Category Archives: Real World Things

Pandas, learning about writing, and spite

We did, in fact, return from Origins. I enjoyed the Author panels I attended, though I only ended up attending one per day. While I was jazzed to actually try out the author track, I was still primarily there on vacation, to play board games.

In the end, I attended:

Edit Yourself
I love editing possibly too much. I can’t help it. I also like weeding my garden, which has certain similarities. And I am one of those odd readers who get distracted by bad punctuation / grammar. But I am, admittedly, weird. It’s like an allergy. I can’t help that either.

The focus here was pre-editing before you send it to a real editor, which is a helpful skill no matter how much experience you have — the more you can smooth things out beforehand, the more time editors have to dig into more complicated topics, right? Saying “ahh, they’ll fix it in post” is true, to a point, but it is in everyone’s best interest to put the work in.

Some good tips, including “read aloud” — which I’d heard before, but usually wimp out on — and not being tempted to pile on descriptions just because you know what things/characters look like in your head.
The latter was oddly gratifying, because I’ve always felt I was alone in that. My view is, “I don’t care whether your mental image is exactly the same as mine, as long as you have a mental image to go on.” If I have evoked something for you, and it isn’t so out of step with the tone of the scene that it breaks the scene for you, great. I do not care how wide you think my characters’ jaws are, or the exact tilt of their eyebrows. As far as I’m concerned, radio is not the only theater of the mind, and I like it that way.

I do hope you don’t whitewash everyone in my cast, but y’know, that’s partly on you and partly on me. Otherwise, mentally cast however you want. That’s not what’s important in the story.

We’re off track now. Editing. Yes. Do it.

Self Promotion Sells Books
Why yes, yes it does. Everybody can go home now.

Okay, okay, so this panel drilled down into various factors, including an author website, social media, and most importantly, not being a dick on social media.

I asked my husband to come with me to this panel, because I would literally rather go to the dentist than promote myself, and I figured he’d do a better job of lovingly nudging me to do these things if he heard the same talk. This is not the most professional move ever, but this is the reality of my life.

In other news, I will probably eventually drag myself to Twitter. ghhhhhhhghghghrrrrglll.

Finding Work as an Editor
Not for you, Grasshopper, not for you.

As previously noted, I love the editing process possibly more than writing itself. And it isn’t about nitpicking or finding errors, really, it’s about getting into the guts of what makes a story work and trying to make it work better. I think the process has a bad reputation, and caring about grammar and punctuation and things has a bad reputation too. Musicians aren’t called unflattering names if they try to play without wrong notes, but if I care where that comma goes, I’m a jerk. Fair?

Anyway, getting into plot structure or continuity or whatever, for me, is like a gearhead getting elbow-deep into an engine. It’s about understanding how it all works and making it work better. Plot structure is my weak point, and so I try to learn more about how to make it better, and try to bring that out in edits. I love learning about it, even if that means I don’t have it all down pat.

However, due to several factors, I have no real chance of beta-reading or editing for anybody else. Like any other job-hunting, you need experience to get experience, and failing that, the right degree. “Trust me, I studied genetics and viruses but I’m just really good at grammar and love editing” holds no water with anyone, and rightfully so. I can check whether your science is reasonable, buuuuut I work in fantasy, where we all prefer to forget that winged dragons generally have six limbs and that isn’t a thing that happens in vertebrates really.

I don’t mean to whine, though. It was a very informational and interesting panel. I’m fascinated by how the field works and what people do in it. There was great information, down to the level of contracts and taxes, as well as approaches to editing (ex. realize what the author is trying to do, not what you’d do in that situation).

So those were the panels I attended. Recommended highly. I hope to see more next year.

Also related to writing: Bought two medieval recipe books from MedievalCookery.com, which I have already used as an idea source. I’m not one to cook these things in real life, but I try not to fall into the “all stew and ale, all the time” trap in my writing. (I am haunted by the fact that refrigeration does not exist. Do not count how many times the characters go grocery shopping in Book 2. That way lies madness.)


I also attended a roleplaying session at Origins for the first time, a demo session of Ryuutama. Unfortunately, this session was right around dinnertime, and I got punchy and laughed for several minutes at the spell list for no good reason (except that it contains spells like “create 1 cubic meter of dead leaves” and that’s too cute to stand). Otherwise it was quite fun. I’m looking forward to putting together a hybrid in-person/play-by-email game of Ryuutama.

I suppose I sort of played one of the Dread games too, in a friend’s beta testing round.

How’s that for range?


By and large, though, I tend to spend most of my time either faffing about the vendor room or in the board room. Board games tried out this time:
Survive: Escape from Atlantis  – my husband played this growing up; it was new to me.
Takenoko  – my favorite of this batch.
Gloom – I’d wanted to try Gloom in Space, but they didn’t have it; next time. This is the only one of these that I’d played before.
Kill Doctor Lucky – second favorite of this batch. SPITE POINTS. Just saying “spite points” makes me snicker.
Cottage Garden – ooh look, this technically isn’t out yet! Aren’t we fancy. Tetris + bingo, kind of. I’d recommend it.
The Networks – we didn’t have time to fully get into this one.
Tsuro – thanks to the CABS folks, who recommended this when we came up like “we are too tired to think and have 1 hour before our next thing, whaddya got”.
Veggie Garden – By Quick Simple Fun, an apt description as well.
Rampage / Terror in Meeple City  – it’s kind of astonishing how bad I am at this game.


On a more personal note, it’s interesting to compare this experience to past experiences through the lens of working on treating my social anxiety. It’s still easier for me to be an attendee than an exhibitor, but this was a more chill experience than I think I’ve ever had at a con. Even compared to other Origins-es. Of no particular interest, just noting something.

On second, third and fourth thought…

Never mind on the book posts. I’m still reading, of course, but there’s not much point talking about it. My read-books list should be public over in the sidebar. I am happy to report that my TBR list is below 80 now, and I hope to keep whittling it down.

I had meant to set aside November to work on the next book, but it’s been extremely difficult to keep going in the wake of the second book’s failure. I tried to educate myself on plotting and tried to write a book that was better than the first, but it simply did not work. Maybe a little structure is worse than no structure, in the end. I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but wrong it went, all the same.

It’s no mystery that my mild depressive tendencies make this more difficult, as well. Where others might have powered through and locked down what it takes to improve the third book, I floundered.  There’s so much I don’t understand — why the first book occasionally sells a copy despite its age, why the second was so much worse than the first (3%!), how to make the third book better than the second. There just aren’t answers, and so it isn’t clear how to make things better.

I’m working on an outline for book 3, slowly, sporadically, trying to impose as much structure as I can. My brain just doesn’t work in terms of plot points, beats, rising action, etc., so it’s like herding cats. Meanwhile, the numbers question why I’m doing any of this. 3% of 3% would equal less than one sale, if the drop-off in quality continues at this rate.

99% of the time, when I get home, I just retreat to reading other people’s books and playing other people’s games and running from the whole debacle. Maybe, in time, I’ll have the energy to pour into a wholly useless pursuit just for the sake of doing it. It’s difficult right now.

Two things:

  1. I’ve finished the September/October book roundup, but it still needs to be formatted, and I gotta sleep.
  2. Thanks to the encouragement of my Ultimate Beta Reader and spouse (who are the same person), I’m going to spend November finally outlining and beginning Book 3, working-titled The Healers’ Life. It is threatening to become 2 books, which makes me want to cry, but we’ll see what happens once the outline solidifies.

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

March/April Reading: In which I quit like a big quitter (and keep going)

March/April: Indie Month turned into It’s Not You, It’s Me Month, and then fell apart into Okay, Whatever Then Month. I feel bad that I keep bailing on books, if for no other reason than I paid for them at some point, but I can’t force myself to read if I am not invested in the characters, setting, concept, something. I keep running into books that are perfectly serviceable, but just don’t work for me. In cases like that, I’m inclined to realize that this is happening and move on to something else. I still have 100+ books in my pile to get to; life is too short.

Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

Mirrorfall by Grace McDermott
This was a really fun kaleidoscope of pieces: urban fantasy with otherworldly guardians, alternate worlds, and fae, narrated by a  hacker drafted into a  Men in Black-esque spy organization. Aaaannnnd I DNFd at 55%. Why, when I’d made it that far and was mostly enjoying things up to that point?!
a) Arbitrary twincest (ugh why)
b) Sentences like (very lightly paraphrasing): “Lol, okies,” I said, nomming on a cookie
…at least once a page, usually more.
I know that the lolcat style makes sense for a hacker character. I still found it teeth-grinding. I have a very low tolerance for all three, “nom,” “okies” (basically no tolerance at all) and “lol,” so this was not a fun time for me.

I Bring the Fire part 1: Wolves by C. Goeckel
Two words: Loki fanfic. Another it’s-not-you-it’s-me DNF, at 25%. Just wasn’t feeling it. Present tense is a constant pull out of the story for me, and I’ve never been an Avengers fan, so I am just not the target market. I’m not sure whether it’s serial-numbers-filed-off fanfic or whether it was crafted to tap into the fanbase, the other way around — but I’m still not in the fanbase. Mind you, the writing is fine, things are happening, all of that. I’m just not on board enough. I may try again sometime, if I manage to lower my resistance to present tense.

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss
That’s more my style: impenetrable high-concept science fiction whatthefuckery. I grew up on stuff like this, and while it isn’t my cup of tea a hundred percent of the time, it’s fun to visit sometimes.

Many years from now, just about all animals are extinct except for termites, wasps, and de-evolved tree-dwelling humans. Plants have taken over and moved into all the ecological niches. Half of Earth is a murderous jungle and the other half is in eternal twilight, after enormous, mobile spider-shaped plants lassoed the earth and the moon together and stopped both of their rotations. WTF? Exaaaaactly. Apart from some yap about “racial memory” (see below) and “humans’ frontal cortices were symbiotic fungus all along” (what), the concept is brain-hurting fun to explore.

I hated the lead character thoroughly and rooted (excuse the pun) for a giant acid-spitting space carrot to eat him, so once the story got done tour-guiding us around the setting, it became more of an uphill slog. In particular, the main antagonist, a Cordyceps-esque psychic fungus, is insufferable, and there are some… “humorous”? side characters that are never, ever entertaining. Basically, as soon as the characters go on the move and the party splits, nothing is fun anymore. I kept after it, hoping it would get better, and being not infinitely long helped. But the first section was still the most entertaining for me.

Part of the issue with having a TBR pile is that you forget why you bought a book, what the book is about, or what the circumstances surrounding it are. I bring this up because I didn’t remember, by the time I got around to reading this book, that this is a rerelease of a book that was actually released in the old school. When I reached the end and saw the copyright date of 1962, the last 80% of the book finally made sense. It explains a whole hell of a lot of things: the fact that the characters are complete cardboard, the awkward “men are treasured rarities in this Straaaange Neeeeew Woooorld” thing, the “racial memory” thing, the “superior nonhuman intelligence droning on about how stupid humans are” thing, even the entire idea of de-evolution. OF COURSE. This is from the actual past! OK, they’re still annoying, but at least it makes sense in context. Those things used to be fresh and cool.

As a travelogue and thought experiment, it was fun for a while — exploring a series of impossible plant-critters adapted to their alien environment and taking over niches previously inhabited by now-extinct animals. When we’re expected to give half a damn about the characters or their Quest? Not so very much. I’d rather have had a documentary about the setting than follow that mushroom-headed dunce around.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Turns out this wasn’t on my TBR list —  looks like I missed some. Oops.

So. Time-travelling serial killer. *jazz hands* I love me some time travel, but I don’t often read crime or thrillers, so this was a stressful one for me. Not to mention that the POV flips between Ambiguously Possessed Serial Killer, Soon-To-Be Victim of the Day, Obsessed Near-Victim Amateur Sleuth, or Other Dude Because Dudes Need Somebody to Relate To. There are a couple of others, but my point is, this is darkity dark dark. Time loops + grimdark is a combination I’ve seen work before, but not without similar grueling feelings while moving through it. (Compounding this is the “shining” thing. The title refers to the victims, of course, but they’re chosen specifically because they push back in their own quiet way against the strictures of their times — they shine in spite of their circumstances. And the serial killer intentionally goes around destroying them. Arg.)

Funny thing, though: present tense did not bother me this time. I hardly even noticed it. I think it’s because the plot hinges so heavily on flipping around time, and the present tense keeps us as readers pinned to whichever moment in time the story is in. It’s also built out of dread: we jump into the POV of a woman whom we know is being stalked by the serial killer, and every small triumph of her life is about to be snuffed out. Taking the immediate view makes the temporary nature of their lives that much clearer.

What I think I’m saying is that the present tense seems intentional, instead of “that’s what’s popular in YA these days.” I’m OK with that.

Romance

Unscripted by Jayne Denker
A palate cleanser between Hothouse and The Shining Girls. A cable drama showrunner pisses off her executive producer, wallows, then finds a hot theater professor while trying to get her show back. I don’t remember exactly why I picked this one up; it was probably Yay! Grownups!!, since the leads are both somewhere in their mid-thirties. They’re constantly surrounded by teens and early ‘20s kiddos, though, so the yay-grownups vibe is considerably weakened.

I’m not entirely sure this is uncut romance, honestly — I’m not too well-versed in chick-lit, but I suspect it has a strong strain of chick lit DNA. The romance plot is almost a subplot, though it’s a prominent one. What I’d call the main conflict arises through the main character trying to get her job back and regain creative control of her creation. The romantic red herring is a hurdle that the lead has to get over, and the romantic lead is her prize for getting her life back on track.

I’m still on the fence about contemporary romance. Contemporary about grownups is supposed to be Uncool, five-minutes-ago, without the swoony, cheesy cachet of historicals or the Drama of new adult. It’s escapism without a “real” escape, too real to be really fantastic. But for my eastern-suburbia-reared lower-middle-class self, Hollywood may as well be Narnia. Besides, nobody writes stories about things that are authentic to me personally, and if they did I’d probably start nitpicking. I sometimes find contemporaries less distracting than historicals, because I don’t get caught up in the game of “this character’s attitude doesn’t match this era.”

So. Fluff. Fluff with a kinda-gross focus on using accents as comedy, but otherwise harmless.

Altered Destiny by Shawna Thomas
I made it to 23% before DNFing because I really. wanted. to. like. it. Fantasy romance with a heroine who doesn’t suck! Yes! Sign me up! And the writing was fine, except for the distraction of “okay” everywhere. (1839, people! Folks were inventing photography and the telegraph by that point. Ye olde it ain’t, OK?)

But I had to admit eventually that I was bored and did not care about the eeeevil vampire elves, the who-is-this-again soldier-human-dudes, their impending clash, or the inevitable get-together of the heroine and the Wounded, Poetic Outcast vampire elf dude. That last thing especially, which is a shame, because that’s supposed to be the point. I assume. Drizzt/Katniss is just not my ship, I guess.

This is another one that I may try again sometime, when I’m feeling more like a long fantasy slog. And if/when my tolerance for Wounded, Poetic Outcast Vampire Elves goes up somehow. I missed the Forgotten Realms train back in the ‘90s, so maybe I’m just never going to Get It.

Also, I’m sorry, the vampire elf’s name is Jaden. I want to make sure Jaden’s mom knows where he is after curfew. I’m aware that there are fully grown Jadens out there, but… well. I guess generational naming trends happened to cross fantasy naming conventions.

Other Fiction

The Sekhmet Bed: The She-King Book 1 by Libbie Hawker
One may have noticed that I keep starting and quitting indie books in March/April. This was not intentional. (I started and quit a Carina Press book, too! Yay?) So my sigh of relief was that much bigger when I found an indie that I actually, with few reservations, liked.

So what is this one? A domestic drama about an ancient Egyptian dynasty. That’s different. Woohoo.

It’s the life story of Ahmose, an Egyptian princess. There’s the kind of worldbuilding (asterisk, I’ll get into this in a second) that I like, that doesn’t over-explain itself. There’s a moderately (at least) squicky, but historically reasonable sorta-wannabe-love story between a 14-year-old girl and a grown-ass man who, to his credit, wants no part of it. And in a longer arc, there’s the relationship between the protagonist and her sister/sister-wife, feuding and backstabbing and eventually bonding over their children. The main character has prophetic dreams, hatches a plan or two, tries to do what’s right, and finally births what I assume is the protagonist of the next book.

Time skips forward a lot in the last half of the book, so the pacing can be confusing, but once it gets going it doesn’t slump much. The characters have personalities without seeming anachronistic — their beliefs and worldviews have been palpably shaped by the world they live in. And, key for me, the antagonist is not made of cardboard. Non-cardboard antagonists will get me every time! And I’m not talking about bullshit antiheroes masquerading as antagonists, I mean people who are unpleasant and get in the protagonist’s way, but have dimension and personality.

“Worldbuilding” makes it sound like info-dumping, but what we have here is a world that is built into everything the characters think and do. Their sense of right and wrong and their sense of causality are shaped by their belief system, which has a huge effect on what they do and why.

So.

There’s an indie book I liked. So there.

Just one line makes me want to go “argh,” on top of the aforementioned squick: about three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist thinks something like “my life didn’t exist / didn’t matter before (thing that just happened).” That’s a So what are you reading me this thing for?! moment. Do not recommend, authors. Sure, it makes sense that the character would think that, but you just told me that all the hours I’ve spent on your book so far were wasted. Yay.

Nonfiction

The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality by Rachel Hills
First off: that subtitle seems to have zero to do with the content of the book. This is a pop-sociology book revolving around a kind of Unified Field Theory of Judginess. It lashes together disparate ideas like

a) “women’s worth equals virginity, blah blah”
b) fratty grossness
c) Cosmo, generally (NSFW)
d) “vanilla people are dumb and boring” (NSFW) (sidebar: even this artist posits at the end that monogamous straight people are incapable of holding sex-positive attitudes. I read this comic regularly and felt as though the author has always been generally inclusive, so this one was a big disappointment. However, this is where I got the rec for this book, and I still read the comic.)

…by the common thread of “what you do with your junk is The Most Important Thing in the Universe, and fully defines you as a person. Moreover, if you don’t align with what I think is acceptable, you’re bad and wrong.”

“Well, yeah,” says Western culture, “blah blah cavemen,” or “blah blah enlightenment,” or “blah blah religion,” or “blah blah some other excuse.” Funny how that works, no matter what your excuse is.

It’s an interesting idea overall, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a backlash against modern mores that isn’t based in religious pearl-clutching. Instead of the usual American-culture “you shouldn’t sleep around because Jesus,” it gets into “some people really enjoy this, and some are just putting on a front so that their friends think they’re cool.” Refreshing.

Now, a couple of things that didn’t sit so well with me: first, wow, I am old. This book was written by, for, and about millenials in the Anglosphere. I’m at the young end of Generation X. That’s a much bigger gap than I realized. Of course, every person’s experience is different. My college experience was atypical, for one thing. So it’s both interesting and depressing to read about the cultural assumptions that have changed since My Day.

Second, spoilers: no solutions are suggested. Yes, this is a sociology book and not psych, but as a general reader, it feels frustrating to read through an outline of a systemic problem and then see, “welp, don’t do that. The end.”

Overall, though, it’s a useful idea (don’t be a judgmental, reductive toolbox) carried through several scenarios, with the use of interviews/anecdotes (mostly with pretty young white people, but eh), then dropped without warning. What I think I’ll do to placate “But what can Society DO about any of this?!” rage is to follow some of the references, many of which are still available online.

Lest this all sound too retrograde, the Unified Field Theory of Judginess (people different from us in this particular way are Bad) is also briefly applied to homophobia, judgment toward non-monogamous people, judgment toward nonbinary people, and the Fifty Shades-popularized cheapening/watering down of kink (”oh, it’s just a dumb, naughty thing we do to look cool, not an important and specific part of anyone’s identity or anything”).

My final impression here is “thought-provoking, though incomplete.”

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
Another palate cleanser for me. I don’t have any interest in, say, sportswriting or memoir, but it’s interesting to me to see how the sausage gets made, and the usual points about clarity and brevity make as much sense as ever. Honestly, I’d almost substitute it for The Elements of Style, which it lionizes, if only because S&W have been debunked eight ways from Sunday at this point.

Beginning TBR: 115
Ending TBR: 108
Goodreads Challenge: 19/36. I’m sorry that it counts DNFs as “read”s. I wouldn’t.

Goal for May/June: Get the TBR list below 100. This will be a bigger challenge than it sounds, because my birthday is coming up, and my wishlist is largely made up of books. Still! Something to shoot for.

Overthinking things! Squee!

You know, someday I swear I’m going to empty out my ever-growing temporary bookmark list. For now, though:

The Mary Sue is doing an episode-by-episode rewatch/recap of favorite-anime-ever Revolutionary Girl Utena, which led me to this utterly glorious, longer-than-some-novels set of essays on every single episode. Sooooo happy. (Header images become super spoilery a couple of posts down, be warned.)

Ahh, so awesome. So ready to either refuse or smack down the industry’s shallow, pandering BS. It’s been too long.

And it’s on YouTube, subtitled*, by the localization/licensing company, i.e. legally. Seriously: best news all day. I’ve got the shiny re-release box set, of course, but this makes it so much easier to throw at people!

Of course, it usually takes 2+ viewings of a 39-episode-and-movie series to achieve the levels of slavering you don’t get it, it’s AWESOME that fans like me tend to dish out. And I know that’s a time commitment. But. Sogoodyouhavenoidea.

* I’m not categorically anti-dub, but I do not like this one. More’s the pity.

So that’s my link for the day/week/something.

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.

Upcoming Sale & New Cover

In the continuing adventures of the most haphazard “marketing” “campaign” in publishing, I noticed that I had an available window for a sale on Amazon. So here we go! On January 5-12, 2016, The Healers’ Road will be .99 of the local currency in the US and UK.

I continue to apologize to the rest of the world. As soon as Book 2 is out, I will branch out into other sales channels, which should allow for more flexibility.

Now that the sequel is just over the horizon (really), and in the spirit of why-not-let’s-try-this, I’ve instituted the new cover.

The Healers' Road

I love those colors. LOVE.

The art is by RLSather, and it’s a premade cover from SelfPubBookCovers.com. The typography is by my sister, after a couple of weeks emailing back and forth with strong feelings about faux-medieval fonts. I found that I can have deep loathing toward a capital H. However, this is a capital H that I like. (We ended up with MacHumaine for the caps and Wellsley for the lower-case, with some tweaks overall.)

Mind you, this is not one of those “use your family and friends for unpaid labor at random” dealies; she’s a graphic designer in real life, and works with type and graphics  all-day-every-day.

This cover will cover the digital edition; the print edition remains with the horse-and-carriage cover for now. [Edit for fun fact: I think doing this will make Amazon cling to the old graphic. Why it would prioritize Createspace over itself, I have no idea. Since I’ve sold all of 4 copies of the paperback via Amazon, it’s disconnected for now.)

So there we go: new cover, upcoming sale.

November/December Reading

This list contains some loooooong books and some sets of books, so there are fewer titles overall. Also, holidays, personal upheaval (getting better), picking up a time-sucking mobile game or two, etc.

 

Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

The Apocalypse Triptych: The End is Nigh / The End Is Now / The End Has Come, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey – I had waited until all three books came out, because the preface to the first one said that they would be a set of ongoing narratives – parts 1, 2, and 3 in each. That didn’t pan out, for some reason. Some threads disappear partway through, some are one-shots, etc. Also, probably in order to be fair to all the authors, the order is shuffled from book to book: 1A, 1B, 1C… 2X, 2Q, 2D… 3P, 3R, 3U. So it was aggravating to try to read through in order, but I gave it my best.

This is an anthology, so you have the usual gamut from great to welp-I’m-out. And some of the 3-parters varied amongst themselves; a few lost or gained steam from part 1 to part 3. In the end, I liked the concept of pre-, during-, and post-apocalyptic stories, even if the threads didn’t weave through all the way.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal – Won’t lie, I needed something short after knocking a couple of very long titles off my list. This was sad and lovely, and one of my favorite kinds of things: a story about people.

A Writer’s Life by Eric Brown – Also a short piece. A writer is haunted by the strange career of another writer from decades before. From the Literary Fantasy bundle that Storybundle did a while back.

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty – Chick lit / urban fantasy crossover. Fun concept. I enjoy contemporary fantasy/urban fantasy, but I’m tired of grimdark and private eyes right now. This started out as fun, getting increasingly bonkers as it went on. So much explaining, though. That’s inherent in a Book One, I suppose.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell – Saying “this is my least favorite Rowell novel so far”* is like saying “this is my least favorite flavor of ice cream.” It doesn’t mean a lot. Fantasy is not quite the right genre for this; it’s… magical realism? domestic drama? Shrug. There’s a time-hopping phone and a crumbling marriage, and people make Bad Decisions. I’m a little amused that it’s a book about a landline phone in the cell phone era, and it’s also the first paper book I’ve read in months, apart from graphic novels. It felt weird carrying it around.

* I have not read Carry On yet.

The Hues, vol. 1 by Alex Heberling – Book one of a webcomic/graphic novel about an alien invasion and a (diverse!) group of girls (with varying body types too!) who manifest magical powers. Too soon to tell much about where the series is going, but I enjoyed it so far. I’ve always really liked the artist’s work at anime cons, and I’m glad I picked up the book.

The Plains of Kallanash by Pauline M. Ross – Epic fantasy + polygamy + “timidity and domesticity can mean strength” + lost technology + shady conspiracies. That’s the fun thing about indie publishing – authors can mix up tropes and genres at will.

By no fault of the book’s, I got as distracted as a magpie in a glitter factory over the psychological/sociological elements. “Wait wait why does she still love her whalloping toolbox of an abusive husband? He was cartoonishly childish from the get-go, and even after he starts beating and raping her she’s like ‘Sigh! He’s so dreamy! I wish he loved me more than he loves my sister!’ What’s wrong with her? Aaaagh seriously Jonnor is an ass, Mia, were you dropped on your head as a child? Whyyyyyyyy.”

Despite my lingering unease about Mia’s decision-making abilities, the story was interesting to follow, with info-dump-free worldbuilding that leaves more plot to unfold across the rest of the series. There’s a lot to unpack across all of the societies that come into play. Finally, one of my usual dreads with epic fantasy is thin characterization, which was not a problem here – protagonists and antagonists (and mixes of both) have a range of personalities all around.

Romance

The Brothers Sinister box set by Courtney Milan

Here’s my trajectory into this series. Flash back to a year or so ago. I don’t know enough about historical romances yet. Courtney Milan is well-regarded/reviewed and seems to be very thoughtful about her choices of characters, settings and ideas. And hey, the first book was on sale at the time. So here we go.

Oh, this isn’t Regency like the majority of historicals; it’s Victorian. That’s cool, though. Moving on.
…books pass…
So the theme of this series is that all the dudes went to school together (brothers in spirit) and are left-handed, hence the title. OK.
…books pass…
After The Heiress Affair I thought: Uh, there are some oddly anachronistic ideas in this series. I know there were a few people who would look past a Scandalous Past or a penchant for reading or an abundance of *ahem* bass or a desire to give women the vote, but… there are so many of them in this series. So many. Everywhere. It’s like every main character was airlifted from 2015.

People ACTUALLY thought women were inferior back then, that’s just how it was. History. Historical. If you want the pretty dresses, you have to face the fact that everyone was backward by today’s standards. You have to accept that your heroes/heroines would have thought that people of color were subhuman. You have to accept that your heroes/heroines thought women were useless and needed to be cared for like small children. That was just how people thought. Otherwise you’re just visiting a theme park, slapping a pseudo-historical veneer on modern ideas.

Sidebar, though: That all applies to fiction set on Earth, in a timeline at least passingly similar to ours. If you build a fantasy world from scratch, you add in all the grossness intentionally and lovingly. Yes, Game of Thrones fans, I’m looking at you. (And I read ASOIAF, too. I just admit that it’s horrible to women on purpose.)

Back to the TBS-reading thought process.

All right, well, the box set is on sale, and I was really looking forward to The Countess Conspiracy. I’ll bite.
…reading on…
OH.
OH, that’s kind of the actual theme of this series, isn’t it. This string of progressive-for-their-times ideas and people. The bluestocking, the BBW, the suffragette, the astronomer – all would be “normal” these days, but back then they’d be exceptions to the rule.

Ahaaaaaa. Now I gotcha.

And I love that theme, but feel like I’m cheating when it comes to historicals. It’s like all the fashion of historicals with none of the soul-crushing ideology. I know that there were suffragettes and bluestockings etc. back in the day, but there are so many of them in this series, and they all know each other. It’s like a cadre of time travelers.

So I am torn: I love the series, but I also feel like this isn’t The True Historical Romance Experience. It’s the Historical Romance Experience with all the crap I don’t want taken out (rapey heroes, fainty heroines, retrograde notions about purity and respectability). I feel like I’m getting away with something by reading it. In other words, I like it more than I think I’d like the subgenre as a whole. It feels like Historical For People Who Don’t Like Historicals.

Now, I came out of this still feeling like I don’t know much about historicals, so I’m sure I am being unfair. This is worth revisiting to me, once I have more books under my belt. I’ve got half a dozen historicals on my TBR pile, so I will get to them.

Having said all of that: Of the series, my favorite is The Countess Conspiracy, because science!! and a handful of tropes that I like, but mostly science!!. They each stand pretty well alone in my opinion – minor characters cross over all the time, and the build-up to the big reveal in The Countess Conspiracy is pretty cool, but starting at the beginning doesn’t seem absolutely required.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev – After trying for a year or so to read romance and never really finding my knock-out every-one’s-a-winner niche, I think part of the problem is the set of tropes. This book took the romance world by storm a couple of years ago, and I wonder whether some of that is because it operates on a different set of tropes than most Anglophone romances. Dunno. Granted, I was annoyed by a few of the tropes here (yes, we get it, she likes food and stays itty-bitty), but at least they were different tropes than the ones that usually annoy me.

Writing & Publishing -and- Other Nonfiction: None this time around.

Totals: 129 on the TBR list at the beginning of this fortmonth two-month period; 121 at the end.

In light of my enormous rant about historicals up there, I feel I should focus on reading the historicals in my TBR and learn more about the subgenre. January/February is my least favorite time of year, so this should brighten my winter – or at least give me a lot to think about.

Happy reading!