I am on what I like to call a religious vacation. Continue reading “Losing my religion”
I used to read more fantasy.
Scanning my bookshelf, I see magical realism and memoirs where I once kept wizards and fairies. I still love Harry Potter and I’ll take a good prophecy every now and again, but I avoid outright magical stories.
It’s possible these books are to blame.
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross
I bought this long-desired tome, along with many other books, after graduating high school. I splurged, spending $18 of my $200 limit on a single title.
Worth it, I thought, for my soon-to-be favorite book.
At the time, I hadn’t learned to be skeptical of ensemble casts. I’d fallen for the characters – including an Irish mechanic, a half-robot, and an American gunslinger– while reading the cover blurb. And…what’s this? A cowboy-robot-mechanic love triangle? Count me in!
I put this book in a place of honor on my dorm room shelf.
Much as I hate to admit it, I have to credit this book for stoking my interest in writing book reviews.
The positivity ends there.
Kady Cross treats the steampunk genre as license to write whatever she wants.
“Look at these badass Victorian wenches wearing pants on their MOTORCYCLES!”
“Not modern motorcycles. These are powered by MAGIC.”
“For historical accuracy.”
“And the women are wearing corsets.”
Know what, Kady? Do whatever you want. Throw cowboys and robots and serial killers in your book. I don’t care.
But must you sully the love triangle?
There were TWO in this book, and they added NOTHING.
Cross uses the X-men as inspiration without including the ideological tensions and personality clashes that make those mutants interesting. There’s a difference between, “Let’s throw these two in a room together and see what happens,” and “Let’s make these two hate each other, just to spice things up.” The latter choice means the characters haven’t been developed enough to create conflict on their own.
Full disclosure, I did read the sequel. Kady Cross threw out both love triangles with a casual, “Whatever, these are my ships now!” Admittedly, I was intrigued by Wildcat, the biracial Irish gang leader with…cat claws?
Then Cross introduced a Southern dandy as the villain and I couldn’t take it anymore.
The Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck
Once upon a time, I flew to Nellore, India over 36 hours.
Before my trip, my mom bought me several books of my choosing.
This is the one I remember.
By happy accident, it turned out the book was set in India. Cheered by this auspicious beginning, I started my adventure.
Let it be known, I have since tried and failed to reread this book, so props to 18-year-old Lauren for sticking it out. (Once again: former completionist, dark times.)
For all the uproar over Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011, people missed out on this junior version released the same year. This book oozes with wish fulfillment.
What’s that, teenage girl? You feel alone and unloved? Here, let me give you:
- a handsome Indian prince who
- is TOTALLY ripped and
- has tons and tons of money that he uses to
- buy you whatever you want, INCLUDING
- four years tuition at an Oregon college, along with room and board, not to mention
- he thinks you’re super sexy and
- he tells you all the time how desirable you are and
- he’s an AMAZING kisser but
- he respects your desire to wait and
- (…I don’t want to say it)
- (…don’t make me type this)
- …he has a twin brother
- …who’s a bad boy.
I need a shower.
Is wish fulfillment the problem? No. The new “Star Wars” films show childhood dreams can still create compelling stories.
If you want to write a compelling story, you better go all out. I’m talking developed characters, believable romance, interesting conflict…PROPER GRAMMAR, at the VERY least.
If you just want to serve up pointless fantasy set in exotic locales? Post that online instead of charging $20 for subpar prose.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell/The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell writes a killer blurb.
On paper, his books sound amazing, promising grand cosmic adventures.
I remember being thrilled by the plot concepts of both books. As I’ve shown, great concepts always result in great stories! (Wrong.)
Both novels are a slog. I groaned my way through Cloud Atlas and gave up on The Bone Clocks.
I dislike when I engage with literature and don’t get much out of it. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what these books were trying to say.
I wonder, though, if David Mitchell has anything to say. In my view, he relies too heavily on creative formats and complex plots. Readers compliment the “accuracy” of Cloud Atlas’ different styles: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing reads like a journal, the Luisa Rey mystery reads like a cheesy 1970s mystery, etc.
Others who have read the book see six diverse genres forming a cohesive story.
I see six pointless, equally-dry sections devoid of emotion.
I had a similar problem with The Bone Clocks, where Mitchell pushes the promised cosmic battle to the fringes to focus on unlikable and uninteresting characters.
Patrick Ness attempted something similar with 2015’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, where the protagonists played bit parts in the “real” story. He chose to emphasize the emotional struggles of these “unimportant” characters, creating a moving story even as the “plot” carried on without them.
Mitchell’s writing makes it hard to care about his characters. With his books, I know I’m supposed to be wowed by what he’s accomplishing, yet come away confused about what he wants me to feel.
I wish I knew what he was trying to say.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I didn’t pay full-price for this book.
The book was $26.00 when it first came out. No WAY was I dropping almost $30 on a book! (Unless it was a textbook. Somehow that passed muster.)
But what a book it was! This stands out in my memory as the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. And I wanted it. I wanted it bad. Every time I saw it in a bookstore, I’d run my hands over its gold-flecked spine and ruffled pages, whispering, “Soon…soon…”
Miracle of miracles, I found an Advanced Reader Copy of this very book IN PAPERBACK for $8.00 at Half Price Books. Because I’m a slow learner, I bragged about the purchase to my grandparents. Not ONLY was this book going to be amazing, I’d gotten it on SALE!
While they were enjoying PLU’s annual Christmas concert, I cracked open my ARC and…
…I don’t want to say I was bored…
…but I was bored.
Not all novels start great. I kept reading.
It did not improve.
Helene Wecker writes stilted prose.
Instead of sweeping me away with her plot, she points out why I should be swept away. It’s hard to engage in a grand adventure when I’m constantly being reminded how grand the adventure is.
Despite this self-conscious self-presentation, this book is NOTHING special. It’s the tropiest bunch of tropey whimsy stuffed in a pretty cover. It’s not awful, but it’s so lackluster it might as well be.
NOTHING about it stands out. While reading, I checked off plot points as they happened: here’s the budding friendship; here’s the lost love episode; here’s the Heroic Sacrifice…
I just…didn’t care.
About any of it.
It always hurts when I get rid of a beautiful book. If I had the space, I might keep it around for aesthetic reasons… On second thought, I couldn’t do that. I don’t need a daily reminder of this disappointment.
To add insult to injury, I tried to sell this book back to Half Price Books, where the buyback attendant informed me they don’t take ARCs.
Good ol’ genre fiction. The stories I love tend to be more plot- than character-oriented, promising a fun ride. My favorite genres include chick lit, mystery, romance, and adventure.
Meet the biggest offender for each of the above genres.
Kale, My Ex, and Other Things to Toss in a Blender by Lisa Greenwald
Most Confusing Moral of 2017
In my defense, I was going through a breakup when I bought this book.
I LOVE breakup lit. And revenge stories. And, again, I was in a bad place.
I bought this book during the summer, the perfect season for fun, fluffy literature. Not only did I find the title hilarious, I loved the idea of two girls creating their own smoothie business as part of an elaborate scheme to destroy an ex.
I was so ready.
I ended up finishing this, partly fueled by rage. The writing offended me. Completing this book become a test of will: could I finish a novel this awful?
Listen, if you’re going to sell me a fresh plot, you better deliver. Don’t promise me a smoothie stand if all you’ll give me is gross teenage romance and friend fights. I don’t care about these characters. YOU don’t care about these characters. Why develop them at all?
Both protagonists find love in this book, which…okay, one of them just went through a break-up, but you know what? Go for it.
Both romances were disgusting. The author amped up the awkwardness of teenage boys by a thousand. Normally cringeworthy lines became unbearable. “Quirky” behaviors multiplied like rabbits. One of the guys used flashcards as his “in.”
AND NO ONE CALLED THEM ON IT. Neither protagonist said, “Huh, that was kind of gross,” or “Is he hitting on me using trivia?”
Instead, both girls found the weird pick-up lines, moves, and excuses “kind of sexy.”
I now understand asexuality.
The VERY worst part of this book (and this is a spoiler): the girls blow all their hard-earned smoothie money on a helicopter ride to school. Now everyone will know who they are!
WAS THAT THE MESSAGE THIS WHOLE TIME?
WAS THAT WHAT WE WERE SUPPOSED TO LEARN???
All that time getting revenge on the ex, hooking up with gross boys, and rewriting your friendship dynamic…the real goal was showing up the jerks at your high school!?!?
I can’t. I can’t anymore. I’m done.
Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorian Cirrone
Best False Advertising of 2005
Looking at this book as an adult, I can see where I went wrong.
I love a good mystery; give me plot twists and whodunnits and thrills. Tipped off by the symbolic pumpkins, I realize now the author never intended the mystery to be the main focus.
I missed that detail as a 14-year-old.
After one or two mentions, the promised ballerinacide gave way to:
- the [teenaged] protagonist considering breast reduction surgery to further her ballet career
- the protagonist’s sister fighting for the right to draw realistic penises
- a censorship march with a chant that rhymed “rude” with “drop your pants, dude.”
- (my favorite plot point and a huge spoiler) the love interest’s expulsion for writing the threatening note (“It was a metaphor! I was quoting a poem!”)
As a former completionist, I read the whole thing (it was a dark time.)
I remember best the disappointment. In my view, Dorian Cirrone LIED to me: if you wanted to write about censorship and body image, why didn’t you just tell me??
Can we mark this as the official moment where I lost my innocence? That seems healthy. Let’s do it.
The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore
2015 World Record Holder for Fastest Romance
I’ve noticed book reviews use the word “lyrical” when they have nothing nice to say about the story.
Everything I read about this book continued in that vein: the prose was “lush,” the love story “magical,” the world “fantastic,” all very impressive descriptions for a debut novel. From all appearances, this looked to be a whimsical romantic journey.
None of the reviews mentioned how harsh this book is.
I will put up with a lot if like a story enough, but I draw the line at abuse.
This book isn’t very long, only about 300 pages, and yet unnecessary acts of violence comprise most of the plot: the chemical rain that burns the protagonists; the physical deformity Cluck received from a family member; Cluck’s older brother stabbing his sibling’s hands with a needle.
The promised romance covered 40 pages. In those pages, the leads went from enemies to lovers to back to enemies. The author packed too much relationship into too few pages.
After the aforementioned needle stabbing, I couldn’t continue.
I’m torn – McLemore also wrote a trans romance that sounds great, but after this? I expect 200 pages of physical violence capped by a single kiss between the leads.
Not worth it.
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Winner of the Medal for Worst Execution
Squandering solid ideas infuriates me.
Sometimes I feel like coming up with ideas is the hardest part of writing. Even if something excites me, I wonder, “Is it strong enough to fuel an entire story?” If it’s an idea with a lot of required research or moving parts, I wonder, “Am I motivated to complete this?”
I’d like to be a great little cheerleader who supports other writers and their attempts to create, no matter the quality.
Instead, I’m the slackjawed critic made sick by wasted potential.
If someone publishes a unique idea – an unusual setting, a specific historical retelling, an unlikely perspective, a speculative bent – that idea is now timestamped with their name on it. Others can be inspired by this idea or use similar elements to make their own stories, but they can’t use that idea without someone crying foul. The original, amazing idea belongs to whichever author thought of it first.
How does this relate to my rant?
Before I answer, I have a letter to write:
Dear Heidi Heilig,
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
Let’s take an inventory:
- Diverse pirate crew: YES. Have I mentioned pirates at all – AT ALL – this entire rant? No? Well, I love ’em. I only read historical fiction if it has pirates.
- Promised love story: I’m here for it. I LOVE love stories. Drinks all around!
- Time travel: This?? This is GENIUS. And not just time travel – the pirates can travel to any time period and location, real or imagined, so long as they have an accurate map. That’s AMAZING. What a clever twist.
- Natural father-daughter conflict: I must be getting better, because a few years ago, I couldn’t handle father-daughter conflict of any kind. This book took an interesting tack, too, with the fight involving protagonist Nix’s fate. In short: the father wanted to return to the place and time where he met his babymama so he could rewrite their tragic relationship. Doing so, however, would write Nix out of existence.
Look at all these DELICIOUS ingredients. SURELY all these separate parts would yield a wonderful recipe. Just let that tension simmer…
No? You’re not even going to turn on the heat? I mean…okay, Heidi, it’s your story.
The pirates…the pirates aren’t even gonna pirate anything? Just talk about it? Geez, hope the father-daughter conflict is better than this…
WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO CONFLICT? Why is the protagonist RESIGNED to her fate? WHY IS SHE HELPING HIM?
At least we’ve got that love interest kicking around. Surely… Oh, he doesn’t care about her. RAD. Wait, Heidi, are you trying to push a race angle with him? Stick to sucking the tension out of your story.
Okay, we’re switching locations!! It’s time for some action!
…OR the protagonist can go shopping. That’s cool, too.
Ew, who’s that freckled kid? WHO’S THAT FRECKLED KID? HEIDI! ARE YOU THROWING A ROMANTIC FALSE LEAD AT ME RIGHT NOW? HEIDI! ANSWER ME! I’M NOT STUPID, HEIDI. DON’T TRY TO DISTRACT FROM YOUR THIN PLOT! HEIDI! GET BACK HERE!
I gave up after 80 pages. Once Freckle McPonytail showed up, I knew Heidi didn’t have anything interesting planned. With the plot at a dead halt and the characterization barely present, I couldn’t see anything promising on the horizon.
So I abandoned this book with all my hopes and dreams.
I hear you wrote a sequel, Heidi. I hear you duologied this garbage.
I wish I could go back in time to the moment I bought this book as a depressed, unemployed recent graduate. I would MOVE BACK TO BREMERTON if it meant I could ERASE THIS BOOK FROM MY MEMORY.
You betrayed me and I don’t care anymore.