Tabs and Follow Me

November 8, 2018

I read Charmed Life

This week's novel is Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones.  This was on a recommendation list for books about magic schools, and Howl's Moving Castle, another of Jones' books is one of my favorites, so I thought I should check this out.

Cat's older sister Gwendolen is a talented witch, so when their parents die and they're eventually whisked off to live with Chrestomanci, the rich and talented wizard, she thinks she'll finally get the attention, respect, and power she deserves.  Cat is just homesick.  But when Chrestomanci refuses to let Gwendolyn use magic, and she sets out on a series of daily magical pranks to get attention, things get even more difficult for Cat, who's put in the middle of trying to appease his sister and trying to fit into his new home.

I really liked the first half or so of this book, because Gwendolen's siege against Chrestomanci, trying to get a rise out of him, felt real to the kind of crap a kid would pull who has just lost her parents, and then been displaced from her home.  It felt like she just needed some attention, even if that attention was punishment.  If she gets in trouble, at least the adults in charge are noticing her.

I also liked how Cat is the devoted underachiever, and that he loves his sister even if she's being a pill.  I liked how his life was structured so that "Gwendolyn is going to do great things, and I'm not" is a fact that's never questioned or resented.  That felt real too.  It also felt real that he struggles so hard with standing up to her, and that he wished she'd calm down so he could make friends with the other kids at Chrestomanci's castle.  He just wanted to play in the tree house, but his sister needs him to help her make giant spider monsters so she can disrupt Chrestomanci's dinner party.

So I'm pretty disappointed that the ending ruins all of that.  I was expecting Gwendolen to have a sobbing breakdown where she admits she only wants love and misses her parents and is trying so hard to be the great witch everyone back home expects from her and it's difficult do deal with the realization that she was a big fish in a little pond.  I was expecting Cat to realize he had his own power, and to move out from under Gwendolyn's shadow, and for Gwendolen to realize that she'd been overbearing.  That would have been a more emotionally satisfying book for me.

That is not what happens.  In fact, what happens has to be summed up at the end in true Jones style with Chrestomanci explaining everything while everyone has tea.

I did like the hints at the mystery that are strung along through the book.  They were enough for the reader to know there were things afoot, but not enough for me to piece it all together myself.  It was also reasonable that Cat, after hearing these clues, wouldn't have his interest piqued by them and investigate them to their conclusion. Jones does this all very well.

As a warning, this was written in the seventies, and there are a couple moments of weird racism just dropped in for no reason.  All the instances are so brief that if the lines were cut, the story wouldn't lose anything but racism, but it was the seventies, so no editor cared.  It's really more jarring than anything else.

Next week: The Muse of Nightmares, the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, by Lani Taylor.

October 14, 2018

Homophones!

I got edits back from my agent this week.  Most of the edits were line edits, which are edits for spelling or punctuation or word usage.  Line edits are things where you go, "Oh shoot!  You're right," and then you click to accept the change and then move on with your life.  They aren't big, global things like "I don't understand this character's motivation," or "This scene makes no sense," or "You should add a bunch of background or world building or cut a character."

Most of the edits were line edits.  A big chunk of them were homophone mistakes.

Homophones are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently.  Two, Too, and To.  Your and You're.  Don't worry, I've got those under control.

What I don't have under control are things like "compliment" and "complement."  Did you know those are two different words?  I just learned that a few years ago, and it's still blowing my mind.  One means that things match or improve upon one another, like "That dress complements her complexion."  The other is something nice you say to someone.  "Thank you for the compliment about my dress!"  For a real long time, I thought they were the same word, because both words are about lifting one another up.  We're complimenting each other!  We're complementing each other!

Alas!  This is not the case.

The other one that blew my mind was "wander" and "wonder."  One is when you stroll around without direction.  One is when you think about something real hard or are in awe of something.  I thought these were the same, because when you wonder, you are wandering around in your thoughts.  Just...figuratively.

Alas!  Also not the case.

I'm real bad at homophones, y'all.  This is why the podcast was successful.  No one can hear if those mistakes are there.  Or not there. Maybe I did everything right.  You'll never know.

This week, I made myself a Big List of Homophones.  It's a list of way too many homophones that I'm likely to mess up, and before I send anything else out to my agent, I have to check everything that's on there and make sure I'm using it all correctly. 

October 11, 2018

I read Leviathan Wakes

This week's novel is Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

I'd heard good things about The Expanse TV show, but at first, I didn't have access to it.  Recently someone told me that the first couple seasons were on Amazon Prime, and I settled in to watch it.  It might be a combination of my TV, my air conditioner, and the dialects that the characters have, but I can not hear a single word anyone is saying on that show.  I turned the first couple episode up really loud and then I turned on the subtitles for the third episode, and then I realized that I didn't know anyone's name or what they were talking about, and if I was going to read the whole thing, I might as well track down the book.  So thanks, Chicago Public Library!

In the future, a large portion of the solar system has been colonized, with Earth and Mars in an uneasy peace and people from the asteroid belt treated like second class citizens and reliant on Earth and Mars for resources.  Detective Miller of Ceres is given a case of tracking down a girl named Julie, who has been hanging around with asteroid belt rebels, and whose rich dad wants her kidnapped and shipped back to Earth.  Turns out Julie's ship was attacked in transit and the wreckage was found by a water tanker, which was promptly nuked by a stealth ship using technology from Mars.  This sets off events that lead to armed conflict between the belt, Mars, and Earth, and through it all, Miller is trying to find Julie.

I get why this was made into a TV show.  There are about a dozen set-piece action sequences, where a ship explodes or a riot happens or there's a space battle or they have to escape through a platoon of marines or zombies attack.  It's a little exhausting to read in large chunks, but if you take a break after every episode, it's fun, even when you know there's still 15% of the book left and at least two more horrible things are going to happen.

I like how long the space travel takes.  A couple of weeks pass between destinations, which feels genuine to the massive distances while at the same time putting us in the future where those distances are possible.  It doesn't make traveling too easy, often emphasizing that if they're accelerating at 3 g, it means they spend the trip strapped in.  The book does a good job of not dwelling on the boring transits while still conveying that time has passed.

I also just really like stories where colonizers on Mars end up fighting with Earth.  I think it's the residual love for Babylon 5 that will never wash off.

I realized a little way into this book that it was written by a white dude, and I haven't read a book written by a white dude in a while.  Parts of it felt a jarring after not experiencing them in a while, and I find it refreshing to think about how I could go so long without reading a book by a white guy that that could happen.  There really isn't anything wrong with it, it's just that the two point of view characters are both men, and there are scant few female characters, and there is an awful lot of talk about balls.  Having balls in high gs sounds awful.  Thanks, book, for drawing this to my attention.  That kind of detail probably wouldn't make it into a book written by a woman, and that's why representation is important.

***

Next week: a book not written by a dude.  The Power, sci-fi where women take over the world, by Naomi Alderman.

October 4, 2018

I read The Belles

This week's novel is The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton.

In a world where everyone is born with gray skin and red eyes, a set of magical girls, called belles, can change people's appearance to make them beautiful for a price.  Camellia has worked her whole life towards being skilled enough to be The Favorite, the belle assigned to the royal family, who sets beauty standards across the country.  When she finally reaches that goal, she finds that the position is way more dangerous than she'd ever thought.

I have a couple warnings to start with if you're thinking of reading this book.  1. There are egregious examples of bury your gays.  You read that right, "examples" is plural.  2. There's a series of headlines, just several in a list, and one of them mentions a trans person.   Somehow in that single headline and single mention in the entire book, it still manages to misgender them.

I'm not in the mood to find stuff I liked about this one.

This book did not dive into the themes set up in the premise as much as I was hoping for.  This story seems like fertile ground to talk about how arbitrary it is that some features are considered beautiful and some aren't.  Especially given that the main character is a person of color, whose skin tone and hair texture are, in modern American culture, considered undesirable.  Since there isn't race in this fantastical society, Camellia's skin tone is treated as just a variant on a theme, and--heck--let's get into that!  But no.  The premise also seems like fertile ground for discussing how only the wealthy can afford the treatments to make them beautiful, while the poor are gray, red-eyed troll people.  Do the gray, red-eyed troll people think they're ugly, because they're told they are every day?  Do the wealthy look down on them? Has anyone tried to make a fashion statement by having openly gray skin?  Being beautiful is something mandated by the Goddess they worship, so what does it mean that they're charging people to obey the goddess' mandate?  We don't know.  It's not important. 

Instead, the book focuses on how the princess, who will probably inherit the throne, is a cartoon villain, and Camilla needs to stop her/do everything she says.

I was even expecting for the beauty standards of this world to be bizarre and engaging.  If you're starting from gray, why wouldn't people have blue skin and three eyes and hair that sticks straight up in the air?  I was expecting full on Capital from the Hunger Games, and although there are blips of weirdness, the book never lets loose with it.  And that makes the moments of weirdness confusing.  Are they supposed to be weird?

"The wardrobe opens and the interior explodes with color.  Dresses with full skirts, A-line cuts, empire waists, sheaths, long sleeves, cap sleeves, no sleeves, V-necks and scoop necks and plunging necklines.  Dresses made of brocades, laces, velvets, glass beads, cashmeres, silks, and pastel satins in every color and pattern.  Special carts follow the wardrobe, carrying vivant dresses inside large glass bell jars.  These are dresses made of living things.  Butterflies open and close their wings, exposing their dress's inner rib cage.  Honeybees buzz in and out of a honeycomb-shaped gown.  Roses of every color wave their petals."  I can picture everything but the honeybee dress, which seems wildly out of place.  Then on the next page, there's this:  "I'm wearing one of the Fashion Minister's latest creations--a honey-and-marigold bustle dress with a waffle texture and a waist-sash of striped fur."  Is...that pretty? Does Camilla think it's pretty?  To me, it doesn't sound stunning or wild, just...unpleasant.

That's a problem I've been encountering a lot.  If a setting or a dress is described and none of the characters give their opinion on it, sometimes I can't tell if the reader is supposed to be awed or think, "Wow, that's tacky."  Maybe it's because I read this book right after Crazy Rich Asians, which does a similar thing, but the point is supposed to be that--yep--that's pretty tacky.

***

Next week, I'll be in a better mood with Leviathan Wakes, space opera by James S.A. Corey.


October 2, 2018

Chicago Center for Supernatural Support, Episode 12: Finale

 



The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 3: Chicago Center for Supernatural Support

Episode 12:Finale





September 30, 2018

Slang dates your writing. And that's OKAY.

I'm following the facebook page for Just Write Chicago, a group where I used to be an active member but these days not so much.  Mostly, I ignore what they post, so I probably shouldn't be following them, but every now and then they link to an interesting article about craft.  A couple weeks ago, though, they linked to an article called "Writing with Slang."  It's from Grammar Girl, which has the lay/lie chart that I always google and gives some good tricks for remembering homophones, which I suck at.  This article, however, gave me THE RAGE.

It's about how using slang in your writing dates your writing.  Yes.  This is true.  Using language particular to a time and place, sets your work in a time and place.

HORRORS!!!

The article starts with a list of slang phrases, all of which are either derive from African American communities or from teen girls.  Huh.  It's almost like their language shouldn't be taken seriously.
It goes on to give an example of Lord Buckley, who translated Marc Anthony's funeral oration for Caesar into slang used at the time by beantniks. 

A screenshot

I beg your pardon?

That passage is great!  Do you feel the way it flows?  How it perfectly matches the meter?  How it's poetry that washes over you, even if you don't know what every word means?

It reminds me a lot of listening to...what am I thinking of?...hmmm...oh wait.  Shakespeare.

Is this article serious telling me that Shakespeare, with its many many footnotes, makes more sense?  Surely they're not saying that Shakespeare's writing is more timeless because he doesn't use slang.  Surely they're not saying that his writing isn't dated by the language it uses.  They're saying here that Shakespeare is easier to understand (I would argue it's not), and they're arguing this without getting into the fact that we have accepted Shakespeare's slang due to linguistic imperialism: slang from cultures that beat all other cultures into submission ends up not being considered slang anymore.

I'm so mad.
 
Then it goes on to tell me not to use slang in my writing, except sparingly in dialogue.  Because this person has never heard of a first person or close third person perspective.  Or maybe they have, but they've only thought about it if an upstanding character who does not use slang (or whose slang is not considered slang) is the point of view character.

I get it.  Language changes fast, and there's a chance a new term or a phrase won't survive more than a few weeks or months, or that it won't find a place outside the niche culture in which it was conceived.  There's a real threat that no one's going to know what you're talking about by the time the book you wrote gets published. 

However.  Sometimes those niche cultures need representation.  Those people need to see themselves.  They need to see the way they talk and the way they think.  And anyway, teen girls are not a niche culture.

I'm also done with this idea that your Great American Novel can be timeless by making it not apparent what time period it's set in.  I run into this idea a lot in writing meet ups, and I'm sick of it.  Let's look at the white dude cannon: Hemingway, Falkner, Fitzgerald, etc--they set their books in a particular time and place, which gives their settings and characters a distinct richness.  Let's look at sci-fi set in the future or in second-world fantasy not set on Earth.  Within a decade, these become clear products of the times in which they were written.  They can bring baggage of biases about race or sex or gender or colonialism, or they can date themselves with ideas about where technology will progress or with the lack of technology that has progressed, or they can date themselves by what they see as a threat: fascism, nuclear annihilation, climate change...Okay, maybe that one's a bad example as those threats have all made a comeback. 

This idea that you could possibly write something that wouldn't show its age is the height of hubris.  That's not what being "timeless" is about.  To attempt to do this, you would have to suppose a world where you could remove all things that would change, where biases and power structures remain stagnant or are so far removed from the characters' experience as to be non-existent.  Or both.

Yeah, it's natural to cringe away from things that feel a decade old, things that are at the point of being embarrassing instead of nostalgic.  It's easy to make fun of Elaine Benes's shoulder pads or the language in Clueless.  But if the things that set your story in a certain place and time are too much to look past, maybe you have bigger problems. 



And by the way, Clueless?  Still a great movie.  Know what else?  Similar to the example that started off this rant, it's a retelling of a classic work of literature. 

September 27, 2018

I Read Crazy Rich Asians

This week's novel is Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.  I've been hearing all sorts of good things about the movie and decided to check out the book.

Rachel Chu, an economics professor in New York agrees to go with her boyfriend, Nick, to his home in Singapore for his best friend's wedding and to meet Nick's family.  Nick does not warn her that his family to filthy rich and Rachel gets swept into decadent homes and ostentatious parties full of people who think Rachel is a gold digger and are determined to break them up.

This is a silly book. 

It doesn't really have an end.  There's several characters who we are following, who each have their own arcs that ramp in intensity.  But instead of the usual rom-com ending where there's a definite happy bow put on the end that ties everything up, in this one, they all get to places where you can see where they'll go from here and then the book doesn't waste your time showing it to you.  Two of the story lines have very obvious parallels, but the book ends without any of the characters realizing it or learning from each other.  In many ways, it feels like a fizzle.  It feels like things happened, and I read about them and was entertained, and then it was over.

And I think that's the point.  This book is much more "Look at these weirdos!" and "What a whacky situation!" than it is about characters learning and growing and coming together.

That comes through in the descriptions too.  There are are sooooo many descriptions of buildings and decor and houses and planes and cars and jewelry, which all go to show how much money is being spent on everything, but sometimes you have to stop and ask if it's classy or supposed to be classy, if a dress is beautiful or if a fancy dinner would taste good.  Sometimes, the answer is clearly that the people have money but not taste so they're just flaunting their wealth.  But then other times there are people who look down on those who are flaunting their wealth, only for their bathroom to be described and for me to squint and ask if that's supposed to be classy.  Is any of this supposed to be classy?  The lines start to blur.  This is the heart of the novel, so the book's ending is just another moment of strangeness.

I don't think they could get away with it in a movie.  I wonder what they did.  Don't tell me.

***

Next week: The Belles, YA magical beauty standards, by Dhonielle Clayton.