Category Archives: Genres & Tropes

Belated #ownvoices and, perhaps, switching gears

The last two years, I summed things up on the anniversary of my first book’s release — how the last year had gone, breaking down numbers, things like that. This anniversary came and went about a month ago. This year was too painful to reckon with. And I don’t mean to whine about it at length. Basically: Nothing. No sales. Book 2 sank like a rock; something like 6 sales over its lifespan. No additional finished books, let alone series. I am struggling with a draft of Book 3. That’s all. Which, in the larger scheme of things, is okay. I don’t live off the writing gig. It’s not a crisis. Just a bummer.

The #ownvoices movement rose more than a year ago, but I finally came to face it this year. I am trying to learn from my mistakes and do better. And since I chose a neutral pseudonym — to keep from slapping myself in the face with the femininity I don’t really like in the first place, every time I attempt to write — let’s break it down, once and for all. I touch on it in my bio at the back of Book 1, but I didn’t really spell it out. With the rise of #ownvoices, I feel I should own up to my lack of bona fides.

I’m a middle/lower-middle-class, middle-aged white lady in a bogstandard monogamous hetero marriage. Soooo, #ownvoices it… is… not.

When I set out to write, I only wanted to make my characters varied from one another, and use a range of character types and origins that I hadn’t seen much in the fantasy I’d read (from unathletic list-making art collectors to queer people, overall). Which is not an excuse, but a rationale from a time before I even knew to think about it. I acknowledge now that that is not legitimate. And so the right thing to do is to stop.

As for writing other stories, other series? I don’t really want to write about middle-aged white ladies in, like, suburbia I guess (their/our natural habitat). For one thing, plenty of people are already doing that. Eat, Pray, Love was a thing decades ago. Which isn’t to say nobody should write about my demographic; the thing is, people already are.

More problematically, it doesn’t interest me. If you want an ocean of straight white people, there are many, many options already extant.

I love writing. I have been writing since I was a child. I feel that in some form I am going to continue; I just have to find something I feel is legitimate for me to write, and interests me. The latter is often a problem, since depression is a harsh mistress even in its milder forms and it can be hard to get interested in things.

But who knows. Maybe there’s a boring straight white middle-aged lady that I’d actually like to write about. I’ll just have to search for her.

July/August Reading: All the Non-Single Ladies, Put Your Hands Up

A couple of stragglers, and then into Femslash Month. I’ll group that in its own section, because it crossed genres.

Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

The Human Division by John Scalzi
I had read the first book in the series, Old Man’s War, and why-not’d this one. I knew it was the fifth in the series, but sure why not. It turned out to be a series of linked shorts rather than a novel as it’s usually meant. (The blurb may have mentioned this, but I’d forgotten by the time I started reading.) I’m not a fan of treating books like TV, with “episodes” and “seasons,” but you gotta do what you gotta do to catch and hold an audience.

These are stories about space diplomacy — between colonial humans and aliens and between colonial humans and the homeworld. There are Dramatic Moments, but overall the tone is bouncy and snarky. This seems to be Scalzi’s wheelhouse, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t read that style 24/7, but as we covered last time, I can’t seem to read any one genre/tone 24/7.

Of the collection, my favorite from the title on down was “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today,” an extra side story added at the end. It’s just alien-meets-field-trip fluff, but it was cute.

Saga, vol. 6 – I forgot to add this to my roundup until the last minute. Insert usual raving fannishness here. BTW, they came out with action figures for SDCC, but only of Marko and Alana. As much as I like those two, THE BRAND PLEASE OMG. please? My soul would like some salving after vol. 5. Thanks.

Romance

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley
I’d had antennas up for this book for a while. Based on reviews, it sounded as though it might be one of those elusive beasts: A Historical Romance I Might Actually Like. On sale it went, and I took the bait.

And yep, it was pretty OK.

The heroine is a complete Mary Sue, but I prefer blatant over-the-top perfection to “woe is me, for I have one tiny, token imperfection, upon which I will fixate for half the book.” I didn’t hate the hero. I don’t care about all the prequel/sequel-bait brothers, but they didn’t get in the way too much. There isn’t much hand-wringing about Ruined!~ness!~, and not a lot of high-society “are we supposed to care about what those old bats think or something?”

It does — ludicrously, IMO — try to play the virgin vs. widow card on both sides simultaneously: the heroine is a widow from a happy and consummated marriage, and much is made of her worldliness and experience and how much her husband and she loved one another. And yet she has no idea what oral sex is. Because… shrug. Because nobody knows how to write anything other than blushing virgin cluelessness. Even when it’s cut with Wanton Exuberance. Even when it makes zero sense in the plot. It’s stuff like this that drives me out of the genre, people. Internal inconsistency.

Overall, though, it wasn’t boring, and although it was often contrived, it didn’t make me want to throw my Kindle at the wall. That’s a solid win.

The Fifteenth Minute by Sarina Bowen
Ughhhhh, the model on the cover is styled like such a d-bag. I might have read this book as fast as possible to get that broseph off my carousel.

Moving on.

This is book five of the Ivy Years series, which is themed around college hockey and Fairly Big Drama. This time around, we have DJ, the… ice rink DJ; and Lianne, an actress who grew up playing a Harriet Potter-esque role, who is now desperate to live some kind of life of her own.

First off, we need to call a time-out to address Dude’s B-plot. And if I could type this part while covering my face and peeking through a crack between my fingers, trust me, I would. *sigh*

This is not the first time this series has employed Ripped from the Headlines themes, but this one is particularly radioactive. See, Our Hero was falsely accused of rape, after a classmate with whom he had a one-night stand changed her mind the day after.

*headdesk* WHY *headdesk* WHY*headdesk* WHY would you use that as a plot oh my god

I gritted my teeth every time that plot rolled back around. Blah blah lawyers omg why did you use this blah blah… and we’re back.

Ultimately, it could have played out worse. That’s not where the villains are, in this story. Still, it took until the last minute to get behind what actually happened, it’s brushed off very quickly, and until then we have a lot of oh noes what about meeeeee.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, I liked the book fine. The leads are adorkable, there’s the bounciness that the series has employed all along, blah blah. It wasn’t my favorite of the series so far, but it was fine apart from that B-plot. But when you’re juggling knives like that, well… there are four other books in the series, and I’d recommend any of the others first.

Nonfiction

How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life by Heather Havrilesky

Advice columns. They come in many flavors, and to me, they don’t serve the purpose you might think they’d serve. I don’t read them thinking that they’ll tell me how to live. I read them because they’re entertaining, not in a trainwrecky/gawky sense, but because people are entertaining. Reading the questions/letters, you see how people see their own lives and issues, how they describe them, how their framing and choice of details can inform you of much more than they originally intended.

What one gets from the answers really depends on the author’s style. There’s the “more or less directly answer the question” pole (ex. Dan Savage, Carolyn Hax, and most classic columns like Dear Abby) and the “ramble about my own life and ~Life in General~, only occasionally touching upon the question” pole (ex. Cary Tennis, Dear Sugar). There’s also a “big squishy well of soft-pedaled compassion” vs. “well-deserved smackdown of Uncomfortable Truths” spectrum, which I’d align on the Dear Sugar (squishy) to Dear Coquette (smackdown) axis. Some columnists specialize: Dan Savage reigns on sex advice, of course, but there are also writers like Dr. NerdLove, who specializes in Entitled “Nice” Guys, Auntie Sparknotes for teenagers, and Captain Awkward, who tends to write to/for anxious, conflict-avoiding introverts (it me, as they say). And, of course, there’s anything in between on all of those spectra.

Having laid out my taxonomy, my favorite right now is the recently-revamped Dear Prudence on Slate, helmed by Mallory Ortberg. It only took a couple of columns before I was on the YES MORE OF THIS boat. But since that’s only a few months old, there is no book.

On to this book. I don’t actually read Ask Polly every week, but I catch up in spurts and have more of it bookmarked than most advice columns. I’d say it’s about halfway along the direct/rambly axis and the squishy/smacky axis: the answers are essays about Life and Things touched off by the original question, but they also circle back to actual actions that the questioners should probably take (like exercise more, which is generally good advice and is included in this book so often that it seems like a dare or a drinking game). It seems more grounded than some of the more essay-ish columns, and the letters are varied.

The book is divided into sections by theme, and the themes are more abstract than literal. It’s not, say, “Marriage Questions,” but things like  “Uncertainty.”

Short, but enjoyable. And I promise not to repeat this whole pile of words when the Ask Coquette book comes out (have it preordered!)

How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good  by Bryan Cohen

More of a long pamphlet, but that’s okay. This guide, by one of the hosts of the Sell More Books Show podcast, is just what it says on the tin: a guide to writing book descriptions / blurbs / back cover copy type stuff.


And now begins Femslash Month! With the TBR pile just over 100 at this point, I hope to knock out a few swaths by skimming through the list and looking for themes other than “books I bought shortly after signing up for Bookbub.” I tried Historical Romance Month, Indie Month, and now Femslash or F/F Month. (I wouldn’t call it specifically Lesbian Romance Month, because I don’t think any of them are genre romances. They’re science fiction, fantasy, etc.)
Sure, this would make more sense in June for Pride or in February for alliteration, but better late than never, I suppose.

I developed a little rubric for a few elements that irk me, which are in bold below.

Proceeding in order in which they were read, i.e. no order at all.

Sword of the Guardian by Merry Shannon
Did somebody say Rose of Versailles, spiritual ancestor to my favorite anime of all time? Whee! — my reaction upon seeing this listing in the SBTB email digest (oddly, though, I am not an Oscar/Marie shipper at all)

I can’t really talk about this book’s issues without spoilers, so SPOILERS.

Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: about 15%, but it’s about 75% of Talon’s internal monologue. The remaining 25% is “wow, the princess is REALLY REALLY TINY”, leading me to picture her as a 5-year-old for the first half of the book.

Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Hell yes. Even though all the clergy are female and they have magic plot-wielding powers, everyone is an asshole to women and considers them worthless. This is never questioned or considered a bad thing. It’s sort of weird.

Also, nobody has ever heard of same-sex attraction. Ever. Except when they have, and shrug it off as no big deal. Except when characters have to hide it or face dire consequences. It’s confusing.

Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Nope! Fantasy! All the misogyny and homophobia is lovingly crafted and inserted on purpose. *jazz hands*

I feel like I’m kicking a puppy by not liking this book enough, because the author starts out by telling us that she started writing it when she was 12. Now, I began to write at about that age, and I could not have written something this coherent, flaws and all. But I do feel like some of the book’s issues stem from “well, this is how it has to go because I made up the plotline at 12 and I love these characters SO MUCH that logic doesn’t enter it” syndrome. It’s an easy trap; I fight against it all the time myself.

But when the king makes a completely nonsensical decision just to kick the plot into gear, or the literal Goddess literally appears to dole out Get Out of Plot Free tokens, I, uhhhh… I think some plot points were grandfathered in via 6th-grade logic.

This was, mind you, a real live published book and not indie/self-published, so I put the editors fully on the hook for all of this. It’s your job, people. Just say no to plot-solving magic fire that appears out of nowhere, unmarked head-hopping, and “hey stranger, be my daughter’s bodyguard because reasons.” You’re supposed to be the ones to make this better than anything we lowly indies could do, OK?

So anyway. This book is about the fragile (when the plot dictates, anyway), bratty, and VERY TINY princess and her stoic, crossdressing, secretly-a-woman bodyguard. Despite some backstory violence and a villainous rape threat, it comes off as pretty YA-ish for all but one chapter. (The consummation-of-the-main-romance chapter is moderately explicit.)

I’d say it would make a fine distaff counterpart to A Call to Arms, were it not for That One Chapter. (There’s also an extremely puzzling PG-13 scene in which the princess comes across the bodyguard and her friend-with-benefits having a roll in the hay, which is fine. Except that the way it’s written, it seems to be a hands-free PIV situation annnnnddddd… wwwwwhat? Is this intended merely to drag out the “Princess doesn’t know that Bodyguard isn’t a cis man” thing, or do you not know that other acts are possible? That scene just sticks in my head like a thorn. Argh.)

It’s cute and harmless and contrived, with ridiculously clear-cut, slimy, rapey villains, literal gods coming down whenever the author needs to get the plot out of tight corners, and an enormously pat ending.

Plus: The bodyguard is attracted to other ladies, avoiding the “You’re the Magic Exception to the Rule”  trope, of which I am not a fan. She has a FWB/Gay Sherpa for a while, who is lightly slut-shamed (see below) but is generally cool. FWB might have been my favorite character.

Plus: for at least brushing past the matter of menstruation while trying to pass as male. Once was enough, but at least it was acknowledged.

Minus: unmarked head-hopping.

Large Minus: Any woman in this book who is not the central couple or a priestess is cast as untrustworthy or slutty, if not both. The FWB mentioned above is described as though she’s some shady harlot for…? Daring to do exactly the same thing that the main character is, and not angsting about it? I get the impression that the narrative voice itself is jealous of anyone other than the princess who gets close to the bodyguard, which is deeply weird and very offputting.

Not sure what to make of it: All straight people are evil or die by the end of the book — which might be an interesting reversal of the old tropes about queer characters, except that I fear it was accidental. If it was intentional, points for upending the usual trope. If accidental, uhhh, why is anything accidental in a real live edited book?

Overall, though I had a lot of quibbles about this book (don’t I always), I got through it pretty painlessly and was curious about exactly how it would shake out. The only lasting bad taste in my mouth was at how unexamined the sexist/homophobic universe was. After all the hell they’ve been through, they still stay closeted because Reasons, and they think that’s OK. Not because the bodyguard wants to live as a man (though she’s comfortable with it), because I get the impression they still kind of think they’re doing something wrong, no matter how flowery perfect their flowery perfect love is.

Gurl you’re the goddamn queen. Why are you doing this to yourself. What is the point. Whyyyyyyyy.

Moving on.

Deep Deception by Cathy Pegau

The first time I’ve ever seen any merit to fans’ whining about switching subgenres in the middle of a series: Assuming that Pegau specialized in only one type of book, as, well, everyone supposedly does, I opened Caught in Amber first. It took about two paragraphs before I realized that Caught in Amber is a hetero romance. Uh, whoops. I mean, normally I would read that first — it seems to come before Deep Deception in the series — but this is Femslash Month, dammit.

Normally, this self-imposed limitation is not a thing. But it was an odd feeling to 1) back out of a book for a reason I’d usually call silly and 2) realize that some authors do cross those lines. I will get around to Caught in Amber soon enough, don’t worry. (Turns out there’s another book, too, but since I am trying to burn through my TBR pile, I will not worry about it right now.)

Most world-building boils down to “blah blah (real life thing they’re building on plus snappy name) blah blah,” so blah blah space drug trade, blah blah space cops. No problem. And I like a space story that takes place on a planet/colony or series thereof, rather than spaceship battles all day every day. (I have mentioned I’m a Niner. This is not surprising.)

This story is about an undercover mission to a mining space colony — deception in the deep! Layers! A space cop — currently under investigation on trumped-up charges — goes off the record investigating corruption in a mining company with a former flunky to a space drug lord. (Previous book, sounds like.) Crime thrillers are not my usual thing, but I was never really lost, and rarely bored.

Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer:  Zero, hallelujah! I thought the future setting might help, after the issues I had with Sword of the Guardian. Added bonus points: One of the two was previously married to a man, and it is never once a thing. That was refreshing.

Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Doesn’t seem to be at all. There’s an old salt-of-the-earth (salt-of-the-planet) character who acts as the resident shipper.

Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe:  Nope! The Future~!

The romance noveliness of the book clocks in regularly, every 15% or so — break from the investigation to make out / no, we mustn’t for some unexplained reason (hint: to keep the story going) / back to the investigation. It was kind of charming in its not-at-all-romantic nature. The two know literally nothing about one another. Still, it sold the insta-lust believably, and neither lead was robbed of agency or infantilized (like SOTG’s “little fingers” — shudder).

So while I still don’t generally go for thrillers, it was fine.

Confessions from a Coffee Shop by T.B. Markinson
I marked this as a DNF at 15%, but then kept coming back to push through, hoping it would change. “I’ll keep going until it stops flashing back. — Till it gets to the plot. — Till… um…”

Our lead is surrounded by assholes, and neither she nor the author seem to realize it. The lead is herself kind of shallow and misogynistic, waving off her girlfriend’s shopping habit-plus-joblessness with “well she’s hot, and she just doesn’t liiiiike work, poor dear.” (I guess the rest of us just do it for fun.) She proceeds to work 3 jobs, avoid medical care, etc. while GF buys shoes and tells her to be nicer to her ragingly narcissistic mother. Yet GF is not the villain here; she’s painted as sweet and cool and hot.

“Painted” is perhaps too strong a word. Why tell us what a person says/does when you can just inform the audience what it means? So we get descriptions like “She looked hot as hell sitting there.” OK, since you won’t tell us how or why, we’ll take your word for it, I guess?

Backing up, I am really biased when it comes to the “one partner is The Realistic Caretaking One, one partner is the Delicate Soul Who Is Only Fit for Eating Bonbons, Despite Any Practical Barriers to Doing Other Stuff” dynamic. So when some readers may nod along like “oh, yeah, it’s cool for GF to buy all the shoes while the lead starves, because great ass,” I’m more like “you stupid doormat, lead, you deserve everything you get, stop whining about this ‘problem’ that you actively encourage.”

So yeah, once a reader is rallying against the protagonist, the situation is not as intended.

I did get far enough for my rubric!

Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer:  Zero. Though Lead is Too Cool for Pride, which is kind of gross.

Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe:  It’s set now-ish in Boston?. Some people are homophobes and some aren’t. The lead herself — and the author doesn’t seem to realize this — is ickily misogynist, though, harping repeatedly on how shrill, “shrieking” and “bitchy” gay men all are. You  know, like women, who are inferior! Yay!

I’m also playing Fallout 4 now, which is (definitely) set in Boston. Is it bad if I imagine all of these characters dropped into a post-apocalyptic drabscape until they shut the hell up about their first-world problems?

Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe:  Yes and no, it being modern. Depends on the exact place and social class. It did fine on that count.

Finally, at about 25%, no plot had surfaced, and I could not stand these characters any longer. The prose was tell-don’t-show, but light and zippy, and it had several fun lines. But I hated the characters just too much. The only one I didn’t want to drop-kick was Samantha, the ex-cheerleader / other future? love interest.

The fatal words applied: I don’t care what happens to these people.

 

Torch Song: A Kickass Heroine, A Something That Gets Cut Off By My Kindle, Sorry, You Spent All That Effort Keyword Stuffing Your Title And This Happened Anyway by Shelley Singer

I never took the Cherchez la Femme perk in Fallout: New Vegas. So that’s how it plays out.

Anyhow, this is a fine, serviceable post-apoc of the “people scrape up a living and the internet still exists, even though it’s spotty” variety. Not the anarchy of a Mad Max, not the elaborate allegory about high school of a YA series. Just more hardscrabble and a little futuristic.

There was nothing really wrong with this book, and I recommend it if you are in the mood for that type of post-apoc. I just got kind of bored. Eventually the two mob families will have it out and the lead will uncover some schemes and so on and so forth. You know the drill. And so do I, so why keep reading? It’s there, it’s okay, it’s neither bad nor awesome. It’s a book. I have 100 more of them yet to read. I shrugged and DNFd at 28%.

Nice cover, though. I’m not even being flippant. It has a little bit of melancholy that suits the downbeat-and-thoughtful-for-a-merc main character.

 

Hood by Emma Donoghue

A “literary” book, meaning that it doesn’t run on obviously pre-determined rails, by the author of the gut-punch-in-book-form Room. We are also not in for a gleeful thrill ride this time, although the two books have very little in common otherwise.

At the opening of Hood, Pen(elope), a 30-ish closeted lesbian in Dublin, finds out that her “housemate” Cara — actually her girlfriend, since middle school — has died in a car crash. The next week or so slowly unfolds, one cup of coffee and window-washing at a time, as the news spreads to relatives and friends, through the funeral and a lesbian co-op hippie wake. Meanwhile, memories crash in, as they do, flashing back to Pen and Cara’s complicated relationship.

What I probably appreciated most about this book was its specificity. This is not about “fill in your own personality here” protagonists, but these two particular characters, shaped by their particular backgrounds and era (the early ‘90s, in the “present day” of the story). Pen works as an elementary school teacher in the same Catholic school where she and Cara met, and Catholicism hangs over the story, but doesn’t drive it or eclipse it.

Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer:  Maybe 5%, but it is of the “I’m going to lose various people’s support if I come out” type, not “o woe liking girls is wrong.” There’s none of that.

Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Well, gay marriage was illegal in Ireland at the time, so yes. However, each character / group of characters has a different point of view, and apart from a samey crowd of young lesbian hippies, none of them seem like stand-ins or tokens. (And even then, the Hip Young Collective is more of an audience / backdrop to some of the events than individualized characters with individual effects on the plot.)

Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Yes, it’s based in a particular real-world time and place.

I know I’m an enormous snob and nobody is even listening anymore, but look, this is why I cleave to literary fiction. Stories about particular characters — not you, the reader, in a trenchcoat — and the particular forces in their lives and their particular choices. Stories that don’t hold the reader’s hand through all the same plot points they’ve seen a thousand times before. Ideally, I steer clear of the oh-god-this-again Angst of the Middle-Aged White Man style, but that still leaves a lot of room for a lot of stories.

I want to be pulled into someone else’s story, not bored out of my face by paint-by-numbers sameyness. Is that so much to ask? Does that make me such a terrible person?

Don’t answer that. I know the answer.

MOVING ON.

The Pirate’s Booty by Alex Westmore
Did somebody say Princess Sarisa Scherwil Tycoon of the kingdom of Tycoon, pirate captain, BFF to sea serpents and great overlooked character of the Final Fantasy canon? Woo! — my reaction after seeing this on sale (free, actually?)

So yes, not all of those things, but we start with a hilariously dumb title and just go on from there. (According to the also-bought links, the other books in this series are Shiver Her Timbers and Fire in the Hole. I love stupid pun titles.) This story features Sweet Polly Oliver pirate Quinn Gallagher, who runs off to a pirate ship with her identical fraternal twin brother to rescue her childhood friend, who was kidnapped by a different band of pirates. Quinn, a.k.a. Kieran Callaghan, discovers a talent for piracy, and is mentored by actual real life lady pirate captain* Grace O’Malley.

* maybe not actually a pirate; it’s complicated; moving on

Quinn/Callaghan has All The Pirate Adventures — storming a castle, rescuing people from drowning and so on — and woos both a Fine Noble Lady and an Understanding Bar Wench, plus any other babe who crosses her path. It’s dumb and entertaining and if it weren’t for the eye-bleeding dialect (wait for it), I’d have enjoyed it more than I did. Robots > pirates > ninjas > zombies. Sorry not sorry, internet.

Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: Maybe 5%, mostly about how she is the only lesbian in the ENTIRE WORLD (spoiler: she is not). Plus 10% of Oh No I Like Being A Pirate, I Can’t Like Being a Pirate, Even Though I Keep Going ON About How Much Being a Noble Lady Sucks And I Keep Having Adventures and Quaffing Ale and Ladies Throw Themselves At Me, This Is Terrible, I Can’t Possibly Love This Life, What’s Wrong With Me.

Side note, Quinn identifies as female but tells all her partners that she’s a cis-dude who just really likes to give and not receive. So she is sleeping with them under false pretenses. That is not okay. That line of angsting (which she also does) is relevant. But “oh noes they wouldn’t sleep with me and therefore I can’t tell them” isn’t… really… the line of reasoning you want here, I think.

Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Eeeehhh…  Technically yes, but everyone who susses out Quinn’s true identity is 1000% cool with it, so she never actually faces the blowback she constantly fears. It is heartening that Quinn hates the life of a Noble Lady without actually being an asshole to actual Noble Ladies like her childhood friends and love interest. There’s “I bloody hate corsets,” but no “you’re all simpering idiots who only care about looks blah blah blah.” Points.

However, the points are immediately rescinded: when Quinn is cornered and nearly sexually assaulted by another pirate while in drag, she immediately blames herself for coming off as too feminine. WTF ARGH. On top of that, there’s no reason for her victim-blaming anyway, because it turns out her almost-attacker is The Only Gay Pirate. (Because she’s twinkish as a guy, I think it’s suggesting. I just… I’m stopping here.)

Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Well, it’s at least aiming at a particular real-life time and place, despite the druid magic and nonstop swashbuckling and lack of scurvy. So I don’t fault it for making vague motions in the direction of the real world’s homophobia of the time.

I will say at this point that I got all the way through this book, in part because I was having a crappy week and kept plowing forward rather than bother finding a different book to read. However. We need to talk about the dialect.

This book uses a kind of choppy, search-n-replace Irish pirate dialect in the dialogue that made my proverbial eyeballs bleed. Don’t mind rhythm or how the lines flow; just search & replace “to” with “ta”, “you” with “ya,” and “every” with “erra,” and you’re done!! So even when the characters are speaking Latin, they’re all “ya” and “ta” somehow. You also get stuff like “ya are” in lines that would scan as “ye’re,” except no. You get “ta” in weird places in the phrases where they would probably not be, because the stresses don’t land right.
I skimmed a lot of pirate dialogue. I had ta. Ya know how it is, erraone. (See, though, that scans okay.)
After this point I read The Fifteenth Minute and then started on another book that might have fit (sort of) into Femslash Month, but I ran out of month before finishing the book. I look forward to including it next time.

TBR at start of July: 104
TBR at end of August: 99, YEAAAAAAHHHHHH!

Feels good to be in 2 digits.

I haven’t picked a theme for September/October yet. Doors on the cover? Cover models without heads? Alphabetical order till I can’t take it anymore? Wiping out the remaining YA titles in my pile? We’ll have to see.

May-June Reading: I’ve Got a Big Old Problem

I think my problem as a reader is that I like to be surprised. I like not knowing where a story is going to go. I enjoy a story that has internal consistency, but that doesn’t ride on well-worn genre rails without taking any chances. This is not the usual order of things, and makes it hard for me to find things that I like. It kind of sucks.

This 2-month period was all over the map; I didn’t have a theme. I only got through half a dozen books, but I have a some rambling to do about some of them.

Side note: For my own convenience, I’m going to switch to linking to Goodreads rather than Amazon. I’m already using Goodreads to keep track of my TBRs, so the listings are right there. I’m not doing affiliate links anyway.


Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Imagine that there’s a theoretical park I love to go to. It’s beautiful, it’s intelligently laid out, there are always new things to see and nooks to discover.

And the paths are lined with a species of tree to which I am violently allergic.

That’s pretty much how I am with LMB’s work vis-a-vis May-December romances. Old grizzled men and dewy young lasses are always, always… they are every romantic pairing, I think. Every one that matters. And the dewy young lasses aren’t only dewy young lasses; they are invariably the smartest of cookies. But so much attention is lavished upon their dewy young lassness and the grizzled men’s grizzled oldness that that feels, to me, to be more important than their individuality sometimes. (In this case, to be fair, the grizzled dude isn’t that old chronologically — hell, he’s younger than me — but there’s a bucket of ink spilled about how he feels older than he is, and how he has been ground down into premature decrepitude by circumstances.) It’s always She’s Young and Spunky and Full of Hope, He Finds New Purpose in Life! Just short of a manic pixie dream girl scenario. Just short.

However, I thiiiiiink this book is my turning point from “OH GOD NOT THIS AGAIN” to “okay whatever, here it is again, geez.” I just mentally get out my eyedrops / tissues / antihistamines, and don’t notice it so much. It probably helps that the May-December is hit lightly in this book compared to, say, The Sharing Knife, where it’s all of everything always. (note: I still very much enjoyed The Sharing Knife, even if its vaunted inclusion of polyamory was just an end-run around gay marriage. Product of its time? Nobody’s perfect? Moving on.)

That allergy aside, what’s it about? Saving a kingdom from a corrupt royal advisor, through diplomacy, subterfuge, and a little dark magic. Oh, and lifting a curse. Of Chalion. Of course. Also theology, cancer, cancer as theology, magic, mental illness, and magic that manifests in a way that, to me, reads a bit like a familial tendency toward mental illness.

You are in for big vocab words, grownup ideas, side characters who mostly seem to have lives of their own, lots of bitching about saddle soreness, a moderate amount of medieval fashion porn, and a fantastic, balanced, non-silly, non-allegorical fictional religion that echoes through the characters’ lives believably. The theology  actually winds into the characters’ worldviews and isn’t just arm-waving window dressing or a straw-man villain. (There are obvious, obvious villains, but the Church is neither good nor evil. It just is.) At first the magic component is subtle enough that I wondered, for several chapters, whether it were literally real. Some of the “miracles” came off as coincidental. But then it continued to build.

It took me a while to untangle the eighteen dozen characters hurled at me in the first few chapters, but it all shook out in due course. I can quibble about the villains, I guess — oh, the king is fat? Let me guess, he’s weak and evil and dissolute OH HOW’D I GUESS thanks a lot Henry VIII — but that’s about it.

The series continues, but this book contains an actual story arc. In one book. Yes.

 

The Bees by Laline Paull

See, what did I say? High-concept science fiction whatthefuckery. Though really, I’d call this fantasy-science-ish… high-concept whatthefuckery.

I read The Once and Future King as a kid and was unnerved by the part in which Arthur is turned into an ant, with a rigid, binary mode of thinking that encompasses nothing but working forever. So when I heard about this, I had an immediate gleeful “whaaaaaaat I HAVE to read this” reaction. Yeah, it’s kind of stunt-y, but give me a whackadoo stunt over a formulaic cookie cutter any day — especially one that messes with our expectations about POV. (Yes, Ancillary Justice is on my TBR list too. How’d you guess?)

So we have Flora 717, the Chosen Bee who is Different from Other Bees But Doesn’t Know Why. She lives in an all-encompassing, chemically/pheromonically/psychically bonded hive, which struggles for survival against threats like wasps and fungus and winter. I appreciate the way, way out-there POV, but because of it, I have a tendency to be pulled up short by wording that seems too human — tables? bread? What?

Overall it’s an adventure/espionage kind of story, as Flora explores and tries to understand her world, while being menaced by soldier bees and priestess bees (just roll with it) who are trying to hew to the hive-mind party line and suspect our Different Bee of being Different. It is so very, very weird.

 

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Maybe it’s a coincidence that after I read this book, Amazon laid out this set of recommendations: thepersonsotherperson
This is a well-worn trope now, and well, it seems to work no matter how tired I get of it.

All right, that’s out of the way. Once upon a time, I saw this book on sale and thought huh, science fiction romance, why not? While this sat on the TBR pile, science fiction romance has grown to be a bit of a dark-horse success, even if Bookbub lumps it in with ghost/vampire/whatever paranormal romance. I have yet to get very deep into the new wave, though, because a lot of the emerging tropes and plotlines don’t seem to appeal to me much. “Help, I’ve been abducted by a sexy alien hunk, whatever shall I do?” is not my jam.

More my jam, it turns out, is this: strange, depressing, women’s fictiony post-apocalyptic near-future domestic drama about a chainsmoking, deeply unpleasant tapestry artist who falls in love with her dad’s android lab assistant. (Yeah, what? says everyone except the Data fangirls in the back.)

This book was sad and weird and never quite sank into misanthropy. It is not, it turns out, a romance in the genre sense — for two reasons.

  • First, the heroine dates other men after meeting the hero. As I understand, this is a giant no-go in Romancelandia. Even though they met when she was 7.
  • Second, the hero, based on his very nature, is extremely passive. None of the usual “Stand back, little lady, I know what’s best for your tiny lady brain! *flexes*”.  Generally, that’s a plus for me, although it isn’t a thing you’ll find in Romancelandia. Taken to the extreme as it is here, though, the hero’s passivity can come off as creepy at times, because it’s not entirely clear how much agency he really has. But basically, this is just not how romance heroes act. It’s beyond “beta hero” and into some other territory entirely.

So it doesn’t follow the standard pattern of a romance novel, even though it is more or less a love story, or more precisely, the heroine’s life story through the lens of her relationship with a man.

It also contains a trope that usually pushes my squick buttons, and I still mostly liked it. I was just aggravated enough by the heroine’s mistakes to believe her as a flawed human. And something else that means a lot to me, but is a drawback to a lot of readers: I didn’t know where the story was going throughout. Since it was off the romance-novel rails and not quite onto any other recognizable (to me) rails, I didn’t know where it was headed exactly.

It isn’t perfect, sure. The post-apocalyptic and cybernetic stuff is handwaved when it would have been kind of interesting to explore a little more. There are a couple of enormously creepy things about the hero’s origins that are brushed off with “well, some of my assistants got at him and added some programming for the lulz.” (For a good chunk of the book I thought he’d been created as a sexbot, because why the hell else would an android need those skills? But uh, no.)

More to the point, the main characters are both very passive, letting life happen to them; the heroine never seems to take responsibility for her choices, even though she is a full human with full human agency and rights. This gets downright aggravating. Plus, there’s a cartoon villain in the middle section who seems to exist merely to make the book longer.

But thanks to my inner 14-year-old dysfunctional fangirl, I was charmed in spite of myself. Set me up with a maybe-unrequited tragic love story, a heroine with flaws, and a principled hero with Hidden Depths, and I will plop down in a front-row seat with my popcorn.

 

The Serpent Sea: Books of the Raksura #2 by Martha Wells

I’ve never read book 1, but I saw book 2 on sale on Bookbub a while back and read some reviews that suggested that it was comprehensible without book 1. And it is! As comprehensible as an action-adventure-culture-clash-heist story featuring splendiferously arrogant, shape-shifting tree-dwelling lizard people can be.

And now I need to get this out of my head.

IIIII’VE GOOOT A BIG OLD PROBLEM came back every time I opened this book. Of course, the Phone Power album had come out fairly recently, so it was at the top of my brain. Still.

This book might be what you get when you take an old-school painfully-high-concept story and pull it into an era when characterization is a going concern. The vast majority of the verbiage involves “cool, bizarre thing is happening, let us describe it,” but the narrator has a personality, and makes decisions sometimes. I’m for it. If more fantasy were like this — taking weird leaps in unexpected directions — and fewer Tolkien knockoffs, I’d read more of it.

I am going to say it though: Avatar. Cameron, not Konietzko & DiMartino. There, I said it. Also, the law of conservation of mass omg. This is the reason I do not normally cotton to shapeshifter/werewolf stories. I can take all manner of magic whizzbang in a story, but where did your clothes go and HOW are you twice your original size where did it come from just no.

In this one, one of the characters has a shifted form seemingly four times the size of his unshifted form. My brain itched every time that came up. Also, they blatantly shift clothes out of nowhere that do not seem to be part of their bodies how aaaagh.

(I have spent actual time in my life wondering whether Odo’s comm badge on Deep Space Nine is inorganic or if it’s made of shapeshifter goo, and if it’s inorganic, does it just float around somewhere because we don’t see it in the crappy ‘90s CG, and if it’s organic, how does it work. That’s the kind of nerd I am.)

Those are my quibbles, which are really just quibbles with shifter fiction generally. Otherwise, I actually looked forward to seeing what came next, and reading it didn’t feel like a chore. I quickly gave up on trying to tell apart dozens of nearly indistinguishable named side characters, which helped a lot.

As for not reading the first one, there are clear repercussions in the characters and story from what happened in the first book, but there’s enough recapping that I didn’t feel particularly lost.

Oh yeah, the plot. So our hero is a concubine of the lizard queen, a concubro, perhaps. After the events of Book 1, their clan seeks out a new giant magic tree to live in, only to find that its magic MacGuffin core has been stolen. Concubro, Four Times His Natural Size (the tank of the group), and a bunch of others (all with hippie / American Gladiator names like Leaf and Justice and such) set out to steal it back from an evil wizard in a tower built on the back of a giant sea creature, “The Beast Below” style.

Trippy! woo!

Not sure I’d keep reading, but I enjoyed it, even for all its biological/physics-violating NO and plot meandering. It aimed for something different, and I respect that greatly.

 

Other Genres

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Historical/literary fiction, and by “literary” I generally mean “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen before I start.” It’s about the family of a white Georgian fire-and-brimstone missionary who goes to the Congo to Convert the Heathen Masses, just as the country is undergoing upheaval. It’s narrated by the mother and four daughters of the missionary’s family, each with their own take on the situation.

I enjoyed it greatly, though it was intentionally frustrating to watch the family tilt toward disaster in the style of grand family tragedy. Grand family tragedy + immersion in an unfamiliar setting + very different POVs = interesting read.

Plus, hit up Goodreads afterwards to watch people utterly lose their minds over the less than perfect missionary character.

 

Nonfiction

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

DNFd. I will start by saying that I’m surrounded by Bloggess fans, but I’ve never read the site myself. As it turns out, this dynamic is extremely apt.

I’d picked up the book because I heard it was a funny memoir/essay collection about depression/anxiety/mental illness, and it is exactly that.

The thing is, there are as many experiences of mental illness as there are people with them. This one reflects an experience that I can’t relate to. The title refers to an idea that, if I may be cynical (because I’m going to), boils down to “don’t be depressive, be bipolar instead! Then when you’re depressed, you can look back at your manic phase and remember how awesome it was to be manic!” Which I’m sure works for a lot of people, but not me. I’m not bipolar, and I can’t do WACKY SPONTANEOUS things like climbing over a fence into the zoo at 2 a.m. to pet the elephants, because I’ve got a mortgage to pay, and I need to work and sleep. I know that’s super uncool and boring, but that’s my life.

Ultimately, though, it was one anecdote that made me quit. It was a story about the author wanting to adopt a cat that she couldn’t really take care of, because she thought it would be funny to give it a funny name. Yeah, that would be funny. But to me, that isn’t enough of a reason to adopt a pet that you can’t handle. (So are you just going to take it back to the shelter like “yeah, it made a great anecdote for my blog, but I’m done with it now”? yeahno.)

My Pet Rage activated at that. I’m also one of those people who bails on a movie if they hurt the dog, so I was not interested in anything the book had to say after the “flippantly adopt a pet solely to give it a silly name” story. I know that’s kind of petty, but hey, it’s my reading experience and I can bail whenever I want.

In a larger framework, I think it’s important to have a lot of different experiences of mental illness out there in the open, because different people will relate to different experiences. This experience appeals to a lot of my friends, who can and do have spontaneous, cool adventures that brighten their lives and provide something good to look back on when things are darker. But my life is not like that, and so that lens/mirror doesn’t work for me.

 

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015, edited by Rebecca Skloot
Like it says. I like a sampler sometimes, and I like reading about topics about which I am completely clueless, like caving. Some of the pieces seemed truncated, but I don’t recall any that felt like a slog. I’ll have to remember to look for this year’s collection on sale.


I’m nearing the end of John Scalzi’s The Human Division, but I don’t know whether I’ll finish it before month end, so we’ll call it there. July might be Femslash Month, and I wish I’d thought of that in June! Ah well.

Beginning TBR: 108
Ending TBR: 104 (bought a few on a trip to Half Price Books)
Goodreads Challenge: 29/36

Also, they tend to like cats. Shocker

Yep, medieval spies/assassins to fill the gap until Book 2 comes back from the betas. Taking place a couple hundred years before the main continuity, so it doesn’t affect anything, but I have to keep reminding myself that movable type doesn’t exist at this point in the timeline.

So this week’s Well, Yes link is: Introverts Are Pickier, More Judgmental About Typos & Grammar Errors

Has anyone considered that we, y’know, read a lot of books? But it’s true that we don’t have to be jerks about it. I try not to. I try to keep my overwhelming rage on the inside. 😀

We’re just neat freaks about words, people. That’s all.

Moving on, let’s go for some more substance:

Kate Elliott: Writing Women Characters Into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas – essentially a long list of interesting historical figures, meant to challenge the idea that the only realistic roles for women in fantasy are Hero’s Mom or Random Prostitute.

As for me, I’ve given up even engaging the mainstream POV. It’s too frustrating. I won’t read your books if they take place on Defaults To All Dudes Planet, no matter how awesome people tell me they are. And no one has to read my books that take place on Dudes-Ladies-And-Everybody-Else Planet. Something for everyone.

 

And the rest of my bookmarks are intensely old. That’s a wrap.

January/February Reading: In which I do not understand things

This is Let’s Try Some Historical Romances (Two-)Month. I also put in a resolution on Goodreads to hit the modest goal of 36 books this year. I tend to crawl through fantasy books, so I wanted to give myself some room for that.

This time, I’m going to skip the genre sections and do this chronologically.

Before I even get into this, I want to state for the record, again, that I don’t disparage romance as a genre or think less of it because it’s a Lady Thing. I started reading it in the first place because characterization and the interactions of characters mean a lot to me in stories. In my usual genres, science fiction and fantasy, some of my favorite plot threads  / elements are the character-focused ones. I wanted to try out a genre in which character motivations and relationships are central.

Romance (for fellow newbies) has a LOT of sub-genres and sub-sub-sub-genres, which, if you think about it, is true for just about any other large genre. A space opera is not the same as a military sf book, even if they are both shelved in science fiction. A book about Unseelie Court intrigue in the back alleys of New York City is not the same as a book about the Chosen Farm Boy taking the Magic Widget to defeat the Evil Overlord, even if they are both shelved in fantasy. Labels like fantasy/romance/sf are all very broad, and within them, readers often drill down to find their favorite niches.

So far, I’ve tried out some contemporary (present-day) romances and some cross-genre romances like fantasy romance and science fiction romance. What I haven’t touched much is the very large subgenre of historical romance, which is itself subdivided into historical eras – the most popular of which, as I gather, is the English Regency era (thanks, Jane Austen!).

I had kind of avoided historicals because of, well, world-building. I am trying to read as many of my TBRs as I can, so I sometimes balk a little at mega-tomes in fantasy with elaborate magical systems that I’ll have to get my head around, or, in this case, stories that are often (though not always) built on codes of etiquette and High Society that are just as foreign to me as the rules of sorcery. It’s easier to read a story in which I understand the playing field. That doesn’t mean that the story is any better or worse – just easier to jump into and out of.

And after a while, it seemed like high time to just throw up my hands, wade in, and deal with the world-building as best I could.

I’m very new to the historical genre, so a lot of the tropes that people are used to glossing over stick out like a sore thumb to me. If I seem really picky and contentious, that’s probably why. I’m still in the “but faster-than-light travel isn’t even a thing” stage of getting used to the standard tropes.

So, in chronological order, here’s what I read in my first intentional dive into historicals. I’d already scooped up all of these books previously, usually via recommendations or sales. It’s only a skimming of the surface, but here’s how it went.

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare –  From my newbie perspective, this felt a bit like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: bookish heroine fixes up ramshackle castle that contains angry, open-shirted hairy dude. Pluses: No high society blahblahblah. Fun overall. Heroine has a sense of humor, hero is pretty standard growly woe-is-me-ish but not a douche. (Tries to be, isn’t very good at it.) Had a virgin heroine without being gross and slut-shamey about it. And as a giant nerd, I was really tickled by the stuff about fandom. I want to group-hug all the medieval-pageantry nerds.

Minus: People have treated the heroine like dirt her whole life because… her hair is curly, or something? What? There’s “plain plain plain” parroted a lot, but what does that even mean? I’ve come across that before in my so-far-limited reading in romance, and I still don’t get it. Is it just code for “please relate to this character, she isn’t a Mary Sue,” or is it a word that actually means something?

You could say it’s all in her head, but it isn’t; she’s never been courted by anyone, and can only “land” a blind man. Oh, that’s another minus/ew, actually. She’s ugly (so we’re told), so she has to wind up with a blind guy who is under the mistaken impression that she’s beautiful. I am cringing once on his behalf and once on hers.

I think the outlandish physical perfectionism toward heroines in Historical Romancelandia is one of the things I have yet to get my head around. That “woe, one of your earlobes is a micrometer longer than the other, so you are a hateful beast that must die alone except for this one angry slab-chested manslut who will take pity on your uneven-earlobed monstrosity.” Fill in anything else. Anything. Oh noes, I have dark hair. Oh noes, I have a nose. Oh noes, stop.

In other newbie notes, not the fault of this author or any author, but a lot of the historical jargon isn’t on my Kindle dictionary. Clothes, mostly. “Nightrail” sounds like an early ’80s rock album and/or band to me, because I’m still not sure what makes it different from a nightgown. NOW ON STAGE: NIGHTRAIL! MOTORIN’!

I hope to understand all of this better as we progress.

Scandal by Carolyn Jewel – A few chapters of “she’s revolting, but I AM FASCINATED” before it gets better. I am still not 100% sure what the titular scandal was. The heroine’s late husband was a huge lush, but then, so is the hero (kind of), so that wasn’t the scandal? Lots of carriages in this one, and people are generally catatonic and withdrawn. It’s written just fine, but I had a hard time caring about anything. I also feel weird about the finale, in which the heroine still doesn’t seem to be happy. (On the other hand, at the point at which tragic things happen, at least something is happening.)

There is zero sense of humor in any character at any time, so I think that was my problem. I don’t need things to be jokey or parodic, just a trace of zing, somebody somewhere who doesn’t seem to feel overwhelming despair about their lives and everyone they encounter. Everyone in this book seemed to be despairing and kind of self-loathing 100% of the time, and it didn’t really seem to get better.

Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas – The twist in this one, I think, is that the dude is a self-made zillionaire instead of inheriting all his wealth. I thought it was fun. The heroine is oh my GOD single-minded about landing a rich husband, but at least a few characters call her on her mercenary behavior. Besides, she has a reason to be such a gold-digger (supporting her brother and mother). Sure, she has no other interests whatsoever and only thinks to make friends when she lands in the corner at a ball with a bunch of other spinsters (who will assumedly populate the rest of the series), but I’ll let it slide. Another plus: none of that “woe my eyebrows are one micron out of place, I am a horrible monster” ridiculously perfectionist jazz.

Again the Magic by Lisa Kleypas – Accidentally read these out of order; this comes before SoaSN. Not a big deal; it didn’t spoil anything major.

So… mixed feelings here. It’s got spark. The hero and heroine actually know one another for more than five seconds. The bickering/conflict feels believable instead of just depressing. On the other hand, the heroine has an ungodly stupid reason for dragging the conflict out in the third act, one that proves that she has no faith in the hero or his ability to not be a douche. Even the hero thinks it’s a stupid reason, and takes the news like AAGGHHH ARE YOU KIDDING ME except in historical style. You tell ’em, bro. Despite that spasm of ohmygodwhatthehell, overall it was fun.

Noted, though: once this book gets rolling on the nookie, it kind of doesn’t stop. It just swaps focus to the B-plot, which is also made of nookie. I am a little confused at this point about historical romances. A lot of the conflict in HR seems to revolve around Sex is Bad And If Anyone Knew I’d Be Ruined*. And yet, in some books, it looks like everyone is getting it all the time, seriously, like every five minutes. Why are you all such giant hypocrites, historical romance characters? In real life the answer is pretty much “Christianity,” but that doesn’t seem to come up much. (Which in itself seems sort of weird.)

* Define “ruined,” though. The idea of “ruin” is of crucial importance in these books, it seems. It seems to form the central conflict in a lot of them. But I don’t think I fully understand it. So far only one book, Scandal, has really made mention of what these heroines would do if they weren’t surfing on inherited money through one party after another. Mostly it comes off like “oh, people would be mean to me.” Okay then. Scandal at least touches on the potential risks, when the heroine contemplates a future as an impoverished governess. Which… doesn’t sound like the end of the world, actually. Granted, opportunities for women were severely limited back then, but… I just don’t feel the Struggle(tm) yet.

But basically, every hardship in the heroines’ lives boils down to “oh no, if people found out that I had sex, I will have to work, and people won’t like me.” And instead of thinking “Wow, all your friends and family are hypocritical assholes for judging you like that,” we’re just supposed to be happy that Angry Manchest came to the rescue. Mind you, that is how things were historically, in that women were only considered to be worth anything as arm candy or babymakers.

I did ask, in a previous round of capsule reviews, why historicals weren’t more historically accurate. I guess we have the attitudes here, except that people are still going off and bangin’ at every opportunity anyway, and nobody at all is religious somehow. It’s a weird whiplash effect.

This was the point where I took a break to read WTNV and start a book about the history of chairs.

—-

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor – This was my intermission pick at the end of January. I’ve been a WTNV fan since the giant influx a couple of summers ago; my  husband and I have gone to a couple of the live shows and oh wait, I actually am wearing a WTNV shirt right now as I post this. So. Uh.

Anyway. I’m weird about fanservice. It’s a fine balance between connecting the work to the previous stuff in the series and just tossing in references like HEY YOU GUYS KNOW THIS PART, RIGHT? HUH? REMEMBER? My opinion was that this book had more “hey let’s stop this narrative DEAD to explain something that happened in episode 9” rather than throwing in out-of-context references. It’s as though the authors couldn’t entirely decide whether the book was for fans or newcomers, and tried to catch up newcomers with a load of lore that’s now dozens of hours long.

I was fine with the new-story part of the new story; it was just the over-explaining that soured me.

(I did not finish the other book I started within the month. It’s easy to forget about paper books at this phase of my life.)

—-

And we’re back.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase – OK, now we’re in business. The heroine is just about as cranky as Angry Manchest, and girl has #goals. The book does go on at some enormous length about why we should feel bad for Angry Manchest, because HE is now the one who is a horrible monster for having a nose and non-blonde hair! So he is as thoroughgoing a jerk as he can manage to everyone in range, to prove it. So much chatter about being the literal devil. By “horrible devil beast” they mean Italian on his mother’s side, because ew, seriously? You’re going to triple down so hard on the Aryan obsession that you can be racist about slightly different types of white people? And when the book isn’t being “Italian people are literally the devil,” it’s being “Italian people are basically sexy aliens, not real normal people like the English.”

That’s a giant pile of ick to me. It just is. I do not get why we have to go there so hard. Maybe the English were enormously hardcore weird racists back then; I don’t know. I don’t particularly want to bathe in it now. Basically, though, this was my only squick-out about this book. Moving on.

The “rar I am the devil because my mom was Italian and/or my daddy is a jerk” thing is not the most attractive trait ever, but it’s a character motivation, and I can roll with it. So I am on board with both halves of the couple. Woo.

There’s an abrupt side-plot that ties everything up a bit too super-neatly, and the end. Even so, this was my favorite or second favorite thus far in this experiment, about even with Romancing the Duke.

A London Season by Joan Wolf – So, so, so much of this book made sense once I got to the copyright notice at the end. 1980, originally. This is a rerelease. With that in mind, I feel like I missed a gigantic rapey bullet. Happily, every romance from 1980 was NOT super-rapey. Things I learned this month!

Things that this book is not particularly about:
– London Seasons
– Fancy parties, a la the new cover

Things that this book is about:
– Horses
– Childhood friendship

It’s pretty adorable. The heroine in this one comes off as endearingly odd, and not because she’s trying too hard to seem odd. She isn’t really quirky, just specific. She doesn’t care about ladylike fripperies, which is itself a cliche, but she isn’t so much a rebel as blankly oblivious. She likes horses and her magic golden manchild friend whom she’s known since they were approximately ten. Her custodial uncle is OK by her, too. Later, she likes horses and Golden Boy and art. Everything else is just not on her radar. I was on board with this, even if the “I pick this guy, I will be with him forever and ever” seemed a little arbitrary. She came across as an individual.

The plot, however… is 1980. Jealous rivals that serve no purpose in the story, except to ensure that the hero gets some before hooking up with the heroine. Secrets that were never remotely hinted about until they explode onto the scene. A conflict that was hammered on throughout the book, then evaporated whenever it’s time to end the book. A very convenient fate for the villain. And the prose style is flat, which I chalk up to the era, too. This happened. Then that happened. People don’t really feel anything, though they sometimes tell us that they do. Overall, pretty harmless.

Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins – So this is not a Regency or a Victorian, like the others. I kind of needed another break. Already. This book is a Western? I’m not entirely sure what qualifies a book as a Western – that’s another genre I know nothing about. It takes place in post-gold-rush California on a ranch. That seems pretty Western. If not, well, it’s a historical that is not a Regency.

This is another Slap Slap Kiss book, big time – I don’t generally have a problem with that, and despite its hoariness as a trope, will take it over “allow me to protect the wilting flower” any day and twice on Sundays.

More importantly, the leads are FLIPPING ADORABLE. As is the hero’s stepmother, one of the major supporting characters. The heroine’s unworldliness is chalked up partly to religion (finally!!) and partly to a Cinderella-esque emotionally abusive upbringing. But she is nobody’s fool, and the plot does not hinge on flimsy “I’m going to pretend I don’t like you for months on end” or “I mistakenly saw you with another person and got mad at you for no reason” hooks. Just… yay. Sweet, feisty, historical without being wallpapery about it, and organically plotted.

This ended up being my favorite of the month. That seems like cheating – I was trying to get my head around Historical Romance As A Thing, which tends to equal Regency. But I don’t care.

A Man Above Reproach by Evelyn Pryce – I’d originally picked this up outside my “I oughtta try some of that historical” spree, because a Facebook friend of mine, one of those people who knows absolutely everyone, is a friend of the author. However, I don’t know her. Like I said, the friend who plugged it seems to know everyone in the state. But I’m all for supporting locals, so I went for it.

So anyway, the book. It’s an odd one. It’s about an ardent anti-prostitution crusader who works as a piano player in a brothel, and a vaguely grumpy duke who has to do a lot of paperwork and is irritated at everything. Points for not going on and on and on about how enormous and hairy he is. I wondered when I was ever going to come across a non-slab hero. Here we are. The two of them snipe around, he reads her anti-prostitution manifesto, he throws a bunch of money around to try to fix her life. Fine so far. And the Standard Secret is addressed early instead of railroading in from nowhere (looking at you, London Season). And then it ends fast and hard, with the assumed problems shrugged off – oh noes, what if people Found Out?! Oh, they’re fine with it? OK, then. It’s a little vertiginous, but not that bad.

Then I realized that I had run out of historicals that I’d already bought. What? They always seemed to hang over my head like a small moon, taunting me for not having read them yet. I guess… that’s it.

So what’s my impression? I still don’t Get It on that visceral, happy-place level. The more we’re outside the high society, calling upon Lady Whatever stuff, the more I like it. There’s a fair bit of roving through the forest/meadow in Secrets of a Summer Night, Again the Magic, and A London Season and I enjoyed that. There’s a fine line between fighty/cranky and assholish, and it’s important to walk it carefully. I do not like plot contrivances. Otherwise… I think I have to try some more, sometime. Not all at once, though.

From there, I didn’t know where else to go, and decided to continue with Things I Learned About on Facebook. I don’t know the next author either, but my husband is a fan of her husband from their con-going days. I had completely forgotten what this book was about by the time I got around to reading it (which is why I’m trying to beat down my TBR pile in the first place).

Night at the Basking Iguana by Sandi Penniman – So what is this book about, with a title like that? It’s a foodie adventure-travel-mystery. The heroine is chasing clues around the globe to find the most elusive and legendary restaurant in the world, in time for the one night a year it’s open. Meanwhile, she is trying to unravel the mess that her life has become, and making friends with other questers and passers-by. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raunchy. It’s fairly short – probably a novella, technically. Nice palate cleanser.

The Descendants book 1: We Could Be Heroes by Landon Porter – From there I thought I’d start on the pile of indie-published stuff languishing on my Kindle. The Descendants is a superhero serial, originally a web serial (as far as I understand), and this book is a collection of short stories in that universe.

And.

I bailed at seven percent. I feel like a jerk about this.

So… punctuation. I’m not adding a moralistic dimension to something that is not a moral question. I didn’t even get far enough into the story to tell whether it was good. For all I know, it is. But… sometimes you just can’t help but see things. Ex. semicolons and commas are two different things, and can’t be swapped out willy-nilly. And when you use the correct punctuation, it makes the story easier to read, and does not stab me in the eyeballs. When you say “Thanks, Name,” in dialogue, you need a comma between those two words. You just do. That’s the straw that broke my back, in the end.

I can’t not see these things, even though I don’t fully expect other people to know or follow those rules, and I don’t think it makes them bad people or bad writers. I’m just… a punctuation supertaster, or something. I’m the Princess and the Pea when it comes to grammar. I’m not guaranteed to be right in my own usage; I make plenty of mistakes. But non-standard/idiosyncratic usage just punches me in the eye and distracts me out of the story. So I bailed.

I think I missed a part of the story before this, too, because there were some blown-through summaries that make me think I should have “been there.” I was already confused. Which is a bummer, because the idea of web serials interests me, and I was ready for a genre shift. I may take another stab at it later.

I continued with more indies, but didn’t finish the next book before the end of February. So we’ll wrap it up on that note.

TBR at start of January: 121
TBR at end of February: 115 (also bought a few)

2016 Goodreads Goal 11/36

Finally: If you know more about historical romance than I do (which is a low bar, as I don’t know much), PLEASE, I would love love love love recommendations. There was a fracas online lately in which a columnist said “hey, romance heroes suck” and commenters said “there are soooo many who don’t,” and yet nobody was naming titles. A few author recs here and there, but that was it. I wanted titles! I’d love to read them! No “reluctant heroine / hero forces self onto heroine and she changes her mind” stuff from the ’80s, please. I will continue to try to look, but I’m really tired of feeling like I’m not a good fit for the genre. Maybe I am, in the end, but I’m willing to keep trying. I’m just not willing to keep wandering at random and grinding my teeth as I slog through books I don’t like.

So. Recs are, as always, golden.

The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called…

You were threatened with squeeing. Fair warning.

I just finished Laika in Lisan, a fantasy(?) political thriller(?) about a mild-mannered(ish) scholar in a just-on-the-cusp-of-industrial-revolution world who gets sucked into an international conspiracy. It’s a story that sets up the machinery of a couple of fictional cultures, winds them up, and looks at the effects they have on the people who live in them. I love that sort of thing. LOVE it. And I rarely encounter it; I’m not sure whether it’s rare, I’m terrible at searching, or both.

Apart from being about non-magical people doing the best they can with the situation they’re in, it doesn’t have too much in common with the sort of stuff I write. (There’s a lot more plot and action in this book. This is a good thing.) But “non-magical people doing the best they can with the situation they’re in” is a sub-genre within fantasy that I wish I came across more, so this made me happy.

While this book fits reasonably well into “political intrigue” despite the lack of guns and running through airports (…I know nothing about thrillers, full disclosure), I still wish there were a neat genre label for fantasy stories that operate at the individual or national/cultural level. Not-epic, which is not sub-epic to me – because I refuse to believe that a story isn’t worth reading if the moon isn’t exploding or whatever.*

I know there’s a limited market for that sort of thing (…she said, totally un-bitterly), but there is a market! There are books I’d rather like to buy, if I knew where to find them.

Until then… here’s one such book. I enjoyed it. It ends on an ambiguous note and the sequel does not yet exist,  but I will keep an eye out for more.

* Moon-exploding stories are fine. I spent a non-trivial chunk of my adolescence playing Final Fantasy games. But I like variety.

I’m not writing this against you: What fantasy means to me

First, the source: Ursula K. LeGuin’s review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I saw linked at The Passive Voice (good comments there, too).

As a reader of both “genre” and “literary” fiction at times, this  discussion makes me embarrassed and uncomfortable. And that’s probably a good thing, because it’s worth considering.

I’m just starting out in the world, so allow me to say this right up front: I don’t think one genre is superior to others. Even if I write one genre more than another. Even if I read more of one genre than another. Quality is judged story by story or line by line, and even then, quality isn’t the objective be-all end-all. It’s something I strive for, but I also see the value in slipshoddily written stories that grab people by the face and don’t let go.

I tend to write a mishmash of fantasy, domestic drama, and what publishing calls “women’s fiction” (like fiction, but about women! I can’t say I’m fully comfortable with the label, but that is what it’s called). I don’t do this because I have an existential grudge against dragons, swords and elves. I don’t do this because I think myself above the fantasy genre. I don’t intend to defend my nerd bona fides, because I dislike the overarching idea of “most nerdy equals right.” But yes, I like the fantasy genre. That’s safe to say.

I admit to a streak of contrariness when it comes to a few dynamics common (though not required) in the fantasy genre, which has led to some of the underpinnings of my series.  I don’t intend to write Chosen One stories; I prefer the ordinary-person-rises-to-the-challenge trope. I don’t intend to write “you’re either born with magic or you aren’t” stories. (Agna and the priests of Tufar practiced very hard to develop their healing art, thank you. And Marliet and Grim practiced very hard to learn earthmoving, as you’ll see when their book comes out.) But that doesn’t make those tropes any more worthy than their alternatives. They are not a mandate or a referendum.

I write this mishmash because that’s a kind of story that I want to tell. I am not the only one who does this; it’s neither unique nor highfalutin. It’s just a kind of story. I leave aside the fantasy fandom’s occasional inferiority complex, and ignore anyone who claims that genre fiction has nothing to say. They’re simply wrong.

If you think my books are fantasy because they don’t take place on Earth and because some of the characters can heal broken bones or cause earthquakes with a touch, then sure, it’s fantasy. If you think my books aren’t fantasy because of their domestic scale, their world-is-not-in-danger low stakes or a fatal lack of monsters, then I disagree, but shelve them however you like. They are what they are.