Writers, Watch This: Lindsay Ellis

Last week, thanks to YouTube’s algorithms noticing my husband and I watch a lot of critique on movies, television, and literature, we discovered Lindsay Ellis’ channel. We’re not even remotely through watching all of it, because there’s a fair bit and we’re also watching a lot of anime this season, but so far we’ve knocked out videos on the death of the Hollywood Musical, critiques on the adaptations of Rent and The Phantom of the Opera, and her video-letter of apology to Stephenie Meyer about the way she was treated surrounding Twilight and its movie adaptations. All fantastic stuff.

But I probably wouldn’t have brought her up here on the blog if the last video we watched hadn’t hit so close to home — Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding.

It’s an excellent critique of the many problems with the movie, which she quickly summarizes so you don’t have to have watched it first. (And from the sound of it, I’m glad I didn’t, and don’t intend to now.)

I recommend you watch her video, of course, but if you don’t have the 45 minutes to spare right now before you finish reading this post, the TL;DR of it is that Bright slaps the fantasy elements it wants onto an obvious copy of our world without doing enough (or much of anything, really) to integrate those elements in any natural or believable way.

Why did this hit me so hard when her other videos mostly made me nod along with her points and laugh at her wit? Because she could have been talking about my current WIP.

#spookyromancenovel, which you’ve all been hearing tidbits about for almost a year now, is a combo of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, very much in the vein of the outstanding Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (Which faithful readers will be aware I’ve completed over the last two years.) My alternate contemporary setting isn’t the same, and wears a lot of different influences on its sleeves, but that’s definitely a big one.

Something the Kate Daniels series does to ground its alternate history solidly is have a recent divergence point from “real” history. Which is something that Ellis points out Bright doesn’t do–it constantly references events that happened two thousand years ago, but expects us to believe that despite all these other races cohabiting the world with humans, nothing else major is different–we still get the Alamo, and Shrek, and possibly the #BlackLivesMatter movement…which doesn’t really make sense. (She points out how rare successful alternate-history media is, with Watchmen and, oddly enough, Who Framed Roger Rabbit being the prime examples.)

Seeing this all dissected so neatly made me realize my own worldbuilding is lazy, because I never explain at all when or how my society diverged from our history.

It’s a flaw I’ve been accused of before. I never explain the source of the plague or anything about it in the What We Need trilogy, and my beta readers had me defending that. Ultimately, and I know I’m biased because it’s my own work, but ultimately, it’s justified because a) the story of the plague itself wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, hence starting six months later; and b) it’s okay that the reader isn’t given the explanation because none of the characters can provide it. They’re all just as much in the dark about the origins and specific pathology of the plague.

#spookyromancenovel can’t use that justification. I have werewolves peacefully coexisting in the same city as humans, without any history to explain why. I have a vampire coalition campaigning for political power so that vampires can be recognized as citizens under human government, affording them rights and protections they don’t have because, legally speaking, they’re dead, not undead. But when did that start? How did humans react to the knowledge that werewolves and vampires are real? Not to mention my twist on gargoyles, also real, flocking around the city like overgrown and particularly nasty pigeons. And magic being an actual thing–when did witches come out of the closet, so to speak? How did that go?

My characters, they would know these things. If you asked, they should be able to tell you at least a vague outline of why the vampire political movement started, or when gargoyles started showing up perched on tall buildings, or when werewolves started immigrating to the city and creating their own neighborhoods.

But they can’t, because I don’t know. I wrote a cool world by slapping some fantasy elements onto the world I know, and called it a day.

…Of course, that’s not the end of it, because I haven’t finished. The second draft is finishing up its beta round now. I can still fix all of this, though it’s obviously going to take a lot of work. Creating alternate history is hard, and creating good, successful alternate history is even harder.

So I sat through 45 minutes of critique that was never intended to be directed at me, feeling uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed by how well it did apply to me, and came out of it determined to do better. Thank you, Lindsay Ellis.

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The Reading Frenzy September 2019 Challenge: Back To School, Hogwarts-Style

I’m in the home stretch for some of my year-long reading challenges, on pace to finish a little early, and I’ve been having fun doing The Reading Frenzy’s monthly mini challenges since I joined. For September, it’s a back-to-school, Hogwarts-themed challenge.

I took a good, hard look at my TBR and did my best to choose books that would strike something off another reading challenge list, and mostly succeeded. I’m also (finally) caught up with all the books I got in 2016, my first big year of hoarding books–as of today, I have seven left to either read or unhaul, because after three years of sitting on my shelf, do I really want to read it?

The Chosen Ones:

1. A book featuring magic (or brown on the cover): Bride of the Wolf, by Abigail Barnette
2. A book from my TBR jar: Sweet Sinful Nights, by Lauren Blakely
3. A science fiction book: Alterworld, by D. Rus
4. A book with stars on the cover: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
5. A book that features the good vs. evil trope: It, by Stephen King
6. A book that has an animal character: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Not that one or more of those might change–I don’t think I’ve gotten through a Reading Frenzy Challenge yet without substituting at least one book out for a different choice, partway through. We’ll see if this month is the exception!

What are you looking forward to reading in September? Any new challenges you’re participating in?

This Week, I Read… (2019 #34)

112 - Muse of Nightmares

#112 – Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

  • Read: 8/14/19 – 8/17/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (35/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In the first book, a number of oddities and mysteries were set up, leaving me eager for the rest of the story. I can say the conclusion does pretty much answer all of them, but it takes a weird and twisting path to get there.

I feel like this story, despite having clear goals to accomplish, is ultimately less focused than the first book. Nearly everything there was framed around the relationship between Lazlo and Sarai–even before they met, it was clear they were going to meet, and that was the moment we were hurtling toward in the beginning. (For long enough to make you maybe-forget about the very beginning of the book, when Sarai’s death is laid out neatly as a spoiler, but with absolutely no context.) Other characters occasionally had POV scenes or chapters when the plot demanded it, but on the whole, it was the Lazlo and Sarai Show, with each chapter generally sticking to one or the other.

Muse, on the other hand, jumps between characters and story threads constantly, even to the point where in a single scene where many characters are present, there’s extensive head-hopping. I hate head-hopping. I hate having to readjust my perspective to align with a different character with no warning, especially multiple times on a page. And I get it–when the big stuff goes down and you’ve got Minya and Nova and Sarai and Lazlo all in the same place, all thinking/feeling important things that the reader needs to know, head-hopping is the easiest way to get it all on the page.

But it’s kind of a mess to read, and I didn’t enjoy that part of it. It robbed the climax of some of its thrill and emotional impact, when I constantly had to sort out who I was suddenly supposed to be focused on.

The story is still interesting, and I’m still invested in these characters–mostly. I think I never felt as much sympathy for Minya as I was supposed to? The relevation about her and the Ellens felt flat to me. On the other hand, Thyon got way more sympathetic and fascinating and I honestly wish there had been more time spent on his development, though I don’t know where it would have fit. And I’m thoroughly delighted by the direction of Eril-Fane and Azareen’s subplot. So there’s plenty of good to balance out my frustration with the bad. And the bad is a pretty minor bad, all things considered. But this wasn’t the same ecstatic thrill ride I experienced in the first book.

#113 – Once Upon a Coffee and Once Upon a Setup, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 8/17/19 – 8/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (72/100)
  • Rating: both 3/5 stars

Pairing these together as short novellas from Nolan’s Wishful romance series, which I decided was time to “finish,” as in cleaning up what I had left on my Kindle, these two and one more full-length novel.

Once Upon a Coffee is cute and charming and an excellent example of Nolan’s easy-to-read narrative style. I fell right into this short story about a blind date mix-up, and I liked the characters enough to wish we were getting a whole novel out of it–the ever-present danger with short stories and novellas, that they’re good enough to make the reader want more.

And there is plenty more to be had in the Wishful series, though I don’t particularly think this is a good entry point, despite that #0.5 label–it’s set in Wishful, sure, but no major characters make an appearance (which is fine, considering the context) but also these characters, to my memory, don’t show up at all in the three Wishful novels I’ve already read.

So it’s cute and charming, but it’s also isolated and left feeling both hopeful and unfinished.

I enjoyed Once Upon a Setup, but I’m left honestly questioning why it’s a novella and not just the first few chapters of book 4, which is going to finish the romance set up here. I checked, and book 4 doesn’t break 200 pages, so why is the story chopped in two? (My gut says “marketing” but I hope not.)

I have some of the same issues with this story-bit that I had with book 3, because I still haven’t watched White Christmas so I still don’t get the references. I’m really hoping that we’re going to stop beating that horse in book 4. Please.

All that being said, I like Myles. I like him a lot. It can be hard to write the funny-charming guy as a romantic lead, because humor is so personal and not everyone is going to respond. But beyond the funniness, he’s a thoughtful, respectful guy. Piper doesn’t get quite as much time put into her personality here, but I mostly remember her from before, so it’s okay that Myles gets more development, especially when he’s the big draw.

I’m starting book 4 next, so let’s hope it pays this off.

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#114 – Just For This Moment, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 8/18/19 – 8/19/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (73/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I wanted to like this early on so much more than I actually did in the end. It’s a much more plausible fake/quickie marriage setup than I’m used to seeing in my romance novels, and I do appreciate a good setup. I’m even on board with the external obstacles thrown in their way, forcing their plan to adapt in ways neither of them anticipated.

It’s the internal conflicts that piss me off. A character misunderstanding something they overheard eavesdropping, whether intentional or not, is just such a lazy way to introduce conflict. I don’t like it in other romance novels where I’ve encountered it, and I don’t like it here. To the book’s credit, the character does get called on it–when Piper goes to Tucker to hide out in her confusion and upset, Tucker insists she talk to Myles about it. Which is something, at least. But it’s still lazy. And having that bundled together with an unexpected pregnancy, another tired trope that isn’t usually handled well, this really was a let down. Again, it’s not quite as bad as it could be–since the marriage was such a rush job, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have talked about their desire for or timeline regarding kids, and the birth control thing was just an accident–those do happen. But it leads to an epilogue that’s very “a kid fixes everything” in its attitude, because the best thing to happen to a rushed relationship and marriage is adding a kid to the mix? No, no, I don’t buy it.

So the first 60% of the book, leading up to the wedding itself and events immediately following it, is fantastic, the exact fun and “madcap” romantic romp the blurb promises. That part of the book is five stars. Then the remaining 40% is a mess and a downer–I accept that there are consequences to rushing a marriage like that, even with someone you think you can make it successful with, but it’s just smashed together out of lazy tropes and ends happily with very little reason to.

115 - Saga, Vol. 8.jpg

#115 – Saga, Vol. 8, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/20/19 – 8/21/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (36/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s not that I don’t still love this series, because I do, but something about this volume felt off to me, and I didn’t love it as much as most of the earlier volumes. Something about the pacing made this read so fast, it didn’t have as much impact, or I didn’t feel as satisfied at the end.

Still, it’s full of the fun twists we’ve all come to expect in theory without necessarily being able to predict in practice. I did see Petrichor and the Robot Prince getting together, but only a few pages before it actually happened, so it’s not like the pieces weren’t there for me to put together. Ghus is still amazing and I love him. When Squire called Hazel his “fair maiden” I was like, “oh no tell me that’s not where this is headed” but she (as narrator) immediately refers to him as her brother, so good, that’s not where we’re headed. And given the brotherly-love feeling of most of this volume, I look forward to seeing that plot line in the future.

But there’s not much future left at this point–how could the story possibly end? Maybe that’s where some of my dissatisfaction with this particular volume is coming from, I can’t picture an ending coming from this. The most basic story trajectory has always been obvious and firmly in place–it’s Hazel’s story, from conception and birth through childhood, at least, so far. But when will it end? With only one volume left, at the pace we’re going, she’s not going to die peacefully of old age. I don’t even know that we’re going to see her as an adult, and I sure hope we’re not going to see her kick the bucket as a kid, or at all, really. But I have no basis for predicting how far the story still has to go, even with most of it done. That unmoored feeling of being unable to form expectations about a story never sits well with me, though Saga has been fun, interesting, and inventive enough to distract me from it this whole time. In this volume, perhaps, maybe it didn’t accomplish that as well, and that’s what’s left the faint irritation in my brain that says I should have liked it better.

116 - Saga, Vol. 9

#116 – Saga, Vol. 9, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/21/19 – 8/22/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (37/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was under the mistaken impression that this was the end, until I came to Goodreads to be all like WTF JUST HAPPENED and I saw people talking about the hiatus. I was incorrect, but I have to say, reading this volume under the mistaken impression that it’s the final one definitely left me disappointed.

Treating it as the cliffhanger it’s intended to be, instead, I like it better. Unsurprisingly.

So a lot of things happen, as usual, and a lot of them are still unexpected, because this story has a consistent track record of putting together plot twists that make perfect sense in hindsight while being nearly impossible to predict. Lots of characters die in this volume–lots of named, important characters, that is, because the earlier volumes are also filled with character deaths. But this had a far greater impact. (Which was part of me going WTF when I still thought this was the end of the story.)

I’m looking forward to more in the future, but I know I’m going to have to reread everything when the new stuff drops, because there are so many interwoven plot threads, and while there are definitely events I will never forget, there are going to be plenty of references to the story that would leave me scratching my head otherwise. Which means dragging my soul through this meat-grinder of a cliffhanger again, something I can say I’m looking forward to as much.

Six More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Employment

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Most characters in most settings have to make a living somehow, which generally means they’ve got a job. How important that job is or isn’t to the story is going to depend on the story, but if we’re spending a lot of point-of-view time with that character, we’re likely to see them on the job; even if we don’t, what their work is should have some kind of tangible impact on who they are. I can’t count the number of romances I’ve read where one or both of the leads has a profession but is never seen at work and never mentions it; or they work in such a generic office setting doing such generic tasks (if anything) that I have no idea what the company they work for actually does. And while I’m most familiar with the romance genre, that’s not the only culprit–how many movies have I seen over the years where I couldn’t tell you, after the movie ends, what any of the characters did for a living, despite being set in modern day, with adult characters?

(I can’t find the source again, but years ago I saw a quote about how, for a while, everyone in the movies was an ad executive, because it meant they made good money but had little responsibility. The implication being, they could do whatever or be wherever the plot needed them to do or be, and also, it was blanket permission to be smarmy, like you’d expect a Hollywood ad executive character to be. I really, really wish I remember the quote better so I could find it again and credit it properly.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve just seen a fantastic example of characters with jobs that matter: Steve and Robin slinging ice cream at the mall in Stranger Things 3. Steve needs the job because he’s not going to college. Robin’s reasons aren’t as clearly articulated, but it’s not unusual for kids to have summer jobs, so we can roll with that. Where they work places them both in a position to be involved with the plot as the season unfolds. Same for Nancy and Jonathan interning at the newspaper.

So, with all that in mind, here are some questions to consider when giving your characters a job, or not.

1. If they don’t work, is it by choice, or are they incapable for some reason such as disability, legal status, etc.? How do they support themselves otherwise?

2. Is this job their dream job, a step along the way to it, or completely unrelated? Do they even have a dream job?

3. What’s involved in the day-to-day work? Is it physically demanding? Mentally taxing? How much time does it take out of their day, and how do they feel when they’re done? Does this effect serve the larger story, or work against it?

4. How long have they been at this job? How did they get it? What sorts of privileges come with their position, if any?

5. Are any of the scenes of your story going to take place at that character’s job? If so, how many coworkers are likely to be there, and how many do you intend to utilize? Are they friends with your character, rivals, indifferent? How does their presence mesh with your story’s needs?

6. If nothing story-related is going to happen on the job, how much of the stress (or happiness, or satisfaction) from working does your character bring home at the end of the working day? How does it affect their mood? Does it affect their relationships, like if they work late constantly, are they missing dates or time with friends?

As usual, some or all of these questions, this advice, might not apply to your story. If you’re not working with a real-world setting, you’ve got world-building to do that’s going to include jobs, some of which might not exist yet. Or if you’re working in a historical setting, you’ve got research to do about what sorts of things people did in that place and era, again, jobs that might not exist anymore. In either case, some of my advice will still be relevant, but not everything. Use this as a jumping-off point to think about to make sure your story isn’t two incredibly bland office drones falling in love outside of work while I, your reader, am shouting internally, but what do they actually do all day?

This Week, I Read… (2019 #33)

107 - Saga, Vol. 6

#107 – Saga, Vol. 6, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/9/19 – 8/10/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (33/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As usual, when I get farther and farther into a series I love, I find it harder and harder to write coherent reviews, as they generally become a list of highlights of my favorite parts. So here’s the list for the sixth volume: Ghus is still the best and I love him. I’m happy to see the reporters come back, even if I’m hesitant about what they’re trying to do because breaking Marko and Alanna’s story could be a triumphant ending or the beginning of everything going horribly wrong–it’s not like I can accurately predict anything ahead of time about a story this wacky, as the brilliance of its plotting is best visible through hindsight, not foresight. I definitely love that this series has always surprised me, and still is–Petrichor being an example, not because of the complexity of her identity, but because surprise! she’s on the ship now, and that’s a new conflict to explore.

What else, what else. I’m liking the kid Hazel is growing up to be so far, it’s charming to see her so trusting, given her unconventional and event-filled upbringing. I can see the beginning of her trajectory from unformed babyhood toward the narrator we’ve been listening to the whole time. And her reunion with Marko is just heart-breakingly adorable.

I love this series.

108 - Saga, Vol. 7

#108 – Saga, Vol. 7, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/10/19 – 8/11/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (34/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Stop stomping on my heart like this, please. That ending!

Some stuff I like from this volume: Petrichor keeps being interesting. Hazel’s first kiss. The line about unfulfilled relationships being “potential energy,” that hit me right in the gut. Also being punched in the kidneys by the multiple quiet tragedies that comprised the ending. On a lighter note, the cute little furry people of Phang were so adorable, and then, on a heavier note, that just made the ending hurt more.

Seriously, there are only two volumes left, so I knew things had to start going (more) wrong than they had been, but I’m really torn up about this!

109 - Keys to the Castle.jpg

#109 – Keys to the Castle, by Donna Ball

  • Read: 8/11/19 – 8/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (69/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A key in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I almost put this down after Chapter 2, when Ash was introduced and I didn’t like him one bit. I didn’t like the way he spoke to his secretary, I didn’t like the way he spoke to his mother. I didn’t like his attitude at all.

But I had liked the first chapter, introducing Sara, just fine, so I figured I’d keep reading until the two future lovebirds met, and see if I liked the way Ash spoke to her. It was like he was a different person entirely, and somehow, I read the next two hundred pages in one sitting.

That isn’t to say this is an amazing book, because now that I’m finished, it’s really just a few thin character archetypes in a trench coat. Sara is the weepy but determined American widow, headstrong and occasionally foolish. Ash is the suave, charming British lawyer (as opposed to the rotund, bumbling British lawyer) who is used to getting what he wants and can’t imagine this widow standing in his way. His ex-wife Michele is the worst of the lot, a conniving French viper who has no heart, only machinations. Ash’s mother isn’t all that great, either, an interfering Mother Knows Best woman who takes every opportunity to scold her child, and her future daughter-in-law, into doing her bidding. When the story adds the little girl Alyssa to the mix, she’s entirely too lovable and perfect–her existence is a complication to Sara and Ash’s plans, but not her person itself, whom they both adore.

It’s all so, so slick, especially when this soap-opera worthy plots and lies and schemes are set against a crumbling French ruin in an otherwise idyllic setting. I read it so fast because there was nothing to grab onto to slow me down, nothing that ever gave me pause or made me think too hard.

And while the setting is romantic and there’s tons of tension between the leads, a great deal of that tension ends up being because Ash, both in a professional capacity and a personal one, spends most of the book hiding truths from Sara. Sometimes it’s outright lying to manipulate her (even though I can see, in his twisted lawyer brain, how he believes he was acting in good faith on Alyssa’s behalf) and the rest of the time it’s simply failing to give her relevant information in ways he sees as for her own good.

The conflict between them is so one-sided, and were I Sara, I could never trust him. It’s just not credible to me that she does, let alone falls in love with him. Or maybe I could grant that, for all his charming ways, but loving and trusting aren’t always the same thing, and when presented with the proof of his misdeeds, she forgave him when I would have slammed the door in his face. I’m not on board with that kind of romance.

110 - Fixed on You.jpg

#110 – Fixed on You, by Laurelin Paige

  • Read: 8/12/19 – 8/13/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (70/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This book came to me as a full-length bonus novel attached to another Paige work that I was surprised how much I enjoyed, so I was on board with reading more, even if it was an entirely different series.

Sadly, I can’t say I enjoyed this one nearly as much.

I like dominant men just fine, but they’re usually found in BDSM novels where there’s context and structure for them, whereas here Hudson just has free reign to be a complete and utter creep. Anyone who comes on that strong, and to his employee, no less, is just disgustingly unattractive no matter what his other qualities. The very fact that he had to say to Alayna on multiple occasions, “No, you don’t work for me, you work for an establishment I own,” just screams impropriety because there’s really no functional difference as far as the story’s concerned.

And then he “hires” her to be his fake girlfriend, but they’re still going at it like rabbits “off-duty.” I mean, there’s compartmentalization, and then there’s this nonsense. He wipes out Alayna’s student loan and credit card debts as payment for her “work” as his fake girlfriend, but somehow that’s not paying for sex, just because the sex isn’t part of the arrangement and they’re doing that separately? No, no, I don’t buy it. Especially when she specifically says “no sex today” on one of their dates, and he comes into her dressing room and screws her anyway. It’s not depicted as rape, but Alayna’s internal monologue states something like “I never said no, but he never asked.” UH YEAH YOU SAID NO WHEN YOU TOLD HIM NO SEX TODAY AND HE AGREED.

So Hudson doesn’t respect clear boundaries, yet that’s okay somehow, because that’s Alayna’s entire character. She’s had therapy for her obsessive relationship issues, so from the very start, it’s a terrible idea for her to get involved with a man she finds attractive and wants to bang but who assures her that he’s not capable of love so they’re never going to have a real relationship. A smart woman would have walked away, but Alayna needed the money, and I feel that (except that the threats from her brother about cutting her off financially never actually materialized later so she never struggled for anything…you know, her entire motivation for agreeing to this scheme.) And, big surprise, over the course of the story she fixates on Hudson and falls in “love” with him. I’m putting that in quotes because even at the very, very end when Hudson realizes that weird feeling he’s feeling must be love, they don’t act like they’re in love, they act like they’re in lust, and anything approaching tenderness instead of passion just falls flat.

It’s a train wreck of a relationship that’s held together with lots of sex and not a lot of anything else.

111 - The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

#111 – The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

  • Read: 8/12/19 – 8/14/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (71/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A book in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

One technical issue that I don’t usually need to bring up: I was reading the ebook version, so I have no idea if it carries over the print books, but I had great difficulty reading the font chosen for the journal entries, and they weren’t the majority of the book, but definitely a significant portion. I increased the font size on my reader, which I rarely need to do, but it didn’t really help, because my comprehension problem was with the extreme slant of the font. Eventually I got used to it, but it definitely detracted from my reading enjoyment.

Now, about the story. I dig post-apocalyptic fiction in general, and I enjoyed a lot about this–a PA world viewed entirely through the lens of female sexuality and reproduction? Sign me up! It explores more types of male-female relationship dynamics than just “all men devolve into rapists because of the scarcity of women,” though that is the major dynamic we’re exposed to in the beginning of the story. It’s a grim and frighteningly possible world, but it’s not all bad out there in the wilderness.

What I really want to talk about, though, are the things that kept this great book from being amazing. Font issues aside, the journal entries sometimes didn’t make complete sense to me. The protagonist’s tendency to shorthand with plus and minus signs is perfectly understandable in theory, but I didn’t always follow the meaning of the more esoteric word equations she laid out with them. Then, I had trouble tracking how long the story had been going on, despite the dates given (or guessed at) in the journal, because every few chapters it seemed we were jumping forward in time to hear the end of the story of some side character that was being written out of the main plot. While I enjoyed some of those moments of closure, they did break up the flow of things, and trying to track how long it had been since the plague got confusing. I think the information was there, if I’d been taking notes, but that’s not something I generally feel like I need to do for a book I’m reading for enjoyment.

My last quibble is a larger and more personal one, because the unnamed protagonist is clearly bisexual, but we have a case of The Missing B Word. The midwife says to one companion, who asks if she’s a dyke, I mostly dated women but my most serious romantic relationship was with a man, so whatever you want to call that. (I’m probably paraphrasing slightly, I have a terrible time getting quotes verbatim from memory.) She won’t call herself bisexual, when there’s basically no other way to read it. I cringed, waiting for the “I avoid labels” line that media creators use so they won’t have to use the dreaded B word. It didn’t come then, but the attitude behind it comes up again late in the story with a journal entry from a man who ends up paired up with another man, a more effeminate one who doesn’t mind living as a woman in their relationship, but the first man doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself “gay” and writes that the midwife says he doesn’t have to call himself that if he doesn’t want to. Which is true, of course. But there’s a difference between portraying a character that obviously has internal issues with the word “gay” and struggles with self-identification because of those issues, and just breezing right past the issue of explicitly naming the protagonist’s sexuality. Bisexuality gets so little good representation in general, and then even when it’s present, it often goes unnamed, and here I just don’t see the point of pretending it’s ambiguous or defying labels when it’s just not. The midwife has dated men and women. She’s slept with men and women. Since the narrative is never about her struggling with how she feels about her sexuality, how she’s dealing with being bisexual (or not,) I don’t see any reason she shouldn’t call herself bi, and I’m angered by that lack of affirmation, because it’s something my community is so often denied.

 

Let’s Talk about Tropes #11: The Character in the Fridge

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I just watched the first episode of The Boys this week.

I have not read the comics, but I’m loosely familiar with Garth Ennis’ style from Preacher; I’ve read the first volume and intend to read the rest, and I watched the first season of the adaptation but lost track of it amidst the ninety million other shows to watch and haven’t continued. I know what kind of headspace his work creates, how gory, brutal, disturbing, and darkly humorous it can be.

I was also forewarned by both my husband (who has read the source material) and a good friend (who binged the entire show before I started) that this story is intended, in basically every way possible, to be upsetting and make the reader/viewer uncomfortable.

Brilliant success, there.

A lot of seemingly good people in this story do a lot of horrible things, but it’s the inciting incident that sets the tone, that grabs you by the stomach and makes you want to puke. So, obligatory warning, spoilers below for the first episode of The Boys.

On the surface, I was thoroughly disgusted by Robin’s death. It’s gore on a level I rarely see, for starters, with the slow-motion blood-drenching. When the camera pans down to show Hughie still holding her dismembered hands, I felt actively sick. And then, as I had time to absorb the implications of what happened, I was sickened by the apparently poor choice of having the white protagonist’s girlfriend be a woman of color and immediately get killed, because that’s a good look. (That being said, I don’t know what her ethnicity was in the source material, and I’m generally pro “colorblind” casting, it never bothers me if a canonically white character is cast as non-white, unless it creates other racially charged issues, as it may have done here. Or may not have.)

And, on a meta level, we all know fridging characters is bad, right? Especially when it’s a woman, especially to spur on the story of a male protagonist.

Yet, here, that’s actually the entire point.

As I watched the rest of the episode and saw that fridging a character was only the very tip of this horrible, horrible iceberg, I realized Robin’s death is emblematic of all the collateral damage the Seven, and superheroes in general, have caused, and that the story probably couldn’t have started any other way. What else would have caused Hughie, slightly neurotic and generally Everyman as he is, to take on the most powerful cadre of superheroes in the world? What else would have so gripped and angered the readers/viewers with its senselessness, its casual cruelty (especially after A-Train’s later scene, joking about Robin’s death,) and the combination of its horror in the moment, and discovering the horror of how very commonplace similar incidents have been?

I spend a lot of time and word count talking about tropes and how not to use them, how to avoid the common pitfalls involved, and before watching The Boys I probably would have said it’s impossible to fridge a character to good purpose. I would have been wrong. Ennis takes the laziness out of this trope by using it quite deliberately to evoke the expected reaction for his own story goals; proof that even the most overused tropes, the ones we consider the worst, the laziest, the least useful, still have their place when carefully thought out.

Have I Read That? The 20 Most Reviewed Books on Amazon

In a recent newsletter, Book Riot sent an article listing the twenty most-reviewed books on Amazon, ever. I don’t read every article, and I don’t click on every list, but I was curious about this one, because “most reviewed” doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with “most popular”–popular books are read more, so could be reviewed more, but they also have to provoke a strong reaction, good or bad.

So I scanned the list and was surprised by how many of the books I’d actually never heard of! I thought I’d take a few minutes to run through the listed works and see a) if I’ve read the book, b) what I thought of it if I did, and c) if I haven’t read it, do I want to?

1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins: Unread, uninterested. I did watch the first movie when it showed up on Netflix, and it wasn’t terrible, but if I were to read this series, it would only be to understand the deeper references to it in popular culture that I haven’t already figured out through osmosis, and with the state of my TBR, that’s just not a good enough reason to invest the time right now.

2. Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline: Never heard of it before, going on my TBR. It’s well-received on Goodreads, and I see it was published in 2013, so it could very well have been one of those “big” books, but before I was paying much attention to popular works. (I didn’t start this blog until 2015 or any reading challenges until 2016.) The story sounds interesting enough, my library has it, and I do enjoy historical fiction when it’s done well, so I’ll give it a try.

3. Divergent, by Veronica Roth: Unread, deeply uninterested. This big YA series started back in 2011, again before my time paying attention to current reading trends, so I didn’t hear about it until it was optioned as a movie and the marketing was EVERYWHERE. It didn’t sound appealing to me then, it still doesn’t now.

4. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Already in my TBR. I picked this up at a used book sale–twice, to be honest, because the second time I’d forgotten I bought it several months before and hadn’t read it yet. If I like it, I intend to give the second copy to a family member, and if I don’t, I’ll re-donate it.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: Read, five stars. Finally, one I’ve read!

6. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan: Never heard of it, not really interested. “Based on a true story” war fiction is not generally my thing, and I’ve read so much about WWII over the years that I’m very choosy about books set during it, it’s just so overdone.

7. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green: Unread, possibly interested. I have yet to read any John Green, but I have two other books by him (Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines) waiting for me on my unread shelves. If I like those, I’d definitely consider reading Fault as well.

8. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown: Unread, going on my TBR. I remember my mother reading this and loving it, but despite her recommendation somehow it didn’t make it onto my TBR. I’m fixing that right now.

9. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James: Unread, nope nope nope. I will never. I read enough of it through Jenny Trout’s brilliant deconstruction/criticism/outrage blog series, and that’s all I need to read.

10. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty: Unread, uninterested. I checked on the reviews and ratings from my Goodreads friends who’ve read it, and they’re pretty dismal. The blurb sounds interesting and alarming, but I trust these people, so I’ll give it a pass.

11. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand: Unread, uninterested. Again with the WWII, just not going to happen.

12. The Martian, by Andy Weir: Read, five stars. Two out of twelve! I’m not completely out of touch!

13. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon: Read, four stars. Though the books definitely decline in quality and readability as the series goes on, I gave up partway through book eight and I kind of wish I’d given up sooner.

14. Sycamore Row, by John Grisham: Never heard of this particular book but I certainly know the author, not interested. I think I read The Client way back when as a teenager, and I haven’t felt the need to pick up any Grisham works since, so why start now?

15. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: Read, two stars. Such a disappointment after how much I loved The Secret History.

16. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah: Read, five stars. Loved it to pieces.

17. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: Read, four stars. This puts me at six of seventeen, that’s getting better.

18. Inferno, by Dan Brown: Unread, uninterested. Though I could probably build a house out of all of the used copies of Dan Brown books I’ve seen available over the years, I have never felt the slightest inclination to give him a try.

19. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: Read, three stars. I think this was my first “popular” book I read after I started my reading challenges, and it wasn’t terrible, but I definitely didn’t see why it was a runaway hit like it was.

20. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins: Unread, still uninterested. I suppose it says something that the series was so popular (and contentious) that it’s got two of the top twenty spots, but that doesn’t change my mind. I can survive just fine without knowing more than I do.