Sunday, September 29, 2013

Second Book Syndrome

I mentioned that I really enjoyed The Crown of Embers, but what I really want to talk about is why the second book in a series so often sucks, what can be done to avoid said suckage, and how this book actually fails to avoid most of the traps but doesn't suck anyway.

Some examples?  Crossed, Insurgent, Magic Study. I liked Matched, Divergent, and Poison Study to various extents, but each of the sequels fell down, and I think in very similar ways.  So you're an unknown author (all the ones mentioned so far were), and you're writing your first book.  Trilogies sell.  If the first book is good, people will come back to read more about their favorite characters.  So you write one book, self-contained but with an open enough ending to leave you room to tell more story.

This means that to some extent or another, the first book needs to wrap up at the end and leave some open space, not just for new stories with the same character, but for more of the same story.  Is this a weak point?  Is a totally different adventure about the same characters better?  Maybe that's it, but Catching Fire didn't have that problem; it closed off the occasion of the 74th annual Hunger Games neatly, but left us with the fallout from that experience and the same larger political scenario, then introduced the 75th games and turned things upside down again.  And it did a great job with this. 

So maybe you're ending on a cliffhanger, or a moment of transition, or maybe you have a temporary peace that you know will only be a lull, or maybe you just have more room to explore the problems in your world.  The problem is that you can't build tension in a second book the same way you built it in the first.  The elements that go into the beginning of a story--setting the scene, introducing the characters, introducing the problems, foreshadowing the troubles to come--some of these have been done already, some need to be changed or skipped. The proportions are going to be very different; depending on the strengths of the writer and the reader's relationship with the book, the proportions are likely to be a bit off.

(I'm thinking this through as I write here, by the way; this is not some frequently given, thoughtfully conceived rant.)

So you're building two stories: book one, and the trilogy.  You need two sets of pacing, two arcs, two sets of character development to occur simultaneously.  But as you're writing, you really need to sell the first book.  So even if the first book ends on a cliffhanger, there's got to be some sort of emotional wrap-up, catharsis, payoff. 

Which means that when book two opens, you're starting from a new "beginning."  But you've already got your characters; likely you're going to bring in some more I've never met before.  You've pushed down the bad guy; you'll either need a new one or some renewed threat.  But wait, did you spend your best bad guy stuff in book one?  Or did you leave your main character gasping in the dust, and now you have to spend a bunch of time picking them up out of the dust, brushing them off, and pointing them in the direction of the new adventure, all without character building (which has been done) to fill the time?

In that case, you're going to have to make their situation really horrible.  Things were bad in the first book, but if this is going to be a trilogy, they're going to have to get worse.  Is there anywhere worse to go?  Better be.

I feel like there's some nugget of truth I'm not getting at here, some kernel of what makes a good and exciting book that a second book has a hard time pulling off.  What did Days of Blood and Starlight do that was so good?  I think the two conflicts--book level and series level--were present in the right proportions in the first book.  It helped that it was a big chunk of flashback--the "present day" story dealt with the mystery, and then there were revelations to the mystery that gave you all this other story that was waiting there, that you were already invested in.

Did Crown of Embers do that?  A little; winning a decisive battle leaves you at a turning point in a war that you probably haven't won yet, and also leaves you with a war-ravaged nation. 

There are also, of course, the external truths, which are not the fault of the stories, but of the world they're being read in.  First, finding a new book that you love is always surprising.  A sequel will have a much harder time surprising you than the first book did, putting it at an immediate disadvantage.  Second, a first time author probably spent some time span on the scale of years on that first book.  The second one has been coming along, but now there's a timeline.  Ravenous fans like me are salivating and you have to finish it NOW.  There's no way you're going to have as much time to sharpen book two as you did book one.

This post was not as well-structured as I hoped it would be.  A few days ago I thought I had a grasp on this elusive question, but I feel like maybe it was like one of those understandings that comes to you in a dream and then is gone.  Ah, well; they can't all be life-changing inspirations.  I hope my use of italics and caps lock has made up in conviction what I lack in coherence.  Thank you and good night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Queen of (Sexy) Hearts

I want to think about what second book syndrome is and why it's a problem, why it's so hard to avoid.  But I also really, really want to talk about the two big problems I had with Rae Carson's Crown of Embers first.

Okay, right off the bat, I really enjoyed reading this book.  It's not fabulous or a stand-out by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a good, fast, engaging YA read, and I like Elisa.  The book actually did a very good job of minimizing the Second Book problems (they were there, but they weren't as problematic as they often are).  But there were two big glaring annoyances that I want to just get out there.

First, Elisa's body.  In the first book, Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa starts out as a very fat whiner.  Over the course of the book she becomes strong and thin.  The point is made several times that she'll never be truly thin, of course, but she's not fat anymore, so thank god for that, right?  Yeah, ugh.

But in this book, her awakening to romance is accompanied by discussions of her body, and if this book had a face I would punch it.  She talks about how she can't imagine someone being interested in seeing her body--a very sympathetic concern--and the point she cites about that is how her thighs brush together a bit while she's standing. Seriously, I hate it enough that here's the quote: "Would someone look past...the way my thighs just brush together when I stand?"

Seriously?!?  In what normal place and time is THAT the standard of a good body image?  Only here and now in America, and I am appalled that this is even in here.  The other stuff in the scene--her scars, her soft belly--either make sense or can be read to make sense (a soft belly can mean different things to different people), but that line....ugh.  (Tangentially related: see Rainbow Rowell's blog post on what it means that Eleanor in her amazing book Eleanor & Park is fat.)

The other issue is tied to this: when the romance kicks in (which you can see coming; Elisa loves Hector, I love Hector, this is all very good), but when it really starts to be a thing, it is SO CHEESY.  It is cheesier than the cheesiest romance novel than I've read.  The cliches that are used to describe her feelings, the ways he touches her, the totally macho things he says that are maybe very sexist I haven't decided yet--it's all just boring to the point of being ick.  And I LOVE a good romance.

Geez, this is already huge.  Okay, I'll finish up the review and come back to talk about Second Book Syndrome next time.  I've told you the things that drove me crazy, but seriously, we're talking about two passages of body stuff and then about thirty pages 3/4 of the way in where the romancing gets all brie and Roquefort and you just have to skim. 

Other than that, as I've said, a ripping good read.  I love Elisa's competency and uncertainty, I love that she has different kinds of relationships with all these different people in her life, and that many of those relationships change in both good ways and bad ways over the course of the book. 

I think the other positive stuff will come up soon, when I talk about why this isn't a problematic Second Book.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

England: Still Classy After All These Years

I have two posts worth of things to say about The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters.  One is about the ghost story and how it's constructed, and is basically a review of the book.  The other is all about the British class system, and involves my thoughts on the book Assassin, as well.  But I've been kind of overwhelmed by all the things I want to say and not quite able to tie them all together.

But you can't put things off forever; perfection is the enemy of completion.  So I'm going with a list format, with apologies for my intellectual laziness.

1. The Little Stranger is an excellent book.  It's a ghost story, technically, but that is almost (not quite) a spoiler, because there is nothing strange going on for almost half the book.  It's about an English country doctor in the years after World War II who enters into an unlikely friendship with the impoverished but genteel family at the local estate. 

I am so against slice-of-life books and intense character studies, but the first half of the book was little more than that, and I found it intensely compelling.  The doctor is--I wouldn't call him an unreliable narrator, but he's very biased, and the more he tries to explain things fairly and with a doctor's clinical distance, the more you become aware of the lenses through which he views things.  This was marvelously executed and kept me reading.

2) Well, listening.  I had the audiobook of this from before I canceled my Audible subscription, and that's why I picked it up.  The performance is amazing.  It's told in the first person from the doctor's point of view, and the narrator, Simon Vance, did an incredible job in capturing the doctor's layers.   The variation in his accents is great, and he does an excellent job with the female characters, which is often very hard. 

What he really captured is how the doctor believes thoroughly that he's being objective, rational, and scientific at every stage, but how quickly and easily swayed he is by his feelings.  He doesn't know it, would never acknowledge it, but the clinical clarity with which he describes how his feelings change over the course of a conversation, or how someone's comments make him angry, or how he does something impulsively, is so complex but so clear. 

3) I've never read Sarah Waters before.  I hear amazing things left, right, and center, and now I believe them and will have to add books like Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to my reading list. 

4) Now here's where I was really going with all this: class.  I know that this is a thing in English history and society, and I remember a line in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow about how if they'd had an Englishman with them they might have recognized the complexities of the caste system before it was too late.  And then you have YA books like Assassin (whose author is listed as Lady Grace Cavendish, who is the diarist-narrator, so weirdness there) where ladies in waiting don't understand why they can't be friends with laundresses and jesters, as though she was completely unable to understand the social structure she lives in.  It makes her seem stupid.

But then you have this book, which is so infused with class that it makes up the large part of the tension, especially in the first half.  The Ayers family is aristocracy, with an enormous house, Hundreds Hall.  Dr. Faraday's mother used to be a nursery maid at Hundreds, years ago, and he's very aware that, as a doctor, he's little more than a skilled tradesman in the family's eyes.  But they (an elderly mother and her two adult children) have no money and few friends, and he has a fascination with their house, so an odd friendship develops.

Everyone's awareness of his not quite being of their class glares from every page though it's almost never mentioned.  The house's very slow collapse, the money troubles, and the way things "used to be" all combine into the strange miasma of the place.  Someone I know said that, reading it, you picture everyone at Downton Abbey in that same time period, with no money to keep the house up.  Mrs. Ayers would be just the same age as Mary Crawley, and you can picture her going through photographs, sewing by the fire in the parlor as the ceiling sags toward the floor in the library.

It's so sad, and so poignant, and so rich.  It's delicious.  I'm eager to hear more.  You should really get the audiobook--it's 16 hours long and so worth it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Romance Quiz the Third!

New format this time for our Romance Title Quiz.  I was feeling inspired this time out, so I came up with three of the options in each item below; one (and only one) of each is real.  I think this will be easier than my other ones, but hopefully still worth a laugh!

1. Scotsmen!
a) His Highland Touch
b) Under the Kilt
c) Sins of a Highland Devil
d) Taken in a Highland Meadow

2. Horses!
a) The Cowboy's Convenient Proposal
b) The Rancher's Revenge
c) A Cowgirl's Cowboy
d) When a Cowboy Calls Your Name

3. Dukedom! 
a) The Duke Wore Dancing Shoes
b) Deflowering the Duke
c) The Duke of Danger
d) A Duke of Her Own

4. Bad boys!
a) Ravished by a Black Sheep
b) The Rogue Steals a Bride
c) Autumn is for Rakes
d) A Pirate's Passion

5. Titled ladies!
a) This Duchess of Mine
b) Count on a Countess
c) The Bare Contessa
d) Mark of the Marquess

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Everyday Hiro

"Going out in New York is never easy. It always involves construction on the 2/3 line or a samurai attack."  At least it does for Johnny Hiro, who is just the kind of guy things happen to, whether he likes it or not.

Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hero, by Fred Chao, is the story of Hiro and his girlfriend Mayumi, and the ups and downs of their life in New York City.  Hiro is the busboy and right hand man of a cranky but good-hearted sushi chef and Mayumi works at a publishing house.  Their relationship is loving and supportive, even in the face of their constant struggle to make ends meet and keep from getting kidnapped by giant lizards or platoons of angry sushi chefs.

Each issue is a romp, with an over-the-top adventure, punctuated by great little cameos (Mayor Bloomberg saves the day in more than one story; Judge Judy teams up with the cast of Night Court to bring justice to New York; Alton Brown brings you the finer points of sushi fish; various hip hop artists muse on life and what's really important).

But what really makes this amazing is the depth of the characters, the sadness behind the cheer and the love behind the blustering.  When Mayumi and Hiro fight the drag of being poor in a great city by going to discount night at the opera, it's part of this lovely balance of bitter and sweet that makes this more than a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

Mayumi is my favorite character, by far.  She's so sweet and charming, and there's so much more to her than you think there is at first.  I can't say anything about her better than Aarti already has, though, so I'll leave my admiration there.  But I'll say that it's not just Mayumi--every single character here, including the mob of angry sushi chefs and the rogue samurai and Mayor Bloomberg--has a rich internal life.  As Neil Gaiman says, "Everybody has a secret world inside of them."  Chao knows this and he shows it off beautifully.

This was a sweet one, though.  If you want a laugh and love New York, and if maybe you struggle sometimes, you should pick up Johnny Hiro.  And the second volume is out in October!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Updates and Notes

Today was the big day!  Of course you realize that I didn't buy most of those books; it would be pointless to get them all at once.  But I was afraid I'd talk myself out of them entirely, and there is no reason on earth that my disposable income shouldn't go toward these authors I like so much.  So I grabbed Rose Under Fire right away, and assuming that book club and library due dates and Netgalley teasers cooperate, I'm going to read it as soon as possible!  I'm afraid that Fangirl and Unthinkable may have to wait a bit, though; I'm spread pretty thin.

I think I'm giving up pretty quickly on another one that's been on my list.  As much as I still think Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It was one of the best end-of-the-world books I've ever read, none of the sequels quite lived up to it.  The newest, the fourth in the series, has already turned me off just a few pages in.  It's called The Shade of the Moon, and it focuses on Miranda's youngest brother, Jon.

The premise here is very different from the other three; instead of trying to survive in a world with no society, we now get an enclave, a society where there's plenty of food, but a major line between haves and have-nots.  Instead of being about physical and interpersonal survival in a world where society is just gone, you get an overly repressive society, complete with bad-guy haves who not only mock the have-nots, but consider them disgusting.

Aside from everything else--how much more often this story has been told, how little personality the "oppressor" types seem to have in the first few pages--there's a scene near the beginning where a bunch of the rich fancy clavers (enclave kids) are warning Jon away from the new girl.  I know this is a whole new world and all, but it's only been three years since the old world.  There is not enough distance between the old and the new for some of the prejudices these kids have to make sense.  I mean, this kid talks about his grandfather was sent out of the enclave in the same sentence that he's calling the non-clavers "disgusting."  Most of these kids probably have relatives, or at least acquaintances, who are out there. 

I do understand the whole mentality of looking down on the less fortunate to make your own position seem safe and all.  And it's not fair to judge after just the 10 or 20 pages I've read.  But the truth is, this book shone brightest where it was a family against nature.  A boy against society is not a book I need to read again.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Woman of the Wild West

I never got on the very well-populated Catherynne Valente bandwagon.  I picked up The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but didn't get beyond the first chapter; I can see why they love it, but it was definitely not for me.

I can't say that Six Gun Snow White is so very different, and I would call this a middling review that I'm about to give.  I finished it, because it was short and I wanted to understand a bit more of what the author was doing.  And I can't say it wasn't good--I think it was beautiful, and I think it might even be important.  This book is a poem--that's not quite a metaphor, I'm pretty sure there are definitions in which this book is a poem--and I struggled with it in the same way that I often struggle with poetry.

Snow White is the daughter of a rich white man, a very successful miner, and the Crow woman he coveted and bought/stole/took.  She's raised as his ward and maybe pet, until he marries again and her new stepmother tries...well, it's hard to explain.  It's the Old West, and there is magic, and a magic mirror.  The fairy tale is told in its setting, and things fit in lovely images into their places--the huntsman is a Pinkerton who is sent after Snow White; there are seven outlaw women who take her in and save her; there are apples and hearts aplenty.

Is there any place, any time, that is more intensely masculine than the Old West?  Anyplace with less space for women?  Knights had their ladies, and soldier are tended by nurses, write home to their girlfriends.  There is no place here for a woman, and certainly no place to see what a woman could be, what the good, healthy life that other folks are living looks like. There is  no sense of what is real and what is not, because everything is real and unreal at the same time here.  It's strange and like a fairy tale.

But this creates so much distance, I can't get close to the characters.  Snow White is in pain, but I can't tell you what choices she's making, what options she has.  If you think of it as the story of a half breed, with all the ugly exclusion and loneliness implied by that, you get a glimpse of it.  But this is about Snow White as a legend, as Coyote.

It's a poem, is what it is.  It might even be a good poem.  I hate it when people say "I don't really get that kind of book, so I'm not going to talk about it."  But I read this book, and I didn't get it.  I saw the feminism and the ideas of mothers and daughters, of whiteness and otherness, of womanhood crowded out by manhood.  I saw those ideas, those themes, couched in beautiful imagery.  But I don't know what the book was saying about these things.  I didn't get it.

I think it was a lovely poem.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Not Your Mom's Escaping-a-Cult Novel

If you put a cult in your book, I'll give it a shot.  Netgalley gave me Escape from Eden, by Elisa Nader, and hey, cult book!  Let's roll with it.

And roll we did, on a freaking coaster.  This was NOT what you expect from a book about a cult.  And while I can only give it a 2 for plausibility, I'll give it a 5 for avoiding cliches, and a solid 4 around the teenaged lust/romance (which is EXCELLENT; I'm hard to impress with teenaged romance).  In the afterword, first-time author Nader refers to writing the afterword to your own novel as "crazypants crazy."  I have only to add: yes, that pretty much sums it up.

Mia lives on a compound in the South American jungle where the Flock has followed their leader, the Reverend.  From page one, Mia knows this place is messed up and wants out--right away we're off script from my experience with cult books.  You've got the Leaving Fishers variety that shows you how someone gets sucked in, and you've got the Gated variety (very good book, by the way) that shows you how someone realizes that their bucolic community is really a mess.  Right away, though, you have to throw those paradigms out the window; Mia seems to be the only one who notices that the Reverend is a disgusting, self-righteous creature, but she wants out.

It's not that easy, of course.  She's lived here for six years, since she was 10, and her only family, her mother and brother, live here and are determined to stay.  Plus, they're in the middle of the jungle on a guarded compound.  So mostly Mia looks for opportunities, makes plans, works in the kitchen, sneaks time with her drawing pad, waits to get called to the elite Prayer Circle, and considers how she feels about courting with Octavio, her friend Juanita's brother.  You know, business as usual for your modern cult teen.

Then a new family shows up, and the hot 17-year-old son, Gabriel, refuses to bend to the ways of the Flock.  He's vocal and angry and very sexy, and Mia's drawn to him.  Right here is where the book could have lost me, but didn't.  I mean, Mia's 16 and there's a  hot boy who's an outsider like she feels, and she does appropriate things with that.  But her mother, her brother, her friends, and hey, the whole escaping the cult thing are much more real than the buzz she gets from talking to Gabriel.  SO glad to hear that.

Now, I can't tell you too much about the plot, because like I said, it gets all CRAZYPANTS.  And yeah, it's implausible, but so are all those TV shows I watch.  There's way more than meets the eye going on in the cult, and Mia's task becomes not to escape, but to save the whole Flock--her family, her community--who don't want to be saved.  (If I was a gif sort of person there would be a gif of a roller coaster here.  I've never used one and I'm afraid of the intellectual property implications.  Use your imaginations, kids.)

So there's so many twists, and a car chase in the jungle, and drugs that modern pharmacology has yet to imagine, and just enough pauses for breathing room, and my GOD it's hot in the jungle--absolutely oppressive.  I won't promise you that this book will move you, or change your life.  But I will say that I didn't see it coming, and I didn't know where it would go.  As close as I will ever come to actually riding on a roller coaster.

(Also?  I pictured Gabe looking like Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars, which I am currently gulping down (the show, not Logan Echolls.  Get your mind out of the gutter).  But yeah, that was nice.  Now, go watch Veronica Mars.  Go on, right now.  Go.)

Monday, September 02, 2013

Been Doing It Wrong

Apparently I've been doing something wrong for the past couple of weeks, because after a month in which I managed to squeeze out only about five non-comics, I suddenly find myself sweeping briskly through the one I picked up this morning.

Then again, it may be the fact that Lady Drusilla's Road to Ruin is a Harlequin Historical romance.  I love these.  I love knowing that the couple will have sex for the first time between pages 170 and 190 (the book will be between 280 and 320 pages long in total, which means somewhere around 60% on the Kindle).  I love how much time they spend admiring each other's calves and the convenient ways the author finds to force them to cuddle (she doesn't have a sidesaddle, so she has no choice but to sit in front of him on his saddle).  And I love that the sex is neither risky nor chaste.  There are places for both; Harlequin Historicals are neither.

I'm not done the book, not by a long shot.  But I can already tell you that I'm going to read both the one before it and the one after it in Christine Merrill's Ladies in Disgrace series. In this one, John is running from his unrequited love for the heroine of the first book in the series.  Drusilla is chasing her sister (heroine of the third book) to prevent an elopement that would ruin the reputation of the family.  The two fall in together and go on a long hunt for the eloping couple, gradually falling for each other, etc. etc. 

I doubt that I'm going to end up reviewing this when I'm done; unless the end is really bizarre, I can tell you that this is a story about two smart, charming people who are attracted to each other but take a little while to admit it because of misunderstandings and maybe the need to be told that they're not second best.  I can tell you already that I love it.