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The Books I Read: September – October 2016

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a discovery of witches deborah harkness
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Could we just call this what it is? Twilight for women with Ph.D.’s. I hate to give this a bad review because it’s my wife’s favorite book, but I have to tell it like it is. A coat of sophistication and aristocracy doesn’t change when the female lead acts like a weak little moron. Granted, there’s no stupid stuff like ochre eyes or tween wool-gathering or sparkles. But the characters do the same things as their red-eyed counterparts. Despite the fact that the female is a witch, she does nothing to save herself. She has no control over her powers and no desire to get any. She does a little research, then gets kidnapped or pushed around. My wife says “she’s still learning her powers, the whole series is about her growth and becoming confident”, but I don’t buy it. She is way too okay with the “You are mine now” mentality her vampire beau has. He’ll say something like “You need to stay here and don’t do anything while I go fight for you.” She’ll respond “Oh, I’m just supposed to do what you say, hm?” And then she does anyway. It’s a good book — it’ll appeal to historians and mature women — but it’s not for me.

The Isle of the Lost (A Disney Descendants Novel) by Melissa de la Cruz

It delivers what I asked for — some cheesy campy Disney stuff. Just like the movie. The best part is it expands on the Descendants universe (such as it is). We didn’t see much of life on Villain Island, but that’s remedied here. They go to school, they have parties, they interact with their parents, and plan pranks/tricks on each other. The books gives what a low budget made-for-TV movie couldn’t.

Plotwise, it’s by-the-numbers YA, showing how the fab four became friends (it was a quest). No one likes school, parents are mostly non-factors, and the kids get archetypes that didn’t exist in the movie (for example, Cruella’s son is the “smart one”, creating devices like Donatello.) Nothing really new, except occasional interjections by the author that evoke memories of bad fan fiction (as you can tell, I did not like that part). But it’s not too slow, and the novel really thrives in the second half, when they all get together. The author uses the chemistry between the characters to its full advantage. Given the absolute crap from non-children’s Disney books I’ve been reading lately (The Beast Within, A Frozen Heart), this is a life-affirming change of pace. I’m glad they’re sticking with this author because she seems right for the series.

Rewinder by Brett Battles

It’s a little bit The Giver, a little bit Ender’s Game, and follows a Hunger Games formula. A kid from the lower-caste gets “chosen” to be a time-traveling researcher. When he accidentally hucks up the timeline, he’s faced with the choice of whether to keep the new timeline (which seems better for humanity but erases everything and everyone he ever knew) or stay with the status quo. As you can tell by the transparent influences, the idea and characters are nothing new.

Yet, the novel kept my interest. At least up until the time travel got too confusing. And it does get confusing. If you thought the third act of Back to the Future Part II was bad, you will not like this novel. Even I lost track, and I love time travel. At one point there are, like, five of the main character in a given location in time, half of them are there to revoke mistakes the other made. Couldn’t keep it straight. And rather than try to figure it out, I just stopped caring. The main character’s personality is just a little too dry for me to stay invested in (he conveniently falls in love within two days’ time).

Once Upon a Dream: The Rose A novel based on Beauty and the Beast by Jennifer Baker

So, story time. When I was in school, I had a purple folder I reused for classes. As all my folders, it was covered in doodles, reminders, and scribbles. And one day I noticed in a small section was written “The Rose – Jennifer Baker”. I have no idea when I wrote this or why I wrote this. My guess is it was middle school and it was a book one of my crushes was reading. One year passes into another and another and another and I rediscover it. And I forget about it. Then I rediscover it. And then forget about it again. This continues until I finally put it on my to-read list.

It’s… it’s not good. It says it’s a “modern take” on Beauty and the Beast, but it sure as hell feels like it was made by and for the Disney movie. The father is an inventor (though this time he’s a fisherman). There’s a scene just like the “Bonjour” sequence where Belle goes around her high school and talks to all the characters. Gaston is there (and this time he’s a bro, like the preppy guy in all the eighties movies). There’s an enchantress, a ticking clock rose, a Mrs. Potts (the maid), and a fuzzy beast.

However, there is a fix to one aspect — Belle is supposed to be the protagonist, but she never really learns anything. She was right all along. It’s Beast who has to change, and this book focuses more on that. We get more of his perspective, his back story, and loads of his angst.

But the plot never deviates from the path laid out by the cartoon. I was hoping this would be closer to the Charles Perrault tale, where Belle has two spoiled sisters and her father is a merchant. But nope, it’s like someone wrote fan fiction and said “It’s Beauty and the Beast… but in modern day!” except you’ve got to do more than just fast-forward one hundred years to have an original story.

Wool by Hugh Howey

Reminded me of Leviathan Awakes. Both are science-fiction, both are long novels that evoke the styles of serials, both have multiple POV characters, both deal with dystopias and social stratification, both take place in far future worlds where business is happening, and you’ve got to figure out what the characters already know (and it’s kinda fun). It held my interest moderately, in that I didn’t really care what happened to the characters, but wanted to learn more about the mysteries of the silo (where they all live). While the characters don’t have much personality, the author is masterful at keeping the tension between chapters high (also something it has in common with The Expanse).

This is an idea story, not a character story. Which means it feels more like an engineering module (this event leads to this; the characters expected this, but this happened) watching characters get around obstacles. It lacks a personal touch, either through humor or passion or empathy or human emotions like disgust and despair. I guess it’s difficult to do that when following “show, don’t tell” (which this novel does quite well), but it means I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequels. I just didn’t invest in the characters enough to want to spend more time with them.

Friend by Diana Henstell

I should not have finished this book. I resolved to myself not to read bad books, so what do I do? Keep plodding through this doorstop to the end.

I rented Deadly Friend on Netflix and was surprised to find that it was based on a novel. I thought “a thorough story about a robot and a Frankenstein girl? Yes, please.” But no, I should have stopped there. It’s an idea that better rests in the mind than in tangible form. It is so overwritten it’s obviously trying to stand on the same pedestal as the Stephen King mass market paperback thrillers of 1985 (it’s even got alcoholism and a small New England town). And it’s just as overwritten. SO overwritten. Every thought a character has, every nuance of movement, every past detail is rehashed, sometimes six or seven times. As if the reader is too stupid and needs a review every POV switch.

In the book, the robot is a lot less “Johnny Five” and more “1980’s robot” from the muppets. It doesn’t even talk. And its creator is a twelve-year-old kid who brings it everywhere he goes — to school, the grocery store — like it’s his security blanket. It’s no retelling of Frankenstein and it’s no thriller. It’s slow, it’s stupid, and it ain’t got no style. Not a single character is likable, least of all the main one. His mother should be taking him to therapy, not to a genius academy. His mother calls him “Piggy” for chrissakes. The science is appalling, the dialogue is cheesy. It makes one wonder how this idea passed muster in the agent’s room.

Daily Farland’s David Kick

I subscribe to David Farland’s Daily Kick, which is not so daily or kicky. It’s basically a mailing list for writing tips blog. I can’t remember how I first heard of this — I’ve never read any of his books — but sometimes it has good articles, like how to sell to new markets and things people miss when writing female characters. But lately, there are two trends that have really been bothering me. Things that are making me think about unsubscribing.

One is probably due to what’s on his mind — eBooks. He’s written a lot about the failings of the paper industry and the advent of the eBook (some of which I’ve written about, citing his content). Granted, some of it’s exciting. But he’s also fond of the topic because he’s created his own eBook company. And its first publication is a book he wrote.

Of course it’s in his best interest to promote the future of eBooks — his company sells them! I understand that eBooks are awesome, but I’m still learning how to put scenes together. He’s writing about post-modernism and fine art and stress diagrams — things that are way beyond me and beyond the act of putting words on paper (or a screen that looks like paper). It’s nice to put this kind of thing in the back of my head, but it doesn’t help me get an agent.

The other is that he’s constantly praising Stephenie Meyer (writer of the Twilight books), but never seems to say why. Guess what? He was Meyer’s writing instructor in college. He says he remembers considering her final grade and thinking, quote: “This young woman has a very interesting and unique voice. If she ever really gets consumed by a tale, she could go very, very far.”

In another e-mail, he talks about how all authors are disdainful of others’ work. Case in point: Stephen King’s famous quote “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” Farland says King doesn’t understand because Meyer isn’t writing for people like him. Her themes of teen love and sex are why Twilight is reaching so many people (you’ll note that he doesn’t say that Bella makes all the wrong decisions regarding those issues — being manipulative, emotionally blackmailing people, and being an all-around monster. She’s like a housewife of Orange County.)

Let me tell you, I’ve never read the Twilight books, but I’ve read a lot of analyses of them, with intelligent arguments by critics I respect. There are a lot of theses that tear down her writing, but I haven’t found any that praise it. And frankly, from the passages that have been cited, I don’t see how you could. And I’ll stop here before I get into a Twilight rant — I wouldn’t be saying anything that other, better people have already said.

So I find myself getting sick of Farland pushing his own agenda. I’m sure he’s a good writer. I’m sure he’s terribly good at what he does. I’m sure he’s a master storyteller. He’s treating writing as more of a business instead of an art. Which is fine — it is partially a business. But he seems to be advising you to be like Meyer, and look at how much people hate her. I’d rather not leave that kind of legacy.

Things You Should Know About: MarzGurl Picks Apart Twilight

marzgurl anime

MarzGurl is one of the Channel Awesome (A.K.A. Doug Walker’s That Guy With the Glasses) vloggers. She specializes in anime and the works of Don Bluth, which are a lot more comprehensive than I thought.  Plust she looked smoking hot as Princess Mononoke in Suburban Knights.  Channel Awesome’s more known for their videos, but right now MarzGurl is doing something I think is fairly important.

She’s examining Twilight, the book, as she reads it. She was curious what all the fuss was about, as any good geek should do, and is posting a literary analysis as she goes on.

I’m really impressed with the level of detail. She’s looking at exactly what is wrong chapter by chapter, specializing in Stephanie Meyer the writer and Bella the character. And it’s not just good because Twilight deserves to be bashed (and if you don’t believe me, click the link).  It’s good for writers. It shows the level of detail you need to go into when making a novel, unless you want to reveal yourself as an incompetent fraud.

For example, in the first few pages, it’s immediately clear that Meyer has no idea what time her story is taking place. Bella starts in Phoenix, AZ and going to upper Washington state. Even though it’s not relevant to the plot (what plot?), MarzGurl does a great job illustrating that, by the context clues, there’s no way to determine what time of year it is.  The temperatures and precipitation cited are inconsistent with the real world. It’s clear that the author herself doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.  And that’s bad writing.

Not to mention the great descriptions of how apathetic, ungrateful, shallow, whining, and manipulative Bella is. Before we even learn about Edward, she has three other boys pursuing her, and she doesn’t give a rip.  Yet she claims to be unattractive and plain.

Not to mention Meyer’s writing style. I’ve never read her books, but I can see right away, by the passages MarzGurl points out, how inconsistent and nonsensical her prose is. People don’t sound like they’re talking to each other. They don’t sound like real people, let alone teenagers (she did get one part right – that they’re self-centered). Plus her characterization hops from one mood to the other, with no motivations. There’s a lot of “and then” connectors, but “but” and “therefore” like there should be.  She can’t decide if Bella wants to be noticed or unnoticed.  She can’t decide if Edward wants to be around Bella or not.  She can’t even decide what time it is.

So check it out. Twilight fan or not. You’ll be glad you did.

MarzGurl Picks Apart Twilight: The Novel