11 Jul

Reading Challenge: July 2019 (Part 1)

Doing a two-parter again since this post is already approaching 4,000 words not even two weeks into the month.

In this installment, I present to you nonfiction about fiction, four novellas that came in Tor’s Pride bundle of LGBTQIA+ authors, and romance… in… spaaaaaace that reinforced my decision to stay away from romance. It hasn’t been a great month so far, so strap in if you like book bitching, and here’s your warning to click away now if you don’t.

Cover of Damn Fine Story by Chuck WendigDAMN FINE STORY by Chuck Wendig: This is a writing book, and my assessment is colored by the angle from which I’m approaching it as a writer, so bear with me as I blab about me first. I don’t like it any more than you do. Scroll past if you don’t want context.

I’ve been published for 23 years. I’ve read a lot of writing books. I’ve been to a lot of workshops (and helped develop more than a few). I’ve been studying writing nonstop for two and a half decades, picking locks in hope of finding treasure that will help me advance to the next level. A lot of writing advice is absolute shit that no one should ever follow. Some is applicable in such a limited number of circumstances, hardly anyone will ever need it. Most of the good stuff is recycled—which isn’t inherently bad. Delivery matters. One source might be too formal and bore a seeker of knowledge before the point gets through. One might be too informal for another seeker of knowledge to take seriously. My biggest resistance point is rigidity and absolutism because anyone who says their way is the only way is a controlling egomaniac I wouldn’t trust to guide me into the next room. As a result, sometimes you have to hear the same info from three or four or ten different sources before someone says the magic words that make the lightbulb go on in your particular brain. Knowing this, I go into all how-to-write guides with the assumption I’ve already heard everything elsewhere but looking for one little nugget of wisdom presented in a way that illuminates old info I haven’t fully appreciated up to this point.

There’s nothing new in this book. There are no deep dives, obviously, since there are entire books written and 12-week workshops taught about single topics that are addressed in a chapter here. This book might be a good starting point for someone with a snarky sense of humor (Wendig tends toward jokey and profane—his Twitter feed is representative of his tone in this book) with a particular love of Star Wars (if, like me, you can’t help but be aware of that franchise but are not a fan of it, the constant use as a reference may make your eyes glaze over periodically) who could use an introduction to concepts like character arcs and definitions of scenes and sequences, delivered in a friendly, accessible tone that acknowledges up front that there are no absolutes and you should take what works for you and ignore that which doesn’t resonate.

If you’re beyond introductions, though, it’s unlikely to add any material to your personal writing wiki. I didn’t say OH HELL NO at any point, but I also didn’t take note of any gems that were useful to me. I got a few chuckles, learned more than I’ll ever need to know about elk masturbation, and added “rewatch Die Hard” to my to-do list, though, so it wasn’t wasted time.

Beware of conspicuous “grok” usage. That’s a once-per-book kind of word rolled out often enough (eight times) to look like a tic.

A note about footnotes in ebooks: They suck. On my tablet (which I don’t do long-term reading on because staring at an illuminated screen for more than ~7 minutes triggers migraines), I can tap the note identifier, get an instantaneous popup of the note, close the popup, and get right back to reading. On my eye-friendly dedicated ereader, I have to either arrow down to the note identifier, press a button, wait several seconds for it to go to the note, then wait several more seconds to be returned to the text OR wait until the end of the chapter where the footnotes appear inline, by which time I have no idea what the hell they’re in reference to. I’m compelled to read them because SURELY no one would create something so tedious if there weren’t valuable information inside, but alas, that has never been my experience. In this book specifically, the footnotes were mostly designed to decrease my opinion of Star Wars by 375% from where it started. YMMV with superior neurology and/or more advanced technology.

Cover of The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret KilljoyTHE LAMB WILL SLAUGHTER THE LION by Margaret Killjoy: Content warning for off-page suicide.

Danielle’s friend Clay recently killed himself. In search of answers she knows she’s unlikely to find, she travels to his last known residence, the anarchist colony in the abandoned town of Freedom, Ohio. There, she learns Clay and four friends summoned a spirit in the form of a blood-red, three-antlered deer that eats the hearts of oppressors and abusers. Clay left town after he became convinced the spirit would turn on its summoners, only to end his own life elsewhere. On the day Danielle arrives in Freedom, she witnesses the spirit killing another summoner, suggesting Clay’s fears were justified. The town splits into two factions: “Murder Deer has gone off the rails and needs to be sent back from whence it came” and “death to the enemies of Murder Deer.”

Danielle is rootless by choice, but she’s not uncaring toward others. She cares enough about her friend to investigate what went wrong in his life. She helped Clay’s mother through the funeral. She easily makes new friends she’s willing to risk bodily injury for, and she takes a proactive approach to solving problems rather than having to be coaxed or pushed by the plot. I like her, and I’m happy she has a new found-family. (Based on the final scene, it appears they have further adventures together.)

The only fly in the ointment is something I may be overthinking but can’t not.

Total, complete, and utter spoilage

The captain of Team Death to the Enemies of Murder Deer tries to play the victim so Murder Deer will murder Danielle and crew. Clues to Murder Deer’s motivations left by Clay in his journal lead Danielle to believe manipulating Murder Deer to do your dirty work is the one thing other than being an oppressor/abuser that gets one murdered by Murder Deer. She wants that guy gone, so she hurries along his “oh, save me, Murder Deer” BS by pointing a gun at him. Murder Deer knows it’s being used as a weapon by that guy and responds murderously toward him. However, Danielle—who is equally guilty of using Murder Deer as a weapon to get rid of her foe—suffers zero consequences.

She had previously been bitten by one of Murder Deer’s zombie livestock minions, which left an obviously weird wound I would expect to be important in future stories, so maybe that conferred some sort of leniency, but that’s not stated IN THIS STORY. Based on what’s IN THIS STORY, Murder Deer should have killed Danielle, too, and the failure to explain why that didn’t happen feels like either a logic oversight or unjustified plot armor.

It’s not a big enough issue to ruin the whole story, but the sharp “wait a minute…” did throw me out of it near the end and remains distracting.

Cover of Passing Strange by Ellen KlagesPASSING STRANGE by Ellen Klages: Content warning for on-page suicide (pills).

Helen’s last quest at the end of her life is getting revenge on a rare book dealer who swindled a friend of hers. She sells him the elusive, original, final piece of art created by pulp cover icon Haskel for a sum she knows is pretty much every penny the dealer has. Then she closes her bank account, gives the money away, and—satisfied that her work is done—quietly overdoses. The bulk of the story is a flashback to 1940 San Francisco leading to the creation of the image and the reason it’s been hidden like a cursed object for the better part of a century.

This is a lesbian/bisexual love story in a setting where not being “feminine enough” was a crime. (I was woefully ignorant about the three-article rule, so I learned something new to me.) There’s a little magic performed by one character near the beginning of the flashback, so I assumed cool, magic world. Then there was a looooooong stretch devoid of any magic, which made me wonder what the point of it was well before it came up again near the end of the flashback, at which point the first magical act was repeated and a different character with no previous hint of anything magical performed major day-saving magic completely out of the blue. It was interesting and integral to the plot, but it wasn’t set up well enough before the payoff to seem like the natural outcome of what came before.

Cover of Kai Ashante Wilson's A Taste of HoneyA TASTE OF HONEY by Kai Ashante Wilson: That’s such a gorgeous cover by Tommy Arnold. The story, however, didn’t work as well for me. It spans a period of 60+ years and jumps back and forth between the past and future. It begins with a 2-week affair between Aqib, the protagonist, and a male soldier, in a place where that sort of love leads to public executions. The soldier says Aqib should come with him when he ships out, but Aqib says no because his duty is to stay and marry well to increase his family’s station so his younger sister can have a better class of suitors. Fast forward several years, when Aqib has a child through an arranged marriage and “gods” (they admit they’re not gods but superior mortals) engage his wife in a lengthy advanced math exam that was not especially fun to read and never became relevant to the plot, other than to set up taking her away for scholarly/spiritual pursuits. Fast forward again through several scenes with his daughter at various points in her life.

There was some interesting worldbuilding (intellectual pursuits are “women’s work,” and it was snort-worthy to see an illiterate man explain that women need books because their brains are too small to hold information, which is exactly what a man would say in that situation). Relationships are complex (Aqib’s brother beats the shit out of him, but they’ve also had good brotherly moments; Aqib tries to be a worthy husband although his wife wasn’t of his choosing, and he’s an extremely devoted father). I just wasn’t sure what the point of much of what happened was supposed to be, and the twist at the end had me regretting my persistence.

More total, complete, and utter spoilage

None of it ever happened! Everything between Aqib’s lover leaving and his old age in his 80s is a vision he bought because he wanted to know what his life would have been like if he hadn’t sailed away with his first love, which is what actually happened and they’d been together for decades and remained deeply in love and expanded their family with a niece and her baby, but instead of that “true” story, we get “It was all a dream!” I would have been interested in why he was worried he made the wrong decision or needed confirmation that he’d made the right decision, and what effect his lack of certainty had on the people actually in his life. But that wasn’t the story! The story was stuff that never happened! Yes, I’m still mad about it!

Also, other than the scenes about the initial 2-week affair, Aqib was more of an observer than a participant—which makes sense, in a way, given that (unbeknownst to the reader) he was basically watching a movie the whole time, but focusing on him is like… I don’t even know, watching somebody watch a movie instead of watching the movie yourself? It was frustrating to know other people were doing something more interesting with their lives but centering a passive observer instead.

Cover of JY Yang's The Black Tides of HeavenTHE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by JY Yang: The Protector, who is a tyrant, squirts out twins (Akeha and Mokoya) for the sole purpose of handing over to the monastery to fulfill the terms of a previous agreement with the abbot. When one of the twins demonstrates a gift for prophecy, the Protector wants that twin returned to her. The abbot isn’t a twin-separating monster, so he sends them back to the palace together (and forfeits his plan to train his successor). Moko (the prophet) has a vision of the abbot’s studly young replacement, the twins go to meet him, and their tyrannical mother tries to have them and him assassinated for political gain. Fast forward a dozen years to Akeha being a smuggler and helping some rebels. Oh, and magic nukes and attack raptors (as in feathered dinosaurs) that show up for the first time in Act III. If this summary sounds disjointed, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Children are addressed with they/them pronouns until they choose a gender for themselves. By 17, Moko is ready to declare herself a woman, but Akeha remains ambivalent until considering for the first time living as a man. The process of transition is briefly mentioned with hair growth and reconstruction of bones via elemental magic and some ongoing medication that sounds like the equivalent of real-world hormone therapy. It’s an important part of coming of age in this story world, and it’s a source of conflict between the twins and with their tyrannical mother, so it’s relevant and balanced well with other story elements.

This was another frustrating story for me structurally. Akeha tells it, but for the first two-thirds(?—it’s difficult to measure progress because it was in a bundle), Moko is the one doing the majority of interesting things—as with the previous story, the observer is centered rather than the doer. When Akeha leaves Moko and strikes out into the world alone, he finally becomes the star of his own story, which reinforced the feeling I’d had all along that the story started in the wrong place (at their BIRTH) and focused on the wrong character (for TWENTY-NINE YEARS). If it had started in Act III, it might have been a better short story than 240-page short novel.

There’s a trend I’m not fond of, in which stories are nothing but anecdotes laid end to end with no relation to one another except a common character (the disjointed issue alluded to above—one event after another, none of which causes the next and none of which will ever be referenced again). I like a narrative throughline. I like each scene being crucial setup for what comes after. If nothing I’m reading is going to be important later, if nothing matters, it’s a waste of my time to read and retain any of it. Clearly, since people keep acquiring and publishing this style of story, some people find it unobjectionable (because it’s perceived as more “literary,” perhaps?), but it’s not for me. I need to start paying attention to editors again so I can avoid those whose preferences are the opposite of mine.

Akeha says “checkmate” during the final boss fight. This is an alternate universe with tame velociraptors and elemental magic, and there was no previous suggestion chess exists in this world, so that word was what I call a fishhook in the eye that yanked me out of what was supposed to be a dramatic altercation to wonder about poor word choice for the worldbuilding. (But even if he’d been a world-renowned chess champ, it would have been a really weak Famous Last Word.)

SUPER total, complete, and utter spoilage

Near the end, Akeha has the opportunity to kill his tyrant mother, who orders mass-murderous “purges” of her dissenters, but he decides to be the bigger person and walk away so she can… continue doing her mass-murderous purges. He doesn’t kill her or have her imprisoned or even dethroned or even make her promise to behave herself in the future. Just walks away, thereby preserving the status quo that’s getting people murdered in droves. Fuck that. I am so goddamn sick of wishy-washy “civility” bullshit. SOMEBODY has to get their hands dirty to stop the bad guys—and it’s not like Akeha hasn’t killed dozens of people before making this snap decision to become a pacifist.

Inaction in the name of imaginary moral superiority makes you complicit in everything the villain does after you choose to do nothing to stop them. Not naming any names, but if you live in the same world I do, I’m sure you can think of a few people giving corruption carte blanche in real time.

Cover of Polaris Rising by Jessie MihalikPOLARIS RISING by Jessie Mihalik: Ada von Hasenberg is a child of one of three elite tech families. She ran away from home to avoid being married off into a different family to serve as a corporate/political spy. The story begins with her being captured by mercenaries hired by her father and thrown into a holding cell with war criminal Marcus Loch. Before she can be handed over to her father, the ship is boarded by her erstwhile fiancé’s goons, who murder the crew. Ada promises Loch a rich reward if he helps her escape, and they hop in a shuttle and flee to a grungy former mining planet currently overrun by mercenaries to figure out what’s going on and plan their next move.

There are some good things. Ada’s competent. She can hack into anything. She prepares for disaster. She’s aware of her physical limitations. She acknowledges the situation sucks and then deals with it without wallowing in spoiled-little-rich-girl self-pity. She comes from a physically affectionate family (her siblings, anyway), and after an ordeal, she asks Loch if she can just have a hug, and he gives that to her, and it’s comforting. (And then it gets IMMEDIATELY sexualized because he “requests” a kiss in a way that seems super transactional, but hey, you can’t expect a Real Man™ to provide comfort without being paid for it, right? HOW COULD I NOT LOVE THIS GENRE. At least his hugging fee was “just a kiss” and not sticking his dick in her when she’s vulnerable because, hey, she owes him.)

And then there’s the rest.

One of my better editors once said, “If you’ve written a romance novel, you don’t have to keep reminding people it’s a romance novel.” Meaning, if someone who picks up your book expecting it to deliver the genre conventions of falling in love and living happily ever after will have that expectation fulfilled, not every moment of the characters’ existence has to ping the romantic relationship. Presumably, the characters aren’t locked together in an empty room for 300 pages. Fully realized characters have other relationships, ongoing tasks that pre-date the arrival of the love interest, things to do and places to be that take precedence above their love lives—and in the midst of dealing with a situation that isn’t about the romance, it’s not only unnecessary but detrimental to throw in a random reference to the romance as if to reassure the reader you haven’t forgotten it’s a romance. I say detrimental because it negates the importance of everything else going on when you interrupt it to say, “But don’t worry, I know what’s REALLY important in a Romance Novel™ and all this other junk is just filler.”

For example, Ada and Loch are fleeing from baddies who boarded the ship under false-friendly pretenses and immediately started slaughtering people. If they’re captured alive, worse things will probably be done to them. They fight their way to an escape shuttle, but the outer bay doors don’t open completely. There’s a high likelihood trying to squeeze the ship through the gap will rip the hull to shreds, but they’ll be captured if they take time to figure out a better option. LIFE OR DEATH STAKES, PEOPLE! THERE IS SO MUCH TENSION IN THIS MOMENT! Until:

While casual hookups were common in the Consortium, at least then you knew what you were getting—and you’d likely known the person for years. Hooking up for a one-night stand with a stranger wasn’t usually my style, but looking at Loch, I might be willing to make an exception.

Well, the situation can’t be all that dire if Ada has the luxury of musing about past and future boinking in the midst of the alleged danger, can it? If I’m about to die, I’m going to be frantically thinking about lots of things—ways to save myself, where I went wrong to get myself into this predicament, how sad the people who love me will be when they hear I got ripped to shreds—but my sex life isn’t anywhere on the list. Since this was prompted by Loch taking over the manual controls to guide the ship through the gap and boasting about having good hands, it would have been a good time for a scathing quip about getting them out alive before she’d consider taking him up on that offer and immediately returning the focus to the danger. Instead, we got a reminder This Is A Romance Novel that took all the teeth out of a moment that had absolutely nothing to do with romance. It seemed like about once every chapter there was an out-of-place paragraph like this crammed in as an afterthought, like somebody other than the author went through after the story was written and advised, “It’s been 10 pages since you had something romancey, insert sexy thoughts here.”

Then about halfway through, the bright red flag of “he’s jealous so he must really care about me” arose to smack me in the face. Loch says later that he knows the other guy was pushing his buttons and it was wrong to get angry—but then he keeps doing it. (Life Tip: An admission of wrongdoing without change is a promise to continue doing wrong.) Loch and the guy who deliberately provoked the jealousy subsequently beat each other bloody for fun, and this display of macho posturing and violence is so sexy to both Ada and Loch that they have to immediately find someplace to fuck. Watching the brutality of this fight would have been a really good time to revisit the fact that there’s a bounty on him because he murdered his own battalion (extremely violent, can’t be trusted by his comrades—stuff that a current comrade maybe should take more interest in), but nope! Too horny for personal safety.

This is exactly why I don’t want to read romance anymore. It’s too hard to find books that take the opportunity to correct toxic behavior when it comes up rather than portraying it as heart-warming and sexy.

DNF at 50%.

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