13 Jan

Reading Challenge: January 2019 (Part 1)

Happy New Year! For 2019, I’m going to try posting these book roundups at the end of each month instead of every other, and I’ll also take a stab at describing what a book is about before launching into the usual litany of grievances. Don’t let the smooth start here fool you—I still hate (almost) everything and will tell you all about it.

Links go to Amazon and are affiliate coded.

STILLHOUSE LAKE by Rachel Caine: Gina Royal arrives home one day to find a drunk driver has crashed through the wall of her garage, but the police are much more interested in questioning her about the dead woman hanging from a noose in the middle of her husband’s “workshop.” Thus, Gwen learns her husband Mel is a serial killer, her family’s life is a lie, and the world is full of rotten people who will never let her and her kids escape the legacy of The Kansas Horror.

Four years and several assumed identities later, Gina—now living as Gwen Proctor—and her traumatized kids have landed in a tiny lakeside community in Tennessee. She’s become proficient with guns, home security, and cyber threat monitoring in response to keyboard vigilantes who feel big and strong when they’re stalking, doxxing, and directing rape and murder threats toward women and children because they believe, despite a lack of supporting evidence, she helped Mel commit his crimes and got away with murder while he sits on death row. (You know, it’s just not fair that a man who butchers women gets penalized while a woman adjacent to him doesn’t.) It’s becoming increasingly clear a life on the run is damaging her kids, though, so Gwen decides to try settling instead of running.

And then the first body bobs to the surface of the lake within spitting distance of her house, mutilated and disposed of in much the same way as her husband’s victims. Police scrutiny falls upon “Melvin’s Little Helper,” Gwen’s real identity and whereabouts don’t remain a secret for long, and danger follows.

The most pervasive external threat in this book is timely. If you pay any attention to the internet, you’ve seen festering sewers of so-called humanity surge in response to certain people (especially women) having the audacity to attract attention, you’ve seen no effort being made to restrict the tide of bubbling filth, and you’ve seen how unchecked hatred is emboldened to show its face in person, confident no one will stand against it to protect its target. That’s the reality Gwen is dealing with—hunting her is a hobby for internet creeps, and it takes just one to find her, post a location, and put her kids’ lives in danger from more creeps who think terrorizing women and children is a good time.

Her more immediate, intimate challenge is trying to give her son and daughter a decent life while dealing with a serial killer who wants revenge against her for betraying him and a copycat killer who’s depositing bodies practically at her door. When her tentative relationships prove too weak to survive the truth about her past, only Gwen can save herself and her kids.

Every character with a significant presence is at least partially shady, and Caine is good about exploring the full range of shady-inconvenient to shady-unreliable to shady-dangerous. Although you can’t be certain who shouldn’t be trusted until Gwen is racing toward the finale, it becomes clear all the players other than the real villains are conflicted rather than harmful, though that doesn’t make most of them any more helpful.

The conflict central to this book—the copycat killer exposing Gwen and trying to destroy her—is wrapped up satisfactorily by the end, but a larger scheme, of which this attack was merely the first open act of aggression, unfolds to lead into the next book.

I read this in one sitting on a workless day. It was the Woman Survives Against Overwhelming Odds story I needed right now. I already have the sequel, Killman Creek, but I’m going to put off reading it until the third book’s April release date is closer to minimize the continuity gap.

This series is published by Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, which means the ebooks are exclusive to Amazon and are in Kindle Unlimited. If you prefer to shop elsewhere, the only format options available are paper and audio. I don’t like to buy Amazon exclusives, but I’ve been reading Rachel Caine since her Weather Warden days and also love her Great Library books, so she warrants an exception.

BLACKBIRDS by Chuck Wendig: Skin-to-skin contact reveals to Miriam Black how and when people are going to die. When she’s tried to intervene, it has only served to push people toward their envisioned end, so she figures what she sees is a person’s inevitable destiny and there’s nothing she can do to change it… except hang around if death is imminent and go through pockets looking for cash because a girl’s gotta eat.

Then she gets picked up by a trucker, Louis, and foresees his violent murder a month in the future, during which he says her name as if she’s present for the occasion. Suddenly, the stakes of dodging “destiny” are personal. Unfortunately, every move she makes forces her one step further down the path she wants to avoid, starting with ditching Louis, whereupon she meets a con artist who’s being sought by violent murderers. In her efforts to spare Louis a grisly death set in motion by showing her an act of kindness, Miriam learns she can change fate, provided she offers it an equal or greater sacrifice.

This is a violent story, which is to be expected in most stories with a premise focused on death. In addition to various modes of death, people are beaten and mutilated. This is definitely not a book for the squeamish.

Miriam’s not “likeable.” She’s foul-mouthed and unsentimental. She may be having conversations with some anti-karmic supernatural figure but is probably having psychotic delusions to justify her behavior. She throws around the R-word, which is an unnecessary authorial choice but is entirely consistent with the kind of person Miriam is (though any expletive could have been substituted within the bounds of her characterization and avoided that whole issue). She’s also smart-mouthed, resourceful, and tough as nails. There’s probably not much middle ground between accepting she’s offensive and being repulsed by her, and you can probably make an accurate decision about your tolerance based on the sample.

I can live with this protagonist’s flaws. The pace is hopped up on caffeine and nicotine, the dialogue is equally snappy, and the puzzle pieces click into place with satisfying regularity. I’ll read the next book to see what Miriam does with her “gift” now that she knows she can be more than a bystander.

THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL by Lydia Kang: Cora Lee, illegitimate child of a socialite who died in childbirth and an unknown Chinese dockworker, was born with two hearts. This was noted by the drunken doctor who examined her shortly after birth and was keen to dissect her and profit from her anatomic anomaly. To conceal “the girl with two hearts” from those with nefarious intentions, Cora lived the next 14 years of her life as a boy. With the onset of the undeniable effects of puberty, she returned, in a dress, to the fringes of Manhattan society from whence her mother came.

Since the family that banished her pregnant mother won’t welcome her with open arms and a girl’s gotta eat (again), Cora has become a resurrectionist with a specialty. Peasants who died of starvation, stabbing, and influenza are a dime a dozen, easily nicked from unguarded graveyards but valued accordingly by buyers. Cora uses her society-adjacent status to rub elbows with physicians who tip her off to more unusual cases, like well-fed gentlemen with aneurysms ready to rupture and heiresses with vestigial tails, which will fetch a far higher price on the corpse market. Her beauty, charm, and look of status also gain her scouting access to the type of high-class graveyards that have tombs and security guards, but when it’s time for grave robbing and money collecting, she leads her team in the guise of Jacob.

While conducting her grim business, Cora meets Theodore Flint, an ambitious young medical student who’s either trying to cut in on her racket or become her best customer. Shortly afterward, the patients on her watch list start dying of foul play, her contacts begin to question whether she’s hastening bodies to the grave, and far too many people know about Cora’s medical anomaly for her to be safe from becoming the murderer’s next valuable victim.

There are  number of suspects for the crimes and ample evidence implicating all of them. When the true culprit is revealed, it’s not the most obvious suspect, but the clues (including those misinterpreted and overlooked by Cora) were there all along and make perfect sense. It’s a worthy gothic mystery.

Romance spoiler that will steal some of the mystery

Theo isn’t the killer. There are some cute exchanges in the romance, and despite some mutual dishonesty and emotional missteps, I ended up feeling Cora and Theo had a decent shot at a future together.

I didn’t notice until I grabbed the link that this book is in KU. It’s published by Lake Union, another Amazon imprint, which makes it another Amazon exclusive digitally. As mentioned above, I don’t like furthering the Amazonification of publishing, and there’s no excuse for it this time but inattention while on a buying spree. I can’t do much about what’s already in my library, but I’m on notice about being more mindful of my buying habits.

HELLO KITTY MUST DIE by Angela S. Choi: Fiona is a 28-year-old Chinese American lawyer with a goal to take her own virginity rather than give that “prize” to some inadequate dude. When her dildo-aided deflowering doesn’t result in shredded membranes and gushing blood, she feels she’s been cheated out of an important life experience and schedules an appointment with a surgeon who specializes in hymen reconstruction. The doctor turns out to be her childhood friend, Sean, whom she last saw when he was expelled from school for setting a girl on fire. It’s mentioned in the book description that he’s a serial killer, so no surprise there.

I noped out of this at 30%. Protagonists don’t have to be “likeable” (see Miriam above), only interesting, but they also can’t be so despicable every sentence makes your face pucker up until it threatens to implode. Fiona compares her desire for a new hymen to an infertile woman’s desire for a child. She laughs about the suicide of the girl Sean horribly scarred. Her behavior as an adult is indistinguishable from her behavior in parochial school. She repeatedly calls her father, whose greatest sin is wanting her to marry a nice Asian man, a cunt in Cantonese. She talks shit about absolutely everyone but has particular bile toward the appearance of other women. An attractive blonde at a bar who smiles at a man is “asking for it”—“it” being getting murdered. Actual quote from the book in response to a woman having the audacity to smile in public: Everyone has to die. Especially the blonde and pretty.

I could easily list two dozen more offenses, but I don’t want to spend another second swimming in this toxic stew masquerading as “dark comedy.” I’ve worked in hospitals and prisons. I’m a mental patient. My favorite people are depressives, addicts, and convicts. Trust me, my brain has been wired for gallows humor practically since birth, and this ain’t it. This book is straight up not funny unless, maybe, you both hate women and have a fetish for Asian women. If you’re in the center of that Venn diagram, congratulations, I’m sure you’ll laugh like you’re at your favorite sex offender’s standup gig.

DAWN by Octavia Butler: After the fine folks who control the bombs destroy life on Earth, Lilith Iyapo awakens in a holding cell on a space ship in high orbit. Following a series of mental and physical evaluations, her alien captors/rescuers decide she meets their criteria to lead the first batch of salvaged humans to be returned to Earth 250 years after the planet was devastated by war. Conditions will be primitive. Anything any human knew about surviving in the wild will be obsolete in the new environment, but the aliens will be right beside them to provide guidance. The catch is, over time, the two species will hybridize in an evolutionary process.

I’ll clarify up front that this merging isn’t achieved through interspecies penetrative rape. (There are a few human attempts at rape that don’t get further than intent before they’re halted.) Human couples are allowed to pair off of their own volition within the limited selection available (all heterosexual pairings, given that the sole goal is breeding), and then a nonbinary alien joins each pair and neurologically enhances the sex so it’s so awesome the humans can’t stand to touch each other without the intermediary. The aliens do deploy sedative effects, and there’s a fair bit of “your mouth says no, but your body’s saying yes,” so although there are no alien organs thrusting into orifices, there are other significant intimacies taken without clear consent. In lieu of interspecies breeding, they plan to influence standard human reproduction by tinkering with chemistry, DNA, and energy.

Related spoiler of the ending

Near the end, Lilith’s alien tells her it impregnated her without discussing it with her because the father had been killed and the harvested sperm wouldn’t last forever. At that point, in my mind, the aliens became Evangelicals who think people exist only to procreate and therefore have no reproductive “rights,” and my feelings about their benign helpfulness shifted accordingly.

One of the criteria by which humans get selected for permanent removal from centuries-long stasis is how agreeable they’ll be about accepting this alien meddling. Lilith passes their assessments well enough to be chosen as a leader, but there are limits to her acceptance. She appreciates that they fixed her genetic predisposition to cancer. A little mental tweak that makes it easier to learn their language is no big deal. But she draws the line at phasing humanity out of existence and is prepared to lead the remaining humans in a revolt to preserve humankind.

I had to step out of my privilege bubble in order to understand the perspective of this story’s human characters, which was almost universally resistant. I’m not particularly attached to any of the identity markers assigned to me at birth. I didn’t choose them or earn them or pay for them, so they aren’t a source of “pride” for me. If aliens wanted to remove disease predilection from my DNA, improve my memory and communication skills, make me stronger, make me heal faster from injuries, and give me matter-manipulating abilities and the only cost was becoming “less human,” there wouldn’t be a down side for me. I certainly wouldn’t fight them over it.

For many other people, however, being assimilated is an act of racial violence that has been perpetrated against them in the real world. People in this world have been subjected to exterminatory eugenics to which people with my identity markers never have. The groups to which I belong by accident of birth have never been robbed of humanity the way others have. With that in mind, I can understand that some people would fight aliens to defend something of theirs that has historically been threatened by other humans, and I certainly wouldn’t try to persuade them that surrender was for their own good.

That said, some of the most privileged people in this book are just violent assholes who will use any excuse to hurt and kill because it makes them feel good. Lilith is caught somewhere between two worlds: the aliens saved her life and enhanced her abilities but want to end her humanity, and her own people don’t trust her and want to kill her. For every benefit she receives, something is taken from her.

I bought this book individually but also grabbed the box set of the trilogy on sale a few months later. As currently priced, the 3-book set is only $3 more than the first book sold solo, so if you can afford to go all in, that’s the more economical option. (Actually, as of January 14, the box set is only $2.99!)

A STUDY IN HONOR by Claire O’Dell: Janet Watson is a surgeon who lost her arm during a surprise attack in a near-future American Civil War. In an emergency setting, she was given a used, ill-fitting, and malfunctioning prosthetic. She returns from the frontlines to Washington, DC, to navigate the harsh realities of being a discharged vet, including inadequate medical care and inability to continue her career as a surgeon without good use of both hands. Her housing dilemma, at least, is resolved when she’s introduced to Sara Holmes, an “eccentric” and “challenging” woman in need of a roommate.

I DNF’d this book at 60%. Perhaps if I’d quit sooner, I would have fewer Things To Say, but I spent enough time with it to work up several rants.

For starters, marketing this as a Watson and Holmes homage is misleading. I’m no diehard Sherlock fan, but even I expect solving a mystery to be the focal point of any story trading on those names, and there is scant mystery to be found here.

The story begins with Watson on the train to DC. She gets a hotel room, visits the VA, looks for a job, moves to a hostel, goes to work, moves into the apartment, goes to more appointments, eats out a few times. There’s a fair amount of recap via journal entries and more recap in a few discussions with Holmes. It’s a quite tedious account of day-to-day life until the 40% mark, when Watson is attacked on her walk home from work, Holmes fends off her assailant, and something that might be a plot (but wasn’t by the time I gave up) emerges. Everything doesn’t have to be a Guy Ritchie movie, but if nothing remarkable happens until 40%, the story started in the wrong place. SO MUCH of the daily minutiae could have been cut to get to the point faster, and nothing important would have been lost.

The investigation into several suspicious deaths of veterans doesn’t begin until 50%. Watson accompanies Holmes (who is some sort of secret agent) to Florida and then to Michigan. There are no obvious revelations along the way. I was expecting Holmes to condescendingly explain how the absence of clues really explained everything. Instead, all the trip “proved” was that, since no one tried to kill them or otherwise interfere with their activities, the attack against Watson that appeared to jumpstart the plot had been a random, unrelated event. At 60%, with a whole lot of nothing to show for it, I quit reading.

Also on my list of grievances: At one point, Watson sends an email to a doctor friend and talks about a dead patient BY NAME. No, no, no. If you work anywhere in medicine, confidentiality is sacred. You can bitch about work, but you absolutely never NAME a patient or discuss any other identifying information. To do so IN WRITING (to another doctor, no less) is begging for job termination, fines, and lawsuits. IT’S NOT DONE.

This Holmes isn’t a quirky genius with questionable social skills—she’s just a jerk. She never shares information with Watson. She reads Watson’s journal, rummages through her room, drugs her (TWICE), and keeps her locked in the apartment without communication or her arm for an entire day. (And Watson doesn’t immediately get the fuck out when this imprisonment ends.)

There have been a lot of discussions lately about politics in art. I’ve said repeatedly that everybody’s politics show up in their art, but most people only notice when the politics aren’t THEIR politics. Well, the politics in this book are my politics, but they’re delivered in practically bulleted lists of infodumps rather than integrated into Watson’s narrative as relevant to the story, so they were jarring even to me. Regardless of the nature of the politics in a story, the rules of good storytelling apply, and this went way off target.

And now I’m going to get super political. The author is white. This book is very focused on Being Black, with scarcely a page passing without a reminder that having dark skin is a joyless existence. Black authors are having their stories rejected for not being “Black enough” (i.e., being about anything other than unrelenting pain) while white authors’ odes to Black suffering are being published.

More Black characters, especially main characters, are a good thing. Their absence in popular media historically has certainly contributed to the widespread delusion that Black people aren’t present and important. Society would be better served by having unignorable quantities of stories about people of all colors, faiths, sizes, physical abilities, genders, sexual orientations, etc., to condition everyone that all of these people are PEOPLE, not an “other” to which they can’t possibly relate.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with a story that spends nearly every page dwelling on the difficulties of being Black as written by a white author. Particularly when Black authors and readers are yearning for books in which Black people can live their lives, be heroes, and find happiness without having to be relentlessly focused on the effects of racism because acquiring editors are interested only in minority torture porn. White people producing books about Black suffering is frequently a fetish with a side of self-congratulation, not sincere welcome and acceptance.

I don’t have an answer for this, other than publishing so many Own Voices authors that I no longer have to question the ethics of non-Own Voices authors bringing marginalized folks into the mainstream of the collective conscious while the same marginalized folks continue to face barriers to telling their own stories. This kind of book is more symptom than remedy.

Flipping through my library in search of the next book to read, it seemed like a good idea at the time to get back on the Sherlock-Holmes-adjacent horse.

BODY ON BAKER STREET by Vicki Delany: Gemma Doyle runs a bookshop that specializes in all things Sherlock Holmes and supplements the book inventory with gaslight mysteries of a similar tone. She gets a call from the assistant of the writer of the latest bestseller in that genre, who wants to set up a book signing with practically no notice. Because having such a big author in her small shop will be a promotional coup, Gemma agrees to set up the event. The diva, Renalta Van Markoff, is flamboyant, phony, and mean when her adoring fans aren’t watching. Not everyone is adoring, though, and she drops dead during the signing, one of the water bottles she demanded having been poisoned with cyanide. One of the many suspects, a regular customer of the bookstore who takes offense at Renalta’s treatment of Holmes (which includes putting him in an affair with his married housekeeper, who’s better than he is at solving crimes), asks Gemma to help clear his name as she’s done in the past because this apparently isn’t her first murder. (According to reviews, it’s the second installment, but the books themselves aren’t numbered to inform customers of that.)

Gemma’s main qualifications for mystery solving are that she’s very observant, she’s had contact with all the suspects, and she used to be romantically involved with the police detective and so gets away with more witness tampering than most people would. I had a cozy mystery binge in my past, so I know the genre has conventions you just have to suspend belief and roll with. None of this, therefore, is an issue.

My issues are with the writing itself. It was obvious long before Gemma was asked to investigate that this wasn’t the first book, and not because people were coming to the shop to see a real-life sleuth or because she was just getting over an injury sustained during her last investigation or because she has a commendation on her desk from the mayor to spark a memory of previous events (none of which happened). There’s actually no mention of previous crime fighting until the “can you clear my name” at the very end of Chapter 7, a third of the way through the book. Instead, you can tell there was a previous book by the completely irrelevant information shoehorned into scenes. For example, Gemma’s friend and business partner Jayne says she canceled a date with her boyfriend so she could finish reading the diva’s book. They’re talking about the book signing, so the part about reading the book is the important thing, and its importance is indicated by blowing off the date. However, it’s followed by almost an entire page of thinking about how Gemma and the boyfriend dislike each other and how he interrupted an assault and thinks he saved her life although she was doing perfectly fine without his help and he keeps throwing in her face a Chinese proverb about being responsible for a life you save and and and. There is NO REASON to share this information. The boyfriend doesn’t appear until the final chapter of the book, after the story is finished (and then NONE of this is even alluded to—he barely speaks and does nothing). Even if he was involved in the actual story, this would be a crappy way to characterize their relationship. You’d show their mutual antipathy through their interaction in the present. If you felt you absolutely must go into their backstory (you’d probably be wrong, but…), you’d make him say, when they part ways, something like:

“Be sure you look both ways before crossing the street.”

I suppressed the urge to stick out my tongue, though it would serve him right for treating me like a child since the night he mistakenly believes he saved my life.

That would wink at previous events for previous readers and adequately explain their relationship to newcomers, but since HE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS STORY, there is absolutely no reason to devote words to him. There are a number of little things that have no bearing on this story and shouldn’t be cluttering it. They’re not adding anything previous readers don’t already know, and they’re speedbumps for new readers, who should be able to jump into this kind of series at any point since there’s no overarching plot people need to be aware of to understand what’s happening in the current installment.

Then there’s the investigation itself, during which Gemma asks a simple question and every person she speaks to vomits a full-page monologue containing twenty times more information than they were asked for. They’re suspects in a murder. She’s a complete stranger with no authority to ask them anything, and she doesn’t even have a compelling cover story, just “let’s talk” and they spill their guts. That doesn’t often happen in real life, and it should happen even less in fiction because story doesn’t exist without conflict. Conflict is wanting something that someone else doesn’t want to give you and having to work to obtain it, not “I have a few qu—” “HERE’S MY LIFE STORY, TAKE IT, I DON’T NEED IT.”

Examples of 'interrogating' suspects

One character’s full-page monologue in response to “You mean you’ve been pursuing her for years?”

Screenshot of a book page in which a character gives a full-page answer to a yes-no question

A different character’s full-page monologue in response to “She didn’t like being a writer, did she?”

Screenshot of another book page in which a character gives a full-page answer to a yes-no question

Totally natural responses to these questions, right? Hell, just ask them if they killed her and stand back to make room for the confession to pour out. Case closed!

Eh, I have time for one more clunky thing. Gemma had been speaking to a female detective for eight pages before unloading a physical description. Again, that’s unnatural. When you look at someone, you notice what they look like right away, and so it should be in writing to orient the reader. Now, there are varying levels of detail that can be provided, from none (if the person is an extra too insignificant to warrant a clear description) to lingering and graphic (if you’re seeing them for the first time and like what you see, or not). Providing no description at all upon introduction signals the reader it doesn’t matter, so they fill in that character from their own mental central casting. Telling them EIGHT PAGES LATER they were wrong about age, race, height, weight, hair and eyes, attractiveness rating, distinguishing markings, etc., is a slap in the face. It’s a writer’s job to convey information to the reader when the reader needs it in order to participate in the story as intended, not pages after they’ve done the work of filling in blanks themselves.

I debated whether to persevere with this for the mystery, which seemed okay, but I ultimately couldn’t get beyond my angst about the writing. DNF at 45%.

Back on the cozy horse to “prove” I have nothing against the genre! Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

THE CRACKED SPINE by Paige Shelton: After being laid off from her museum job in Kansas, Delaney Nichols replies to a cryptic ad for a position at a rare book store in Scotland. After one phone call with the owner (during which she spills her life story but neglects to ask for any information about the job), she’s hired, packs her bags, and moves across the Atlantic. Her first day on the job, she accompanies her boss to a small, secretive auction, which is one of the tasks he hopes to delegate to her eventually. His sister is supposed to make an appearance there but fails to do so—because she’s dead, and the rare tome of Shakespeare her brother had entrusted to her is nowhere to be found.

If attempts to convey dialogue with accents irritate you, consider yourself warned: every “ye,” “tae,” “dinna,” “wilna,” “verra,” “havenae,” and “oor” (and sae much mowar!) is transcribed in excruciating detail. I didn’t mind at first because the words “play” in my head as I read and dialect adds a little flavor, but I’m also not terribly concerned with the authenticity of the depiction, as others may be. What I did find bothersome were the hamfisted “translations,” such as “Aye” meant “yes.” Who gets to adulthood without sufficient exposure to books and movies to know that? It’s how you vote in favor of something. It’s in every pirate story, if you encounter it nowhere else. Is the character really supposed to be that dense, or is it a comment about the expected vocabulary level of the reader? Either way, not a fan.

This is another case of the writing being detrimental to the story: He nodded confusingly in a place where a nonverbal gesture of agreement made perfect sense. Saying she wasn’t a gossip and promptly blabbing to her cab driver about her employer’s dead sister’s drug abuse. I didn’t know if the laws about willingly going with the police were the same in Scotland as they were in America and ONE SENTENCE LATER dispensing the brilliant legal advice of “I don’t think you have to go with them.” Why is the person who just got here and knows nothing seemingly in charge of everything? Yes, it’s a genre convention that someone who has no business investigating crimes is thrust into that role, but… this one isn’t thrust. She doesn’t discover the body. She’s not a suspect. She met these people 24 hours ago, so they’re not bosom friends she needs to help AND ALSO SHE’S NOT HELPFUL. Her sleuthing superpower is episodes that sound like psychosis (in the clinical sense, not the sensational one), during which she’s unaware of reality while playing out scenes from books in her head—which, by the time I DNF’d at 47%, had not been a useful crime-fighting tool. A protagonist should be uniquely qualified to perform the task at hand, no matter how farfetched her involvement might seem, specialized knowledge or social connections or access to places official investigators lack. This character is just there when stuff happens and reports it, an observer drifting from one event to the next rather than someone who acts with purpose.

Here’s one page that illustrates a couple of chronic issues: talking heads and Q&A.

Screenshot of a book page demonstrating talking heads and Q&A pattern, explained in text below

The sentence in blue brackets is the sole “action” on this page, and it takes place above the guy’s neck. If something like this survives until the draft that goes to my editor, she leaves me a note that says “David Byrne,” and I know I’ve plonked my characters down somewhere and forgotten that they are in a place and can move parts other than their faces. In the pictured scene, they’re in a coffee shop, where there are plenty of props to incorporate in an occasional motor movement or environmental cue to (a) ground the reader in the scene and (b) break up monotonous dialogue.

The red circles mark the ends of Delaney’s sentences. Every single one of them is a question. Unlike the aforementioned book, the person she’s interrogating is a friendly coworker, so it’s not absurd that he would answer her twenty thousand questions, but the unrelenting Q&A rhythm is awful. In my experience, the only time that occurs in nature is at a restaurant. (How are you folks this evening? What can I get you to drink? Are you ready to order? What sides would you like with that?) Some of the ill effects could be alleviated by inserting some thoughts to process the information gathered and by turning some questions into statements—for example, “Wasn’t there a romance or something?” could become “I heard there was a love triangle between Jenny, Monroe Ross, and Genevieve Begbie,” which would not only break up the slide-whistle pattern but also demonstrate that she had retained information revealed previously in the story, which is frankly questionable at times. It won’t solve the problem entirely, however, because the root of the problem is that she doesn’t have any valuable insight because there’s really no point to her presence in this story she’s narrating, and that’s a problem that could have been fixed only at the premise stage when choosing the lead character.

Two books is not a representative sample of a genre, obviously, and I’ve enjoyed cozies in the past (I was particularly fond of Nancy Martin’s Blackbird Sisters), but two duds in a row from authors advertised as “bestselling” leaves me a little wary about current market conditions compared to 10 or 15 years ago when I last binged on these. I wonder if, like UF, I found it at a time when what was being published really suited me, and then it decided someone else was a more profitable audience and veered away from what I want. OR maybe I’m overreacting to a couple of stinkers because of personal stress and should keep looking for better books.

That’s a lot of books for me for half a month, but the freelance well is dry and I have a lot of time on my hands to read. At this rate, this post will be 12,000 words long if I wait until the end of the month, so I’ll cut it off here and save the rest for later.

2 comments on “Reading Challenge: January 2019 (Part 1)

  1. I really enjoyed your critiques of those last three. I’m a reader and don’t think like a writer but I enjoy seeing the process discussed in your takedowns of the cozies. And I so agree on your points about A Study in Honor (White lady here fwiw). One unfortunate side effect of diversity in publishing – and I think I’ve seen you call it out before – is publishing houses and white authors jumping on the money train and putting poc on the cover for instant representation. I know “queer black women Sherlock Holmes retelling” got a lot of ears perked up on a blog where I saw the sale posted. (I was intrigued too but the sample didn’t grab me.) I’ll make a note to myself to try and stay aware of the author’s identity in addition to those of the characters – not that white people shouldn’t write poc protagonists, but that I can be more deliberate in supporting own voices.

    • Honestly, writer brain makes reading much more difficult than it should be, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I’m due to receive a packet of romances for contest judging, and I am FILLED with dread because group sentiment is that anything that’s been published deserves at least a 7 out of 10 and WOW do I have dissenting views. Walking that tightrope between honesty and community standards is not a fun time.

      The white author/POC character issue is so fraught. There may be people out there doing it near perfectly, but I haven’t seen those. All I’ve seen is the far opposite ends of a spectrum with “look how much research I did into minority misery, give me my diversity cookie” on one end and “I wrote this character to be white, but I can change that by saying her skin’s brown, give me my diversity cookie” on the other end, and they’re equally cringey. I had to make the personal decision that I don’t want to write a character who isn’t as “authentic” as possible, but I also don’t want to steal someone else’s pain so I, a more privileged person, can sell it for profit. I’ve dropped stories I wanted to write because soul searching told me I had no business telling those stories. I wouldn’t call for a universal ban on writing outside one’s lived experience, but I sure wish motivation to do so was vigorously interrogated before doing so. But then, I’ve observed over the past few years that a certain kind of allyship is so confident everything it does is helpful by virtue of being done by THEM that even gentle questioning is a grievous insult, so I won’t hold my breath.

      Fortunately for all, I don’t have the authority to police anyone but myself and can only gripe about offenses when I witness them.

Insert comments below. By submitting a comment, you consent to have your personally identifiable information collected and used in accordance with this site's privacy policy, as stated on the Info page. All links go to moderation; non-spammy ones will be approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.