one. Is it rare to find sex scenes in your chosen genre? Then you probably want a simpler one. Are you uncomfortable with who might read this (friends/family) or what you might inadvertently reveal about your own sex life? Definitely go with one of the first two options.
Sadly, I can’t tell you how not to be embarrassed by writing sex scenes and letting other people read them. It was a concern of mine at first, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But at some point, you either have to decide to embrace it, or not. There are certainly baby steps you could take, like posting anonymous smut somewhere and seeing what the reaction to your style is, before you show anyone your “real” work. But that is extra work, and it’s not going to be right for everyone.
I had thought originally to dive right in from here on how to write sex scenes, or at least, how I write them, but it turns out I had a lot of thoughts first on whether they’re necessary and how to approach them. So Part II of this probably-two-part series will be covering that instead!
Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book about dragons
Rating: 3/5 stars
Aahh, the dreaded filler book. This feels to me much the same way that Dragon Keeper did before I got to the majesty of Dragon Haven. Not a lot happens to move the plot forward–not nothing, but not a lot. A good chunk of this book was spent reintroducing neglected characters as brief POVS (Tintaglia, Malta, Selden) all of whom I’m glad to see back, but it’s just setting them up at the edge of the chess board so they can make their moves later–none of them really “do” much other than decide to move somewhere else, be forced by circumstance to move somewhere else, or in Selden’s case, are forcibly moved somewhere else against their will.
I’m sure it’s all going to be important, but it really doesn’t amount to much yet.
That systemic flaw aside, there is good stuff here about Kelsingra and how interesting it is, though the fact that I was interested in it meant I wished there had been more than we were given. I wanted to see the whole of this mysterious Elderling city that I’ve only glimpsed before, as characters visited it through the stone portal magic, or in memory, across the many books so far. Someday, when I have the time and energy to reread the whole series from the beginning, it’s going to mean a lot more to me when the tower window gets broken and I’m all like I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW IT’S SO COOL. (Still haven’t figured out the deal with the damn rooster crown, though. It keeps showing up but I haven’t put the pieces together yet. The final trilogy with Fitz and the Fool better finish that up.)
Overall, the series is a marvel of plotting and world-building, and that’s still true here as a piece of the whole, it’s just a short and relatively featureless piece that spends all its time setting up for the more interesting stuff that’s coming.
Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Listen to an audiobook + Read something outside your comfort zone
Rating: 5/5 stars
An excellent and organized primer on how to engage with race as a topic for those who don’t already know how–which is a lot of people.
Different people are going to get different things out of this book, and given its title and its black author, I did expect going in that it was going to be aimed squarely at white people. It’s not. Oluo takes time to acknowledge, quite often in fact, the ways that different groups of people of color can be biased again each other, which is a part of the conversation that I (being white) am not often privy to. The advice she gives about how to examine yourself for privilege and how to dismantle your learned biases apply to everyone; while white people might benefit most by taking this book seriously (and then doing what they can to change the culture of white supremacy,) anyone can benefit. There are many pieces of advice for people of color on how to handle interacting with racist people and microaggressions, their rights to stand up for themselves vs. the pressure to educate others, and plenty more that does not in any way apply to me, but I still found helpful to learn about.
Topics were divided by chapter, and some were more basic than others, but I value the goal of meeting everyone where they are. I did not need Oluo to teach me why I cannot ever-ever-ever use the n-word, I knew that; but others might not. I think the most illuminating chapter for me personally was on Asian-Americans as the model minority–this really isn’t talked about much in my sphere, and while I was aware of a few of the classic stereotypes of East Asians specifically, I did not know about many others, nor about the vast disparities in wealth, education, and opportunity that correlate closely with country of origin. While this topic wasn’t covered in depth (it’s not the point of the book) I’m concerned enough by my lack of knowledge that it’s something I want to investigate further.
And that’s really the point of this work, a starting point. If someone is new to educating themselves on anti-racism, this is an accessible entryway, a good first read. It would make a poor only read because it provides an introductory view on many topics but doesn’t cover anything in depth, except perhaps the personal struggles of the author herself as a black woman, as that’s a narrative thread carried throughout the book. What I’m taking away from this work is that, while I may know and already practice much of what Oluo wants to tell me, she’s done an excellent job pointing out where I can improve, and I need to educate myself further on those issues.
The book fell down for me on several fronts. DNF @ page 99, and once I outline my growing qualms with the presentation throughout the first chapters, I’ll share the quote that made me set the book down for good.
Issue #1: The author is quietly sexist in a way I’m sure many people wouldn’t notice, but I did. I read an article several years ago concerning the troubling tendency of Western journalism to infantilize women by referring to them only by their first names, while men in similar circumstances would be referred to by their last names. It’s not by any means universal; the current round of think pieces on the most recent J.K. Rowling debacle aren’t calling her “Joanne,” for example. But it does happen, and since becoming aware of it, I’ve seen it crop up in many places. In fact, a well-liked review on Goodreads of a book I recently read does it, referring to the female author repeatedly by her first name, despite being positive and respectful in most other ways. (Yes, the reviewer is male.)
In Dinosaurs, Brusatte name drops many, many colleagues, mentors, and well-regarded pillars of paleontology and geology. All of them are introduced by full names, but the men (with one exception) are thereafter referred to by last name, while the comparatively few women are referred to by first name only. The particular instance that brought this home to me was the “skilled geologist Jessica Whiteside,” whom Brusatte takes great pains to laud as brilliant, amazing, and so forth, to the point where it seemed he heaped praise on her in an effort to not sound sexist. But then she was “Jessica” for the rest of the section about her, while a man in the same position would have been “Whiteside,” like most of the other men referred to so far in this work. (The lone exception was person who entered the narrative as a teenager and was referred to by his first name presumably because of his youth, which carried over even after the tale was describing his adult work. There was another similar anecdote later in the book of a scientist who got started young but did not receive the same lack of respect re: naming conventions; I have no sure explanation for that, and I realize it weakens my argument slightly. If I had kept reading, maybe I would have found other women who were not treated in this manner, but that’s not good enough reason for me to keep reading, nor to stop me from calling this out.)
To some this might seem like extreme nitpicking, but it left a foul taste in my mouth.
Issue #2: This book can’t decide what it wants to be. There’s science in it, sure, like the title says–I have read things about the rise of the dinosaurs, and I’ve stopped long before I get to their fall, but I’m sure it happens. And what science there has been so far has been interesting. I had a dinosaur phase as a kid, I was obsessed, I memorized names and average sizes and diets and whatever other facts I could get my hands on. Eventually I grew out of it–at least in the sense that I moved on to other fascinations–but I’m not not interested in dinosaurs as an adult, and the early part of this book promised me a paradigm shift, because I’ve been out of touch with the facts about them for thirty years. Thirty years can do a lot to change a scientific field. I was intrigued.
So why am I spending so much time reading about the boys’ club of field researchers? Why is the author trying to hard to seem cool? Why do I care who you have beers with and what type of pub you’re in? Why is so much of these first 99 pages about what chill guys you all are? I suppose that little peeks of the behind-the-scenes of field research could be fun if used sparingly, or even just to make me appreciate what hard work it can be to make these discoveries, but the tone I got from this was that the author desperately wants to prove he’s not a nerd, despite, you know, being a paleontologist and writing a book about dinosaurs. I’m not here for this ego stroking, I wanted to read about the world blowing up and how the dinosaurs dealt with it, until they couldn’t anymore. (There has been some of that, lava and continents tearing and noxious gases. That’s been fun.)
Issue #3: The quote that killed my patience with this book completely. For context, we’ve reached the part of the tale when Pangea splits and the resulting cataclysm precipitates another extinction event, toppling the ecosystem of the late Triassic period and starting the Jurassic, when dinosaurs flourished while many of their previously strong competitors died out.
After stating that the mystery of why the dinosaurs thrived while other groups went extinct “quite literally has kept me up at night” and going on to spend a full paragraph asking hypothetical questions about what might have caused it, he drops this bomb:
Maybe dinosaurs were just lucky. Perhaps the normal rules of evolution are ripped up when such a sudden, devastating, global catastrophe happens.
No. Hard no. The author’s personal failure to know what it was about the dinosaurs that spurred their survival does not equal “maybe evolution is meaningless.” No one else knows the answer yet either, and maybe we never will, but an absence of evidence does not mean we chuck our understanding of a fundamental principle of biology–I’m only going to question the validity of evolutionary theory if someone can present me credible evidence that some other system is responsible for producing the hundreds of years of observations that currently support evolution. There is a reason, or reasons, the dinosaurs were successful when other creatures were not, even if we will never pinpoint what those reasons were.
If Brusatte is joking or being hyperbolic with this statement for effect, I think poorly of him for bringing “luck” into a book about science and expecting me not to narrow my eyes at it. If he’s being serious, then I can’t take this work seriously, end of story.
Historicals have never been my go-to for romance, but as I’m still working through the many, many battered paperbacks I acquired several years ago at used book sales, attempting to change that fact, here I am with another middling review of a middling book.
Kleypas has fared better than some in my evaluation, but I’m still not enamored of her, and after four tries, I think she’s not my thing. Even among my general dislike for Regency England, this was just okay.
The problem is, as with many other similar novels, all the conflict is external. Sure, you might be persuaded into thinking that the love interests have internal conflicts about whether or not they should be together, but all their muddled thinking is strictly due to the rules of the society around them. Annabelle doesn’t like Simon because his personality and attitudes chafe against her delicate upper-crust sensibilities; Simon doesn’t even have an internal conflict, he just wants Annabelle however he can have her, and has no apparent problem switching from “mistress” to “wife” ambitions when the plot needs him too.
All this, to disguise the fact that once you set aside the classism and learned distaste of their relative positions in society, they’re actually perfect for each other; they have tons of fun when they forget they’re not supposed to.
And for some, I guess that’s the appeal of historical romances from this period (and any other that relies on strict class behavior keeping people apart,) but for me, it gets so tired, and this was a particularly tiring example.
But you’ll notice I still gave it three stars. So what did I like? Well, Simon is just fun, even if he’s not particularly deep. The writing style is smooth and palatable, without anything to keep me from being immersed in the story. And most importantly, this novel puts more emphasis than most on the importance of female friendship. Yes, the Wallflowers here band together with a husband-hunting scheme in mind, but their banter is hilarious, their personalities reasonably well-developed for being minor characters (though with plenty of room to grow in their own books later in the series) and they all do genuinely grow to care for each other, rather than using each other for their goal. I don’t plan on continuing the series because this subgenre continues not to be my cup of tea (outside of a very small pool of exceptional authors who could write phone books and I would still read them) but I do feel a twinge of sadness that I won’t be seeing the other three friends get their own happy endings, because I did enjoy them. Just not enough to keep wading through a genre I generally find mediocre at best.
After a long slump during the pandemic, I am working on Fifty-Five Days again. This rewrite has been difficult, but over the weekend I finished the new chapter I was stuck on for two months. (It stinks, but it’s done. There’s definitely at least one more drafting cycle coming before anyone but me sees this book in its entirety.)
I already know I respond productively to externally imposed structure–I’ve won all six NaNo events I’ve participated in since I started this blog, as well as twice before under a different name–so with Camp NaNo coming in July, this seemed like the right time to capitalize on someone else “making” me do something in order to keep myself motivated.
My plan: between now and July, keep working on the rewrite. I’ve got three chapters left of the first draft to work through, but I’m expanding the ending to cover what I breezed past originally (this ALWAYS happens to me with first drafts) so it may be as many as five or six more chapters between me and the end of the story.
For Camp: finish rewriting whatever I have left to do, then immediately start over with a line-editing/polishing draft. I know the conventional wisdom is to set a draft aside for a while before starting the next one, but I just took a nearly-three-month break from this, and I’ve had time to ponder what I still know is wrong with the story even if I didn’t finish this draft before the break. I feel ready to work again, and NaNo has always been an excellent motivator for me. The word count goal is still 50K words, which is not the entire draft, but I don’t want to set it higher because line editing is picky, delicate work, especially the way my process has grown over the years. Will it be faster than a full rewrite? Oh, lordy, I hope so. Will I get the entire draft done in a month? Probably not.
If any of you folks are participating as well, I’d love to add you to my friends list on the site! As I’m sure will be no surprise to anyone, over there I’m Elena Johansen. Happy writing!
It was actually a week ago, but I didn’t realize that morning, I already had a post up for that day, also time is a meaningless construct of human perception and all that…
When I started this blog, and when I started writing my first book (which was slightly earlier) I didn’t have a five-year plan. I had a one-year plan: get my book finished and released by the end of the year. And I did! And I managed that again in the two years following!
I had hoped, of course, to keep publishing at a rate of one a year (or slightly faster, as I refined my methods–after all, a lot of those lessons I only had to learn once and then keep applying to my process.)
But as I’ve discussed often enough before, 2018 and 2019 were difficult years for me with lots of personal upheaval, both negative and positive. Instead of two more finished works, I’ve got a pile of rough drafts and partial rewrites. I am still writing, but it’s been hard.
Now I’ve set myself the same goal I started with at the beginning: publish a book this year. But 2020 has thrown us all a series of increasingly challenging curveballs, though I’m still trying. I’ve got half a year to get Fifty-Five Days whipped into shape–I’m far ahead of where I was the same time in 2015 with What We Need to Survive. This could still happen, and I’m going to work as diligently as I can toward that goal.
As for the next five years…keep writing? Keep publishing? Hopefully get back to at least one release a year? Who knows!
Because I want to feel good about myself and my accomplishments for a minute or two, here’s my five years as a series of statistics:
Books published: 3
NaNoWriMo’s completed: 6 (every November + one spring Camp Nano)
Plot bunnies written down for possible future projects: 1
Unfinished first drafts: 2 (though one has been mined for another project and will never get finished)
Complete first drafts: 1
Partial second drafts: 1 (my current project!)
Complete second drafts: 1
Flash fiction posted: 9
Articles on editing: about a dozen (I need to overhaul my tagging system)
Articles on the writing process: well over a hundred
Book reviews written: 777
I know my following here is small, but I appreciate every single one of you and I hope you’ll stick with me as I work to get my blog and writing career back on track!
I was hoping this would be better than the first book, but it was worse. Even setting aside my own dislike of surprise pregnancy stories, this was worse.
Early in the story, maybe one or two chapters apart, our hero Mike offers two different versions of his reaction to waking up and discovering Indi left at the end of their weekend together without saying goodbye. First, he’s grateful and relieved that he didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of shooing his brief fling out of bed. (My reaction to this: kind of a dick move, but he’s got the whole book to grow into a better person, right?) But the second time he tells the reader how he felt, it was RAGE. RAGE that his little boho sexy beauty was gone, RAGE so bad that it took him a few days to feel able to interact with the rest of the world. (My two reactions to that: 1) how on earth can you feel both grateful and enraged that she left before you woke up, I don’t believe those feelings can coexist as you’ve presented them, and 2) am I really supposed to believe you formed such a connection with her in two days of marathon sex that you’re enraged that she left? Or is this rage because you no longer have access to her body?)
Because Mike has serious control issues about access to Indi’s body. Thankfully the narrative takes abortion off the table right away, Indi always intended to continue with the pregnancy, so at no point does Mike have to “convince” her not to abort. But he spends most of the book using emotional manipulation tactics to persuade her to allow him to raise the child rather than giving him up for adoption (I’m going with “him” because eventually they assigned “him” to the baby, whose gender was actually undeterminable at this point of her pregnancy.) Later in the story when she’s pretty okay with that idea, he ups the pressure and starts working on the idea of them sticking together as a family even though she’s made it clear she doesn’t want to be a mother.
But my problems don’t end there, because Mike also has a girlfriend, Skylar. He had his fling with Indi after Skylar left him, no issues with that, he was single. But they later got back together, and he’s about to propose. Literally, he intends to propose the evening of the day Indi re-enters his life. But Skylar is quite conveniently about to leave town on business, so instead of having to actually deal with the mess Indi’s making of his life plan and how it impacts his current relationship, the narrative shoves Skylar into a box for a while so Mike and Indi can have their screen time together. It takes until 70% for Mike to finally talk to Skylar about what’s happened and for them to break up with very little fanfare or negativity–but then, they were never a love match, they both say so, they were a high-powered business partnership willing to be married to each other for mutual social benefit and (presumably) sex. (I actually can’t recall if the book ever explicitly states that Mike and Skylar had a sexual relationship. Everything we do see of them together is incredibly dry and society-minded, so if you told me they weren’t sleeping together, I’d believe you.)
So, Mike is prone to controlling and manipulative behavior (remember, he’s the one in the first book who hired Chelsea in secret to deceive Adam in prepping for the company’s big presentation–that, at least, is consistent with his character) and also HE’S A CHEATER because he finger-bangs Indi but stops himself before they have penis-in-vagina sex, because apparently that’s the line where he thinks he’d be cheating. I guess it’s not “sex” to him if he doesn’t orgasm? Because Indi definitely does, and yeah, sorry, you’re a cheater, Mike, that was sex. You were having sex with Indi before you broke up with Skylar, and Indi even calls you on it, saying what you did “wasn’t fair to me or Skylar.” So, Indi, I guess you’re okay being with a cheater?
And man, I haven’t even gotten to how the entire book is the spawn of a single giant plot hole. Indi re-enters Mike’s life in the first place because she needs him to post bail for “breaking in” to Chelsea’s apartment because she’s not on the approved list of guests. It could all be cleared up with a single phone call before police ever get involved, but Chelsea’s on her honeymoon at a “no contact” resort, completely cut off from the outside world. Like, call the resort even if you can’t call Chelsea directly? They’ve got to have a policy in place for reaching guests in times of emergency. What if a guest’s family member died or something else life-altering like that? There’s absolutely no way they wouldn’t reach out to a guest in a crisis, and I think “loved one about to be arrested for a crime you could exonerate her from” would count. (But if we write that scenario logically there’s no plot, because she doesn’t need Mike for bail and then he doesn’t feel responsible for keeping her close by the rest of the book.)
I’m done, I’m out, I will not be continuing on with this series.
A solid follow-up to the amazing first novel of the series, but it didn’t quite live up to its predecessor for me.
The most impressive and emotional aspects, I found, were also some of the smallest. Most of the book is still “Isabella goes to do research, accidentally ends up involved in local politics, has a harrowing adventure,” and that’s all fine, I have no objections to the formula or most of how it was executed. But what I will take away from this, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the impending war between pseudo-African nations, is how the story handles women who don’t want to accept the narrow life society demands they live. It’s already obvious that Isabella herself will continue to reject that life, and she does, but the story also allows her to air her views on motherhood (which are shocking in the context of her society and unhappily, would still be the subject of criticism and censure by many today) and acknowledge the gender roles that limit women to being mothers in a way that never limits the fathers equally. On top of that, a secondary character, Natalie, gets to have her own (scanty but definitive) arc exploring her sexual identity, in the end, deliberately not choosing to marry and disavowing completely any interest in sex, no matter the gender of her partner. (Ace representation!)
Though it’s more minor, I also appreciate the growing relationship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker for being exactly what it is–awkwardly professional at first but eventually friendly, though dealing with the elephant in the room that others might expect them to engage in a romantic relationship. I found the entire dynamic charming.
What I didn’t like, strangely enough, was the end, and how flat and anti-climactic it felt. After all the adventure, Isabella goes through the end of the book entirely alone, we don’t find out what happens to the others for several chapters and even then they don’t reappear in the story until everyone’s safe at home in Scirland, a footnote. Isabella does her dramatic walk out of the jungle and saves the day–sort of–but then the book has to spend several chapters winding down through multiple layers of political maneuvering. It’s reasonably interesting, I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, but it’s such a letdown that the stage of the story I wanted to be her warm reunion with her colleagues/friends is actually forty pages of angry men bickering (or Isabella reporting that bickering in short, after the fact.) Sure, it concluded the plot adequately, but it didn’t feel like the proper end of the story.
This is an odd duck to review, because I liked a lot of it and disliked a fair bit too, and it took me quite a bit of thinking in the hour since I finished (thank you, the mindless task of hand-washing dishes) to figure out what the root of the problem is: a problem I’m not sure I’ve ever had with a book before, which is why it was so hard to identify.
I just met two well-realized, vibrant characters who are stuck in a plot that doesn’t deserve them.
Ledi is a fantastic deconstruction of both the generic Strong Female Character and the Strong Black Woman. She’s smart and determined, certainly, but she’s also decided the wisest course toward life success is to bend under the weight of her problems, not break herself against them; the “pushover” flaw I see other reviewers criticizing her for is a carefully chosen survival strategy, that is both easy to empathize with and heartbreaking to watch in action.
Thabiso manages to betray his privileged upbringing in so many small ways without being a complete jerk all the time, which is a feat, but also without coming across as stupid rather than simply out-of-touch. It’s a hard tightrope to walk and one I rarely see authors do well (or at least to my satisfaction; I’m looking at you, dime-a-dozen billionaire or CEO romances.) Going into his deception of Ledi on a whim, without a game plan for getting out of it safely, was a dumb move that can be attributed to his arrogance; by the time he actually needs to extract himself from his false identity, his feelings have gotten involved and you just know it’s going to be a spectacular mess, but by then I also liked him enough to be sympathetic even though it’s his own damn fault.
Once the jig is up, in most books I would expect a quick turn around, an underdeveloped ending where after a chapter or two of wallowing, all is forgiven and we get our HEA. But no, the reveal of Thabiso’s identity happens far closer to the halfway point, maybe around 60% (? I didn’t make a specific note of exactly when, but it’s earlier than I expected.) In theory, I like that it takes time to rebuild their relationship, it takes time for Ledi to learn to trust Thabiso again. That’s fantastic–in isolation.
The problem is that in the second “half” of the book, when this necessary time to rebuild is going on, we’ve got an entirely new country/culture, many minor characters, and two faintly ridiculous subplots shoehorned into a little more than a hundred pages. You mean to tell me the medical establishment of this fictional nation can’t tell the difference between poisonings and a disease? That a mere handful of cases with no clear pattern of infection is treated as an “epidemic?” That literally no one has ever detailed the effects of over-ingestion of a common plant to the region that is so ubiquitous to the culture that its scent is one of Ledi’s memory markers? We know the harmful effects of basically every single plant ever cultivated in any garden in the world, why on earth is this a knowledge gap the plot leaves for Ledi to intuitively fill? And how freaking obvious is it from the very moment Alehk conspicuously hands her a mug of tea that he’s behind it all? I didn’t even know before then that the mysterious disease was actually a series of poisonings, but as soon as a suspicious man bearing tea shows up, it blows the entire subplot open. And I don’t really understand his motives, because the whole traitors-in-her-history family dynamic around Ledi is rushed and underdeveloped, with the revelations coming fast and furious and not clearly stacking neatly with each other.
So, basically, the first part of the book (just over half) is slow and thoughtful and goes into great detail setting up the characters and the romance, and the second part (just under half) would really benefit from being expanded into an entire second book, given the rushed pace and half-assed-ness of the plots, so that it didn’t feel like nonsense that was killing time while Ledi and Thabiso reconciled. If it hadn’t been so rushed, there could have been other potentially nefarious characters present to disguise the identity of the true villain. There could have been more time spent developing Thesolo as a nation and people, more time devoted to expanding Thabiso’s parents past their Sternly Disapproving trope (which the Queen stumbles past, briefly, when she softens slightly towards Ledi by the end, but that didn’t feel earned to me.)
There could have been an ending that felt truly triumphant instead of banged-together out of necessity from plot-scraps from other, better stories. The first part was an updated Coming to America, but the second part was, at best, a confused mashup of any half a dozen bad medical thrillers.
Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book under 150 pages
Rating: 3/5 stars
It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit fairy tale, a lot dystopian, and I’m getting just a hint of budding romance. It’s a strange mix that makes a strange little book with some surprising strengths and some obvious flaws.
First, it’s pretty clear that this is just the first act of the story packaged as a single volume, because this is all set-up with very little internal forward motion. The book ends just after we get to the first goal post–we know Felix has to get the clock running, and he finally finds the clock. It’s an abrupt cut-off point, though it might be logical in the larger context of the story. But that’s a problem, isn’t it? I feel like I can’t evaluate this honestly because I’m aware that I’m trying to review just the first act of something larger, so of course it’s not going to feel complete and I’m going to have problems with it.
Second, doing my best to set that aside; I think there’s a lot of potential in the world-building, but it’s thrown at us willy-nilly. I find the concepts themselves interesting–how different would society look if no one needs to sleep or eat? What would happen if a dictatorship forcibly separated men from women to different parts of the planet and criminalized interaction between them? How effectively can a leader strip the world of its history and culture to recreate society in their image, and what technology would that take? But the flow of information is clunky, handed to us flatly instead of being discovered through narrative, and nothing is explored in any real depth. (I’m not a fan, specifically, of how casually rape is mentioned for shock value; it’s not treated seriously at all. I would rather lean in on the psychological horror of a prison where you’re never allowed to sleep while you remain standing immobile, packed in a room with the other prisoners you’re not allowed to speak to. That’s novel, that’s interesting, that’s a whole wealth of trauma to explore, so why even add off-hand “and if you do fall asleep the guards will take you away and rape you to death” and that’s that.)
So much of Felix and Astra’s conversation is a tense push-pull of unthinking assumptions and missing information, so why can’t more of the state of the world be revealed through them talking to each other? Astra knows more about how Felix lived than he knows about her, so why doesn’t he learn more from her than he does? (Stubbornness, I suppose, but I’m getting to that.)
The greatest strength of this work, though, are the characters. I don’t fully understand the world they’re living in yet (I’ve got the second and third books, or maybe I should call them Acts II and III, to help me with that) but I do understand, at least a little bit, the characters and their motivations. Even if I don’t get why Ulysses wants Felix to finish the clock (if these two kids are going to be rebels, why would they be supporting the status quo?) I do understand why Felix would feel compelled to follow the orders he’s been given, he was raised a soldier. Even if weaning him of the drugs that kept him in line is making him question his place in the world, his underlying drive would still be to do as he’s told, he’s just changed commanders. And Astra? She’s a born rebel whose family and whose own actions have placed her outside of the protection of the law. Of course she wants to discover the treasure of old, forbidden books that would tell her about how things used to be, how things could be again someday.
I’ll keep reading. I have hope for this story. But it’s kind of a rough ride getting there.
Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book over 450 pages
Rating: 5/5 stars
Reading this in just over a day as part of a readathon was a trip and a half, but honestly, even if I hadn’t been devoting as much free time as possible to reading, I would have had trouble putting this down. The tension starts right away, the action not long after, and then it’s insanity for half the book and good vs. evil for rest. It’s been a long time since I read a King novel that was as much a page-turner as this one, and the two of my favorites that stand out best to me–The Stand and Under the Dome–share a lot of common traits with this. Strong ensemble casts with interesting dynamics. An otherworldly pressure exerting influence on human behavior, bending it towards destruction and chaos. Equal shares of obvious death and creeping terror.
I often refer to King as one of my favorite authors, with the caveat that when he’s good, he’s great; but when he’s bad, he’s awful. I’ve read so many of his clunkers in a row, apparently, that I’d forgotten how persuasive a slap on the face his best works are.
I will say that this leans into Christianity far harder than either of the other works I’ve mentioned, even The Stand, and that’s saying something. As someone long divorced from her Christian upbringing, it was a strange experience to find myself so gripped by a narrative drenched in God and miracles, because usually I’m pretty jaded to it. But this wasn’t preachy (aside from clearly coming from someone who, at the time of writing, believed in God and miracles enough to use them positively in his fiction.) It was more that Christianity deeply informed the traits and behaviors of one character, and his actions gradually led others to believe. (Okay, yeah, David was a Jesus figure, I get it, he even did the loaves and fishes trick, it’s not subtle. I bring all this up because, somehow, I still loved the book anyway. That’s how compelling it was.)
I had a showerthought recently–more of a shower-brainstorming-session really–about blog post ideas, and how lax I can be about maintaining topics as series.
I had hoped to have a new Writing Homework post ready by today–a series whose last post was almost exactly a year ago–but fatigue has been kicking my butt lately, and what little energy I’ve had to write, I’ve actually managed to funnel into working on Fifty-Five Days, at least some of the time.
But if I want to continue WH, it would be helpful to take a look back at what I’ve already covered, right?
Just listing all of these has given me some ideas, which I’ll do my best to flesh out so this topic can go back to being a monthly post. I’d like to give my blog some actual writing content again soon–I know it’s been heavily reading-focused lately, when I manage to make posts at all. On the other hand, everyone’s been supportive and you’re not all abandoning ship, which I appreciate.
Ugh. I can’t fault it for being exactly what it says on the tin–dark, angsty, and burdened with near-constant sex. All of that is true. But it comes at the cost of having characters with personalities beyond “abusive and messed up” for the hero and “absolute doormat” for the heroine.
She even manages, somehow, to convince herself that she’s the one using him, despite the fact that, at the house after his wife’s funeral, he pulled her into a bathroom and starting taking her clothes off and proceeded to have sex with her. It’s not strictly non-consensual–she had plenty of opportunity to say no but never actually said yes either, and he certainly never bothered to ask.
But okay, fine, we’re setting up the “dark” tone and the hero has a hundred pages to get better, right? It comes along far too late and isn’t all that believable–suddenly there’s a hurricane! he could be in danger and she might never see him again and they might never figure out what to do about their super-twisted fuck-buddy situation! she’s worried! he shows up! he decides to turn over a new leaf and actually date her instead of just showing up at her house every Wednesday to have sex with her!
…really? A hurricane? I guess since she never once bothers to stand up for herself, it would take a natural disaster to make the hero change, because it’s not going to be anything she does.
The hero’s face-turn is a paper-thin veneer over an entire novella of abusive, possessive, unhealthy behavior, and the whole time THE HEROINE LITERALLY JUST LETS HIM DO WHATEVER BECAUSE SHE WANTS “TO BE THERE” FOR HIM.
I want to knock the rest of the series out this year, and while I read Dragons in April 2019, I’ve read so much else since (and so much has happened since!) that I didn’t remember the plot as well as I would like to before continuing on with the next novel. My original review was no help there, as I mostly spoke about the style of the book and how it made me feel, rather than any specifics of what happened.
So I reread, and I’m glad I did. Did I like the book as much the second time around? Nearly. Towards the end I was impatient with the intrigue plot that wraps everything up, because my memory had washed this title with a sort of science-based nostalgia, when in reality it’s just as much action and mystery. I felt scales tipping in that direction this time much more keenly, and while that doesn’t make it a bad book–far from it–it does take a little bit of the shine off, compared with what I remember.
This is actually the first time I’ve formally reread a book I previously reviewed, and I wasn’t even planning to write a second review for it, just make a few explanatory comments about why it was showing back up on the blog, and then I found I actually did have things to say. It’s still a great book, and I still recommend it.
The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book on a subject you know nothing about
Rating: 4/5 stars
This book turned my comfortable and complacent view of American history on its ear. I was aware before this that my decades-ago public-school education on the subject was lacking in nuance, and even to some degree sanitized, and my college education was spread across many other subjects–I never went back to fill in the gaps of what I knew I didn’t know, let alone question what I’d already been taught.
Almost all of it was inaccurate, as it turns out.
In addition to poking large holes in my concept of history, this gave me a new framework to think about racist ideas as a whole, with its assertion of a three-sided system rather than the simple two-sided one: the world isn’t divided into racist or non-racist, but segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist. This explained so much, and will give me a good grounding going forward in my anti-racism reading and learning journey. (At least until, and if, I come across a work presenting a different structure to the system of racist ideas.) Also of note, the assertion that racial hatred is not the source but the result of institutional racism, which actually comes from the political and economic self-interests of those in power; which is a complete reversal of how I had been taught to view racism, and again, it explains so much. People in positions of power create racist policies out of self-interest (thank you capitalism), which then creates the need to justify those policies, and out of those justifications, you get prejudice and intolerance and hatred.
My (minor) issues with this work are not content-based, but structural and tonal. This swings wildly and somewhat unpredictably between dry, factual history and excited activist exhortation, a sort of whiplash that never got easier for me to navigate. And while the structure appears neat from the outside, with the history broken into five parts surrounding a major historical figure of the day, so much of each section was completely unrelated to that person, and every so often, usually at the start of a chapter, the narrative would jump tracks from a tangent to drag itself back to that person, again, a sort of mental whiplash. It may be that these issues were more apparent to me because I was listening to the audiobook and not reading the text, where I wouldn’t have heard the changes in the narrator’s voice as the tone of the piece changed.
This might not have been the best choice for my first anti-racism read, because of its length and relatively dry historicality, but whatever flaws I find in the presentation don’t diminish the content. This was a valuable and eye-opening experience from start to finish.
Around the Year in 52 Books: a book with an emotion in the title
Mount TBR: 79/150
Rating: 2/5 stars
Part of me wants to say this is well-constructed, because its theme is crystal clear–communication is essential to successful relationships–and all the conflicts support that. You’d be surprised how often I see romances pile on dozens of unrelated conflicts onto their characters without even a hint of a central organizing theme.
But, on the other hand, the conflicts themselves are paper-thin, both ignored and then solved with no real effort. Adam got his pride and reputation ruined by the last women he was serious about, and he has Asperger’s, which in his case makes social interaction difficult for him. Chelsea values her career more than anything, to the point where she uncomfortably accepts the order to lie to a client (Adam) about her presence in his life, engaging in a business relationship with him under false pretenses.
Both of them start by telling themselves they should make it a personal relationship despite their obvious chemistry, though Adam folds on that far faster than Chelsea, who has far more reason to stand her ground. But she doesn’t (of course) and after an incredibly brief span of happiness together, everything blows up in their faces (also of course.)
But they both make huge changes/concessions in their lives almost instantly–Adam having an epiphany about trust, and Chelsea resigning from her job to prove love is worth more than her career–and while those about-faces make logical sense from a thematic standpoint, they come with basically no soul-searching, both of them in less than a day of story time. Then they apologize and get back together and she gets her job back and everything is totally fine now happy ending whee!!!
Also, there’s a stiff quality to nearly everything. Chelsea has no apparent personality or interests to speak of beyond her job, and Adam’s video game habit is poorly executed. Nobody calls video game characters “avatars.” Source: I’m a lifelong gamer. They’re playing a thinly-veiled version of one of the Uncharted games, apparently, based on the name and what little description is given. You’d just call the thing you control on screen a “character” like everyone else does. It makes no sense to use “avatar” in this context, because Uncharted specifically is a story-based game following a main character on his adventures, he’s how the player interacts with the video game, sure, but he’s not a meaningless shell encasing the player with no traits of his own.
Judging from other reviews, the techie-corporate aspect is just as poorly executed. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough during my reading to know the specifics of the industry, but the whole setup felt off. Adam’s best friend and COO hiring a PR firm but insisting they work undercover, essentially? How was anyone supposed to be successful in doing their job while having to disguise who they were or why they were there? If Adam hadn’t been attracted to Chelsea, how on earth would she have accomplished what was basically an impossible task, on her own, with no support or direction from her firm?
I have the second book in the series–they were both freebies or maybe 99 cents back when I picked them up–so I’ll read that too before I decide if this author is a no-go in the future for me, but I have to say, I was hoping for better.
I’m not going to detail my activism here, because I’m not asking for credit for it. I encourage everyone to seek out resources for donation, protesting, and supporting black businesses; other people have done a far better job compiling lists than I could, and especially as petitions and donation needs are changing day by day, anything I post here will likely become outdated quickly. Do a search, pick something you’re capable of, and do the work.
But there’s an aspect of my support where I already suspect things will get tricky. Book reviews.
I’m white. I’m in the process of educating myself about anti-racism. I have reviewed every book I’ve read since the beginning of 2016. I’m not going to stop reviewing, and I’m not going to skip the anti-racism books I’m reading–if anything, those will be the ones I need to bring the most attention to.
But I’m white, and my voice and my feelings should not be the important things in this context. On the other hand, I don’t know any other way to review a book I read other than giving my thoughts and feelings on it–I can’t separate who I am from my reviewing. It’s a tidy little dilemma, isn’t it?
I’ll be as transparent as I can about everything. Whatever white guilt or pain or outrage I feel as a result of learning what I will learn from these works, I will minimize, because that’s not important to anyone but me. To the best of my ability, I will not be any more or any less critical of these works.
But more than halfway through the first read on the list, I am already finding the edges of my own bias and assumptions, discovering that I still have more growing, learning, and more importantly, unlearning to do.
I will get undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, but I am committed to that growth. I am committed to becoming a better ally and a better person.
[Just wanted to make this all clear before the first book review drops on Friday, because boy, did I pick a doozy to start with.]
Last week, I was chugging merrily along through my backlogged romance ebooks–which stretch all the way back to stuff I got in 2017 and still haven’t gotten to–when I found a novel with one of the most confusing and frustrating first chapters I’ve ever read.
I read the second chapter. I was still confused. I read the first chapter again, twice. I read the second and third chapters and managed to push forward to about 18% before giving up.
By my own standards, I could count that book as “read”–in the sense that I attempted to read it and did not finish, but I read enough to articulate why I wasn’t going to finish. You all know me by now, I’m firmly in favor of DNF reviews when they’re warranted.
But I didn’t review this. I simply deleted it from my Goodreads like I never owned it. I’m not counting it for my Mount TBR. I didn’t feel like I could review it, it was so bad and I was so confused.
Why am I talking about it at all, then? I considered doing a live-blog reading of it on Tumblr, those always look like such fun when my mutuals do them. But those are generally best-received when the book is either a new release, an already popular book, or a well-known love-to-hate-it book. This random romance novel? None of the above.
I considered breaking down its flaws for illustrative and humorous purposes here, chapter by chapter, a la Jenny Trout and her infamous series on the Fifty Shades books. But that felt like too big a commitment, and while I have no idea how monetarily successful this random novel’s author is compared to me, we are both indies–if I went after this novel, I wouldn’t be punching up. Sideways, at best. I didn’t feel right about that.
What I can do is share all the things I think it did wrong in that first 18% and why I found them so offensive, from a writerly perspective.
No matter how often general writing advice says so, “in medias res” is not right for every story. The first chapter details a non-romance story line, but the Hero is already present and already in a relationship with the Heroine. Then the second chapter jumps back three months, before the relationship begins, to detail how the Hero met, not the Heroine, but the Heroine’s birth mother. Except I haven’t been given any reason (other than my confusion) to want to know why he’s meeting her and not the Heroine.
Too many names, too many questions raised. The first chapter is a scene with three people waiting to be joined by a fourth. The Hero (named,) the Heroine (named,) the birth mother (no name given,) and the half-brother/son (no name given.) But later in the chapter, the Heroine’s internal narration briefly mentions her uncle by name, and then an actual internal thought gives us another name that is not connected to anyone. The thought is literally just “If [name]–“, which doesn’t lend any context. I had to read until nearly halfway through the second chapter to discover it’s the birth mother’s nickname. (Not even her real name, which is given when she’s introduced in chapter two, at the “beginning” of the story.) That could have easily been included in the first chapter simply by having someone address her directly. Instead, I was left wondering a) why my “romance” novel was starting with a long-lost-family reunion story line and the romantic relationship itself was passingly mentioned as already underway; b) how it worked out that the story was about a woman reuniting with her lost son and not the heroine herself, despite the woman only being referred to as her “birth mother, so was the Heroine adopted or what?; and c) why was the Hero there at all and how was he involved in their reunion. Okay, yes, your first chapter should raise questions for your readers, but not to the point of frustration and confusion. Also, none of these questions I had are about the romance itself, which is a problem.
Killing narrative time instead of answering questions. When we finally “meet” the Heroine in the chronological story line in Chapter 3, she spends the front half of the chapter agonizing over having forgotten to bring a gift for when she met up with her birth mother (still don’t know why that’s happening or how their lives disconnected from a standard parent-child relationship) and then the second half inside a chocolate shop going on ad nauseam about chocolate and how wonderful it is. Toward the very very end of the chapter, she meets the Hero, who has also dropped into the shop, but their interaction lasts about ten seconds, narratively speaking, with no sparks and only the barest hint that they already knew each other from Way Back When.
Obvious inconsistencies don’t hide secrets very well. So I did eventually get far enough to answer the “what the heck is going on with this family” question, and I’m not sure the early reveal was intentional or not. Remember how the Heroine’s uncle is briefly mentioned in Chapter 1? He shows up again later in casual conversation as the Heroine’s brother. At first, I was like, that’s obviously a mistake, how did no one catch that? Then I thought, okay, it’s not terribly uncommon to name kids after their aunts and uncles, but this makes it sound like they’re the same person… which is when I realized they were, because the Heroine was raised alongside her “birth mother” as her sister. She was a baby born to a young woman whose mother pretended to be the baby’s mother. The story itself confirmed that not long after, which is why I’m not sure if this inconsistency was intended as a clue or a simple mistake. This is what the author spent four chapters writing awkwardly around, for the sake of a shocking reveal. And by the way, the romance still hasn’t started yet.
Genre expectations, people. I’m not saying every romance has to be in alternating third-person perspectives, following the same structure of meet one lead in Chapter One and the other in Chapter Two. (Though it’s common method because it’s a successful one.) There’s a lot of ways to skin this cat. But if I can read the first 18% of a romance novel and the two leads have only met briefly in a public place and exchanged less than two minutes of pleasantries, while the entire rest of the book is devoted to what should be a subplot at best–then that’s not actually a romance novel, it’s a shaky and awkward start to a piece of women’s fiction about the fallout of teenage pregnancy and what it’s like to be part of a secretly non-conventional family structure. Which is not the novel I thought I was getting.
I’m sure I’ve revealed enough detail about the novel for someone who’s read it to potentially recognize it; that can’t be helped, not if I want to provide enough meat to substantiate the issues I wanted to discuss. But my intention here is not to publicly decry the author for writing a crummy romance–if it were, I would have splashed the cover right at the top of the post. My intention is to be able to share the flaws I perceived in the work in such a way others could learn from them, without shaming the author directly, because that just didn’t feel right to me here. I have no problem posting honest reviews of bad books, as anyone who’s followed me for any length of time will know–I’m not kind to books that piss me off. But this was bad on such a different level that I wanted to treat the book differently, as a learning opportunity instead of a punching bag.