neadods: (reading)
I've commented there - and keep meaning to go back now that I'm not whipping through my flist in a Stratford cafe; I will be soon, promise, Karen - but wanted to bring this to my LJ for some more pondering out loud.

[R]eviews are completely and utterly subjective. That in almost every case, a review isn't about what's being reviewed, it's about the reviewer and the filters through which he or she receives the world

Karen is talking in part about looking at reviews of Doctor Who stuff and going "buh?" but mostly about what it's like to be an author and subject to reviews that have nothing to do with the author's intent, or even point of view. Since I just cranked out two reviews that were almost completely about my reaction to things that were totally beside the author's intent, I'm going to give the flip side commentary.

The Dear Author tag is there for me to blow off steam; an anonymous barbaric yawp of response to something that's driving me right out of my tree. But sometimes I'm actually sending in the review to Reviewing the Evidence and one of the reasons I stuck with them when I dropped the other reviewing jobs is because they will print negative reviews. And I want that, I want that freedom to say "I had a huge problem with this."

Now, reviewing mysteries is partially very objective. No matter what else happens in the book, there's a logic puzzle at the foundation, with specific rules of play. It's a given that the readers want to play the "home game" and figure out the conclusion themselves, so do they have the information they need? Is the puzzle logical? Is the placement of clues helping or hindering the pacing? Are there enough clues to figure it out?

Many of the standard writing conventions also apply. Are the characters believable? Does the dialog sound like normal speech? Does the setting make sense? Do the mechanics work? The judgement here is a little less objective, but there are still things that can be pointed to without going through too many of the filters Karen mentions.

The subjective part is where those filters come into full play, and I have no problem with sending in a review saying "I had a huge problem with X because of Y." Mostly, it's because I'm bone-deep convinced that if I have a problem with something, so will another reader. I'm simply not that much of a special snowflake.

My specific filters, and when they come into play )

In my view, pointing out things like this isn't just a filter, it's a reviewer's duty. Women are half the reading public - close to 100% of it in the cozy subgenre - and we have a right to know EXACTLY what we're funding before the cash goes down. Whether it's what the author meant is beside the point. It's what the author *said,* about the world, and the readers.


In retrospect, I'm not sure if this is a response to Karen or just a rant. I'm hitting "post" anyway.
neadods: (reading)
Dear Author,

I know you don't know me, so you haven't seen my rant about first lines. But you can't possibly have made it to the publication stage without seeing some convention panel, how-to book, website, or writing class on the vital importance of a grabber opening.

Just for the record? "Your ass looks great in that dress" is not a good first line.

Still, this was a review book, so I soldiered on: sometimes a stumble at the beginning is made up for later. Victoria Laurie has great grabber lines and a bad habit of putting them somewhere between paragraph 3 and paragraph 10. (She needs an editor to pay a touch more attention to her, or possibly vice versa.) Terry Pratchett has started typing any old thing on the first page, but then he's Terry Pratchett and everyone knows he'll deliver.

You, on the other hand, are your Very First Book. And your Very First page and a half was about whether said ass looked good because of a girdle or control top pantyhose. I know you were trying to establish your characters, but by the time the plot started abruptly on page 5, all you'd established was that I didn't like either one of them and couldn't care less about their fate.

Honestly, while I'm not a big fan of the future-tense-then-back-up opening (where we join our plot already in progress and back up to establish the scene) it is SO much stronger an opening about asses and hose! Because the point of this book is not that the narrator has a nice ass nor that she has the obligatory chic friend as Greek chorus. It's about the mystery. So start with the damned mystery! You can still introduce your characters, but within a context that isn't utterly vapid!

"Have they found your car yet?" "No, and I have no idea how I'm going to replace it on a professor's salary." That's pallid, but it at least introduces some form of the action.

"Campus crime is up, I see. They've had a break in, your car has been stolen... wonder what's next?" There's some context. Or, since this is a rural college: "You wouldn't expect there to be much crime in an isolated university in the middle of the woods, but that didn't stop someone from stealing my car. You'd think that they would have taken a pampered student's rolling status symbol rather than a professor's clunker." Maybe not page-turners as opening lines, but they aren't as bad a turnoff as a butt discussion.

But then again, it's a first book and you have limited time to make your mark in the overcrowded cozy world, so why not get right down to brass tacks? "If I thought getting my car stolen was bad news, that was nothing compared to the police finding it with the body of one of my students in the trunk."

Now THERE'S a must-read opener!

But(t) no, you went for the rear view. Which one only gets when one walks away, so bye-bye!

Signed,

Moving on
neadods: (reading)
Dear Audiobook Author,

I was all excited at the idea of reviewing audiobooks. I could listen to a book while I caught up on sewing, exactly the sort of multi-tasking I like to do. But then I started actually listening and it all started going pear-shaped.

At first I blamed your reader, who care-ful-ly e-nun-ci-a-ted each syl-la-ble, making it sound like the story was being read by Stephen Hawking, or an oddly avuncular dalek. No prose could survive that flattening. (Particularly in comparison to the tie-ins I've just been listening to. Hardly the strongest books in the new Who line, but David Tennant is impressing my socks off with his vocal range.)

But then I realized that it would take a machine to read something that starts as excitingly as:
She could not get rid of those old clothes. The scraps might be used for making a quilt. She could make a quilt for her son. Then she realized that her son was dead, killed in a car accident with his wife. It would be odd to make a quilt for a dead person. People might talk. She could make the quilt for her grandson.

Not even a paragraph into the horror novel and I'm thinking "please let her die horrifically. Soon." I've bitched about this kind of thing before. Unless your name is Terry Pratchett - and he rarely disappoints me this way - if the first paragraph sucks, I'm not sticking around for the second.

Dude! Here are some syllables for you: char·ac·ter·i·za·tion. Or how about plot de·vel·op·ment? ten·sion? I'd even settle for fore·shad·ow·ing.

Mov-ing on,

Moi.
neadods: (Default)
This started out as a generic "why are so many 'novels' these days really novellas?" and then it suddenly mutated. (It also lost a little coherence, so this isn't as polished as many of my rants.) Because as I framed the argument, I realized that the shrinkage of reading material wasn't happening to all sorts of books, it was happening to one genre.

Chick Lit. And by extension, cozy mysteries, which are predominantly written and read by women.

Furthermore, chick lit (and to a lesser extent, cozies) are marketing themselves with distinctly cartoon cover art. Art that's less involved than the average graphic novel or anime sequence (unless we're talking Pokemon).

What, we need to make things simple and stupid for the little women out there?

I'm going to start with a cover rant, because there's such a wonderful example of what I'm talking about. Deborah Donelly writes a cozy series about a wedding planner who ends up solving bridal-related crimes. Her first book, Veiled Threats, has full-cover watercover art of a woman in a wedding gown, with a gun on a table pointed towards her. Her second book, Died to Match,, is also full-color art, of a woman in a bridal gown holding up a skeleton mask, standing next to a body outline. Subtle, but pretty, and the themes of murder and mystery are present.

Book #3 (May the Best Man Die) though, shows a cartoon bridesmaid in a shortie santa skirt looking stupidly bewildered at a prone cartoon man. (This time, Amazon won't let me link directly to the cover art.) The book after that shows a wide-eyed cartoon woman in a bridal gown in a very Marilyn pose, trying to hold her skirts down as she jumps, using her veil as a parachute.

We've gone from dignified women with a touch of creep about them to caricatures showing a lot of leg and looking dimly befuddled by the predicaments they're in. Why, precisely, is that supposed to attract me into picking up the book?

Carrie Karasyov & Jill Kargman (more on them in a moment) had a photograph of a cotured woman holding a handbag on the cover of The Right Address, the title obscuring her face. Their second book, Wolves in Chic Clothing also devolved to cartoon characters, but you never see their faces either. It was bad enough that Phillipa Gregory's covers show their subjects from chin to knee, as if anything that made them look like individual beings was verboten, but at least they're pictured as people. The Devil Wears Prada, Everyone Worth Knowing, Wolves, and dozens of other chick lit books reduce their cover girls to faceless cartoon characters. (Oh, just typing that line gave me the wiggins!)

It wouldn't be so bad, if the contents weren't becoming equally dumbed down. Much as I like the Undead and... series, the "novels" are really novellas. Even printed in 12-point type with 1.5 line spacing, there are barely 250 pages to each one. Karasyov and Kargman, who are building a career out of rewriting classic women's literature as Park Avenue social climbing, can barely milk 300 pages out of their inspirations. The Right Address is Rebecca - only 80 pages and several subplots shorter. Wolves in Chic Clothing is so heavily drawn off a plotline from Sense and Sensibility that they've even named a character Willoughby - but again, it clocks in at precisely 80 pages (and a lot of charm) less than its progenitor. (Someday Karasyov and Kargman are getting a rant all to themselves because of this.)

I'm not actually saying that every book for women has to rival Harry Potter and the Doorstop of Doom in weight and page count. But c'mon - if you're going to rip off classic literature, try not to embarass yourselves by underestimating us, eh? It's not like y'all are the only two who've read the works of Du Marier and Austen.

But most of all, I want to know why we're being subjected to cover art that denigrates both content and reader. Those covers on such skinny books make it look as if we're going to be moving up to Dick and Jane any minute now.
neadods: (disgusted)
I've now read two books for RtE but cannot find a way to write the review without going off on a long, angry tangential rant, because both books have one huge problem - the male authors have written a female main character that this female doesn't recognize as a member of her species, much less her gender.

There's a movie example. That Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson wild west thing? Hi-freakin'-larious... while I watched it. Then I stayed for the credits and realized that Chan's Indian "wife" didn't even get a character name. She was "Indian bride." That appalled me enough to look back at the rest of the movie and realize that while she was the woman who SAVED THEIR ASSES MORE THAN ONCE, was always left to sleep in the woods while the boys bonded in a hotel or was left behind on the trail as they ran away like chickens and finally was literally handed from one man to the other and liked it.

Written by a man, folks. If a woman wrote that, it would end with scalps drying in the Nevada wind.

The first book was just like that - really funny until I started framing the review in my mind and started going "wait a minute." Wait a minute - how come it's this woman's "purpose" to rescue this slobby guy - He's a damned adult, he can rescue his own ass! Wait a minute, if every *guy* can see what potential she has, how come she's insecure enough to act on it until a guy shows her the way? Wait a minute, if she's so smart, how come everyone else plays her like a violin? Wait a minute, why do all the hilariously humiliating things happen to her? Wait a minute, why is this woman ballsy enough to argue a case weighted heavily against her client and win, but so determined to be "nice" that she can't tell her fiancee that he's asking her to eat food she not only doesn't like, she's violently allergic to?

Wait a minute, there is no way I can tell a genre with a primarily female readership that this is a funny book without warning them that the humor is totally at their expense.

The second book was doing a LOT better, and even when you take into account what I'm about to say, it has a great plot and the men are written well. Since it's about intrigue in the Catholic church there's good reason why the cast is 99.99% male, and that works fine.

But then he has to throw in the love interest. She's a female reporter who doesn't deal well with restrictions. She's been kicked out of so many good jobs that she's so desperate to get back into a solid career that she'll be easy to manipulate with the temptation of insider access.

Now, as a trope, the stupidly ambitious reporter doesn't bother me. That said reporter has become the ghost writer for a renegade priest as her ticket back to fame doesn't bother me.

That she sleeps with the priest bothers me intensely, and it has nothing to do with Catholic celibacy. I'm sorry, author, but only a guy is that casual about sex, because every woman knows that if she bangs her source, SHE HAS INSTANTLY AND PERMANENTLY DESTROYED ALL CREDIBILITY. It's the double standard, author dear: as far as the wide world is concerned, a man who fucks around is manly, while a woman who fucks around is a desperate whore. Any realistic female character would at least *worry* that the secret would get out and ruin her. This one didn't notice that she was shooting herself in the foot.

And damnit, otherwise you had a great book there.
neadods: (Default)
Men. Hanging onto (or bettering) your place in the pecking order. Family. Fulfilling social expectations vs your own dreams. Love. Reputation.

How do these themes end up being so fantastic when they're handled by Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Edith Wharton, and so damned annoying when they're being flung around by modern authors? I want to like chick lit. Books like Trading Up, Lipstick Jungle, Admissions and the ilk keep catching my eye. But then I pick up the latest in buzzworded bestsellers (The Jane Austen Book Club, The Devil Wore Prada, Elegance) and it's usually a matter of minutes before I'm clawing at my eyes.

Even when I do like the book, it seems so much weaker than its older counterparts. I enjoyed The Right Address for example, but that skinny little story of a non-Manhattanite trying to break into the ranks of New York society is but a footnote to The Custom of the Country. (Much less Rebecca, which it is extremely loosely based on.)

Part of it, I think, is changing social expectations. It's one thing for Mrs. Bennet to fluster about her daughters being married off; that made a direct impact on their ability to survive. Whereas the women who fluster through more modern novels fluster about marriage for reasons I can't fathom. They seem to see men as designer shoes; a must-have accessory and an item checked off the life list. (This being a major reason why, when I read modern chick lit, I try to get one of the work or family focused plots. I'm sorry, "I'm 29 and I don't got no may-un!" just doesn't rank up there with "when Daddy dies, I starve without a husband" as motivation for matrimony.)

But part of it is also changing social expectations for women ourselves. I was idly googling "chick lit book club" and hit this horrific example which lists a "chick's" best friends as including "Jimmy Choo" and her sworn enemies as "Mary Wollstonecraft, and Stella (who refuses to share her famous groove)."

The old chick lit of centuries gone by was pretty female-positive. Think about it. Liza Bennet and Elinor Dashwood might have been constrained by social station and poverty, but they still kept their heads and their senses of self-worth and never gave up control over their own fates. Undine Spragg (who is basically Carrie Meeber with a brain and ambition - Sister Carrie and The Custom of the Country are essentially the same book, except one woman is stupid and passive and one is intellgent and active) mows down her opposition like a tank in a Worth evening gown.

None of these women would whine about not being handed someone else's groove, or consider a feminist a "sworn enemy." All of them would be quick and withering if presented with someone billing their club as being "where all the cool girls are." Indeed, Margaret Dashwood is presented as being quite foolish for pinning her hopes on nothing but love, while Lydia Bennet's light manhunting left the reader with no doubt that it was the STUPIDEST thing anyone could ever do.

So when did ticking "rock, ring, white dress" take precedence over assessing "I can live with this person for the rest of my life; we are sympatico"? When did designers - MALE designers yet! - become better friends to women than intelligent women?

ETA - If I can put my hands on the "Emma Principle," I think I'll be able to put a name to my angst over modern chick lit. Emma is a novel that is so chick it practically cheeps and pecks - the heroine does *nothing* in the book except fuss over what people think of her and play matchmaker. And yet there's something charming and readable and rereadable about it, and about The Matchmaker/Hello Dolly, its literary daughter. What is that certain something that is missing from its modern descendants?

(Well, there's humor instead of bitchiness for one thing, and an utter disregard for current fashion in favor of discussing human character. Hmmmm...)
neadods: (Default)
Dear Nonfiction Author,

You impressed me at Bouchercon with your passion and aggression. I look(ed) forward to reading your book. That the work you describe is vital, I agree with. That it needs to be more advertised and understood, I also agree with.

But I'm not going to be advertising it for you, I'm afraid. Initially, when it was 1/3 "we're great," 1/3 "we aren't appreciated," and 1/3 case histories, that was fine. But by the time I got to the 2 1/2 page anecdote that had only 1 paragraph on the case and spent the rest of the pages discussing how the person telling it was overworked, underpaid, under appreciated, overlooked, undercut and overwhelmed, you were officially whining.

Moving On,

Me
neadods: (Default)
Dear Author,

You had a great grabber of a beginning. Really. I was all excited to keep reading... until not only your protagonist but the policeman she called in were so profoundly stupid that I was revolted by both of them and put the book permanently down on page 7.

You see, when you set a mystery in the modern era, you have to either work with or discount modern technology. Ignoring it and hoping that your readers don't notice isn't an option.

Now, there are plenty of people who don't have Caller ID, and who still use landlines instead of cell phones. So when the desperate wrong-number phone call came in, I could accept that its origin was a mystery to your protagonist. Excitement! Adventure!

Alas, it was rapidly downhill from there. That she didn't think of dialing *69 is a bit of a problem. That the policeman she reported this to also didn't think of dialing *69 is a bigger problem, and that he stood there and said "I can't do anything" instead of either one of them even writing down the time and date of the call is unforgiveable. Because even if the protagonist doesn't know where the phone call orginated, the phone company DOES.

C'mon, a significant segment of your readership can't even remember a time before portable phones and caller ID. An even more significant section of your readership is probably deep into CSI. You have to step up to the plate and deal with that level of understanding. Have the calling number blocked. Have a second call come in immediately after, ruining the *69 callback. Have one of those new, cheap phone companies where you can't find a human being to talk to in order to place the trace. But don't just cross your fingers and hope in the first 10 pages that we won't notice these important little details!

Rolling my eyes and moving on to the Bouchercon backlog,

Me
neadods: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] ginmar, [livejournal.com profile] fanthropology, and [livejournal.com profile] geezer_fen have all been discussing RPF - that's fic, not slash in specific - this week, so it's on my mind. Especially since the book I'm reviewing is RPF - and more F than I expected it to be, and that aspect is overwhelming me in response particularly to lasst week's discussions.

So, for a minute I'd like to talk about professional RPF, although I'm not sure I have a coherent thesis.

In the professional stuff I tend to draw the same lines as I do for fanfic. I intensely dislike people taken out of their own context - I flat-out refuse to review the Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott mysteries, for example. Those horrify me on three counts, two of which go well above and beyond my opinions of fanfic:

1) The author is using a real person well out of context for their own purposes.
2) Worse, the author is doing so for personal profit, which I consider unspeakable.
3) And possibly worst of all, the author is riding the coattails of a much, much better author.

I have yet to see an imitator of Alcott or Austen who can come near the power of the orginal, either in power of the writing or in staying power in publishing. It's obscene to me to see someone whose book will disappear without a trace within a year trying to hitch their career to someone who has lasted for centuries. Work on your own craft and don't try to steal someone else's reputation! The only living author who could equal Austen is probably Susanna Clark, and she wisely stuck to her own work.

And yet... I did review a Edgar Allen Poe mystery, despite objections 2 & 3 above. Poe wrote such stories, it didn't seem to me to be so disrespectful to imagine he might want to write one, if handled properly. That the author completely reimagined him into "Eddie the Accountant" and wrote such eyeball-bleedingly bad prose that I slammed the book here as well as on Reviewing the Evidence is a different matter. Why would anyone center a series on someone they so obviously have contempt for?

The book I'm reviewing is slightly younger - so much so that the author specifically said he was waiting for everyone involved to die. I'm still making up my mind about that...
neadods: (Default)
I've written before about the power of words. Words are a powerful persuader, literally capable of bending reality.

For example - Say someone is reading a book. You ask what the book is. Catalog your own reactions to these answers:

"It's a romance."
"It's a social satire."
"It's chicklit."
"It's a literary classic."

She could just say "I'm reading Pride and Prejudice," but every statement above is equally true. And every statement above gets a different response from the listener.

Why am I ranting about this right now? Because of this post of Starcat's, which links in turn to a variety of other blogs covering the issue. I'll let you follow the links. In the meantime, I ask you no matter what your political leanings, would you be upset and want to follow the story if you read the headline "THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM - PEDOPHILE RUN OUT OF TWO CHURCHES FOR SEXUAL MISCONDUCT STARTS CHILDREN'S MINISTRY"? How about "CHILD MOLESTER RUNS TEEN GROUP, HAS DAILY UNDERWEAR INSPECTIONS"?

Get your blood boiling? Of course. There is just no way anybody can look at those headlines and think "those kids have it coming" or "Who cares?"

So why the hell are we running namby-pamby headlinges that let people blow off the story? )

Dear Author

Jun. 6th, 2005 12:39 pm
neadods: (Default)
Dear Authors,

If you want to write your book first-person present tense as if I'm sitting down and talking with your protagonist, it would help to make your protagonist someone I'd want to sit down and talk to. For the record, I don't want to talk to vapid, sexist, stupid, foulmouthed women.

Author A, I will grant that your book was set in a time when social classes were rigidly held and a working woman was unusual. To tell the truth, my main complaint is that your keyboard is missing the apostophe. Yes, I understand that it is your character's dialect to drop the "g"s off of any "-ing" suffix. You still have to put in the apostrophe. Every time. No, I'm not the only person who will be bugged by that.

Auther B, your protagonist reads like a 12-year-old trying to pass herself off as an adult on LJ. First: If you want to name-drop designers, then you have to actually use designers. Having your character draw attention to how everything she owns is a designer knockoff only makes her come across as trailor trash. Those of us who don't care about fashions will roll their eyes over the desperation to seem cool; those who do can sniff out a fake a city block away and will ostracize accordingly.

Second: It is offensive as hell for men to refer to women as "made for the sack" or "meat," even in a dance club. Especially in a dance club. Clue: It is equally offensive for women to do so. That she referred to a friend like that only makes the reader understand why said friend would stab her in the back at the first opportunity.

Third: When your heroine can't imagine why she'd be a suspect after a public messy breakup with the victim and when she admits that all she knows about reporters is that they "carry notebooks," it's pretty clear that she's probably too stupid to figure out a subway map. Possibly even too stupid to figure out a subway sandwich. That she thinks she can play girl detective is laughable.

Yes, I am well aware that there are women who think they can get anything they want with a wriggle of their tits - I live in the area that spawned Monica Lewinsky and Washingtonienne - but I guarantee you that neither of them would be able to jiggle their way though an actual homicide investigation. I shall be very disappointed if your heroine doesn't get a massive comeuppance in the course of this writing exercise.

Finally, profanity is like jalapeno - a little has a big impact, a lot just burns you out and leaves you numb.

Disgustedly,

Me
neadods: (Default)
I've bitched about the state of the modern romance before, more than once, but this post of [livejournal.com profile] tamnonlinear's has given me more to say. Namely, that I think this whole idea of how we women must want to read about modern women in any setting is bogus. Not to mention patronizing.

Tammon's post is about how the latest version of Pride and Prejudice is calling the heroine a modern woman, and she isn't. True. But it's equally true and highly annoying to me that in all too many historically-based romances, a modern woman is somehow airlifted out of the 21st century and dropped into whatever time period the book is set. Oh, she may use their words and wear their clothes, but she has modern sensibilities which she often spends much of the book getting everyone around her to admire.

Because everyone knows that there were no interesting, much less strong or powerful, women in the world before Ms Magazine got published.

The movie Titanic was a classic example of this - Kate Winslet is perfectly capable of playing a character who is unconventional while being historically accurate; Sense and Sensibility proved it. But although the rest of Titanic was as accurate as possible to the period, "Rose" was a jarring note throughout - too forward thinking, too politically correct, too brash, and way too fast. (Mr "King of the World"? If you wanted people to study the movie as history - and you said you did - ya think maybe the love scene and the nude scenes were gratuitious? What, the story of the Titanic itself isn't interesting until you add tits?)

The Dodd romances I bashed earlier add an even more offensive wrinkle. The heroine is a "modern" woman in that she is convinced of sexual equality and that her efforts and brains are more important than her beauty... but eventually, inevitably, she's going to throw it all away for primal passionate lust for the one guy who finally proves to be "man enough" to overpower her. She may continue to snip and snap and he'll love her for it (to presumably prove that he's not a misogynist neanderthal) but we all know the real score. The happy ending means she has to acknowledge his manly ability to override her.

It's not just Dodd, either. I stopped giving a damn about Scarlett well before Rhett did, for example.

What's even more annoying is that now all the ballsy, brainy, bitchy broads have been shoved through a time warp, what are we left as the modern heroine, the girl we supposedly want to vicariously live through? The neurotic Bridget Joneses and Jaine Austens. Liza and her author - neither one a candidate for Doormat Of The Year or decades of therapy - have been replaced with cute collections of compulsive quirks, characters whose theme song is "I'm just a gal who can't say no." Can't say no to the people who impose, can't say no to the overspending and the bad food, can't say no whatever impulse next crosses their empty brains. If the heroines aren't neurotic, they're certifiable nutcases - just look at the Meg Ryan school of "see, want, stalk, have" romantic movies a la "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Kate and Leopold."

How ironic that Liza is being called a modern heroine when most modern heroines are modeled on Lydia!

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of getting it right. Pride and Prejudice itself for one; it wouldn't have lasted this long if women didn't continue to find something in the characters that they liked even as the times change. Ditto Jane Eyre. Rhys Bowen's "Molly Murphy" is a fantastic historical character - a strong, smart woman who is very much a product of her time. I just reviewed a book for Once Written that has a really nice and overdue twist on the neurotic modern heroine - the heroine has just come off a bad divorce and her confidence in herself and her abilities is shaken. (It's a very "Working Girl" kind of a plot.) That makes so much more sense to me than the twitchy "gotta getta man" mindset. And Mary Janice Davidson's wonderful Betsy Taylor admits she's vacuous - but she also has no trouble taking on and taking out anyone who crosses her moral code.

Now if only there were more women like them in romances!
neadods: (Default)
Y'all know I'm a tough reviewer. Between reviewing and burning through the TBR stack, these days a book has pretty much one page to coax me into willingly reading the rest of it, often only one paragraph. And yet - it can be done. I was putty in the hands of Brad Strickland and Thomas Fuller when they spent an adjectival paragraph describing the beauty of the night at the beach, concluding that it would be ever so romantic if only the woman the narrator was with wasn't dead.

But very often the difference between a quick toss or a grumpy review is a single line, that one shining soundbite that sums up the book's tone perfectly and sucks me in. That golden hook that editors and writing teachers tell you to use to reel the reader into the story really does exist.

This is one reader's view of what works and what doesn't.

What NEVER works, ever, are cheerful little physical descriptions (Strickland and Fuller only got away with it because they made me laugh). To make up an example, "Little Milly skipped happily through the town in her new white dress with the red ribbons, singing to herself" is a snoozer. I have no reason to give a rat's ass about Milly, her dress, or the town. If the next sentence is "She was on her way to her Granny's house with a basket full of fresh, hot bread," I've snarled "UGH!" and tossed the book away before I ever got to the second paragraph with the wolf, the teakettle, the 3 rolls of duct tape, and the bottle of strawberry conditioner.

Dialog that is equally unenlightening is equally poisonous. "Has the family come for tea?" "No, not yet." "Well they don't want to be late for my special pie, now do they?" - and again I'm gone before we ever get to the axe and the question of how bloodspatter ended up on the inside of the pantry door.

Admittedly, by this standard I would have never read my childhood favorite, A Wrinkle in Time... but still I want you to give me something, people! Give me something to care about, something that says your book is at least as interesting as the other 100 in the To Be Read stack!

What gets the benefit of the doubt is something that starts in a little bit of action or foreshadowing. Even "Look out!" "What?" "You were about to step in a puddle" will do. Yes, it's a cheap trick, but you've gotten me three lines into the book, and that's more than Muffy got. (For instance, I can't remember the opening line for Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye - but she grabbed me very quickly with "Sharon was a pretty young woman in her mid-thirties, with short blond hair, too much makeup, a recent boob job, and not a clue in sight.")

Sometimes just confusing me counts: "Some things start before other things." The huh? Okay, I'll read more and see if that makes sense. (This is a real quote, BTW. The author is fond of openings like this; another book begins "Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree." One of my all time favorites starts "Now read on" - which is the sort of first line that only being a total fan of the author would let me pass by.)

What works every time? To adapt a phrase from competition costuming, "Descriptive is good, funny is better, descriptive and funny is best." My favorite opening lines, often to my favorite books, are the ones that tell you right up front what you're getting into, both in plot and tone:

"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he very nearly deserved it." Okay, this is the story of a rotter. Who is he, why is he so awful, and will he get his comeuppance?

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Husband-hunting ahoy!

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine." ...but she's gonna be one, hook or crook!

"Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it." Jaded but rightous heros can be interesting - far less icky sweet than unjaded ones and less distasteful than unrighteous ones.

"The day I died started out bad and got worse in a hurry." I defy you not to die of curiousity right now!


The lines don't have to be short, as long as they're descriptive (and funny doesn't hurt):

"Chicago, 1929. There are a thousand stories in the naked city; and when you're a dwarf at four-foot-one, they all look that much taller." It's a dwarf, it's gangster Chicago, and it's not taking itself too seriously.

"When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase, every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted." Headstrong American vs haunt. Make popcorn and settle in for a good fight.

"They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged." Who is he, why is he going to be hung? That was enough to get me into the rest of the paragraph, which sealed the deal: "The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, insofar as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Alfred Spangler."

This is what I want. Something that sums up the tone and the plot in a single line. You're gonna do it for the pitch letter, might as well do it in the first paragraph too. (I could imagine that a good opening line suffices for both anyway.)


What opening lines have worked for you, and why?

And bonus quiz - Muffy, the pie, and the puddle aren't real, but all the other quotes are. Guess title and author!
neadods: (Default)
Dear Author,

I didn't mind that your protagonist is good looking, rich, competent, smart, and effortlessly successful.

However, I do mind, intensely, that your protagonist thinks she is never wrong (even when she demonstrably is), manhandles people without even asking for compliance first, and has no flaws whatsoever. I mind even more intensely that absolutely every other person who meets her in the books agrees with her self-satisfied assements, and worships her perfection to the point of someone insisting she is a goddess.

Dear author, I am an atheist and you're hardly changing my mind. Kindly give your protagonist some flaws - REAL flaws, not "I have Deep Childhood Angst which I overcame with my ultimate coolness" - and do so quickly.

Otherwise I shall be forced to go to your signing at Malice next year and shove a printout of "Is Your Character a Mary Sue?" into your hands instead of a book, as a public service.

Signed,
Me

PS - Announcing out of the blue that sex will now commence is not romantic. Since it was on a first date and only the second time she had ever seen him, your beloved protagonist officially qualifies as a skank.



Dear Other Author,

Please read letter above. Now please realize that making your character nothing but a charming collection of flaws isn't that charming either. If you're going to call attention to how she makes a (wrong) choice every other page, you should dedicate your next book to Robert Frost.

Sincerely,
I used to like your series



ETA: Dear Third Author,

Regarding the line "She thought of all of [character's] little brothers and sisters who died in childbirth." I don't think that means what you think that means. Repeating it later doesn't fix the grammar.

Also, I know you do your research. You don't have to keep stopping the book to tell me that you did your research. Surprisingly, I do not actually need you to provide my sole education about the past. I'm fairly confident about stating that none of your other readers are actually basing any major reference papers on the research in your books either. So when your characters go to a store, we don't really need to hear all about who founded the store and why. Honest, your story will be just fine without it and we won't think less of you.

Signed,
The BA cum laude in history
neadods: (Default)
The problem with reading several books by a single author back to back is that what was a minor flaw in the first one has become a huge annoying problem by the third. And so it was with Christina Dodd, who fell from my good graces with a resounding and permanent splat last night.

The first book of hers I read was Rules of Engagement, an engaging and amusing book. My standards for romances are even higher than my standards for mysteries, so when I say I really enjoyed it, I'm praising it to the skies. This encouraged me to go out and buy several other books by her, which made it to the top of my TBR rotation this week.

Runaway Princess was really quite interesting... up till the last chapter. I liked the tension between the main characters, I felt the heat from the pages in the love scenes, all was well. Until after having spent 350 pages firmly denying magic in this world (to the point of the heroine explaining the chemistry behind an old folk custom) suddenly there's a 1000-year-old saint, a flash-boom of magic, and a whole succession of miracles.

Huh? Look, either the book's magical or it isn't. I felt more than a little betrayed that a story which until then had been based on relentless logic solved the plot with fairydust ex machina. It was unnecessary and distracting.

But... it wasn't bad, just not what I wanted. I tossed the book into the TW donations basket... and tried not to think about the one line that really creeped me - "I want you dependent on me for everything. For the air you breathe." For a butch hero, he was pretty damn insecure.

Next up was a book which turned me off so quickly I can't even remember the name. Billed as the sequel to Runaway Princess, it barely dealt with the original characters. This was the one that was supposed to rehabilitate the villain of the previous story. Except that he made such a convincing villain that I couldn't stomach more than 4 pages of him billing and cooing. I flipped through and found out that he wasn't rehabilitated at the beginning at all - he'd been hired to seduce and ruin this princess, but along the way he Fell In Wuv. Not, however, before leading a rebellion, bankrupting her nation, and stealing her virginity. And, in a plot twist that appalled me, she forgives him all because it's Twu Wuv, which will conquer all. Apparently love not only means not having to say "I'm sorry," it means not having to say "I shouldn't have ruined your reputation and destabilized your country. My bad."

Why do people fob that damnable crap on us? It wasn't cute in "What Women Want," it wasn't cute in "Legal Entanglements" (or whatever that Brosnan vehicle was), and it isn't cute any of the other 8 million times it's been presented to us. It's a simple lesson, people, and it's horrific how few people learn it:

If a man loves a woman, he won't fuck her over.

He won't steal her ideas, he won't get her fired, he won't force her into sex because "he just can't help himself and she secretly wants it" he won't ruin her reputation, he won't manipulate her, he won't ignore her stated wishes, he won't isolate her, and he won't look her in the eye and lie to her. None of that bullshit is love. It's abuse, it's bullying, it's rape, it's patronizing, it's everything except adoration or protection.

Don't tell me 4" = 8" and don't tell me that taking over my life is in my best interests. I'm not stupid, I'm not desperate, and I'm not falling for that shit.

But do I take the hint? Alas, no, there was still My Favorite Bride to go. How could it go wrong? Part of the same series as Rules of Engagement and an obvious Sound of Music knockoff, how could there possibly be anything in there to torque me to the point of throwing out everything she ever wrote and coming on LJ to rant about it to boot?

Well, once again, she was fine up to the last couple of chapters. Once again, the supernatural stepped in to tidily resolve the plot so that the hero and heroine could blithely go on screwing. And screwing is the only appropriate word for what he did to her.

He bangs her without benefit of marriage because - sing with me! - "he can't help it and she secretly wants it." Then the next morning he decides he could overlook anything, Anything At All about her... except what she tells him next, which makes him resolve to throw her out like last night's chicken bones.

Except wait! He still loves her truely, madly, deeply! So he goes to where he's got her under house arrest and forces her to have sex with him so that she'll realize that They Really Belong together. Nevermind that he's still mad at her revelation and she's spittingly furious at how he's treated her - if they just have enough sex, they'll get over anything!

Until, huzzah, she has the fortitude to head for the hills. So he has to go after her, lie to the coachman and get his children to lie to the coachman to encourage said coachman to toss her off said coach, and then make sure she HAS to marry him by keeping her out overnight in the woods. Despite her fear of the woods. And despite (as he chuckles to himself) how mad she's going to be when she finds out that the next town was only 2 miles walk away.

Bwahahaha, all ends happily despite her stubbornness, yay.

There isn't enough "ew" in the world to express my feelings. With a last flicker of hope I thought, "well, this has been in my stack for a while, maybe it's an old book. Times have changed, and so have romances."

The copyright was 2002.

Ms. Dodd ought to thank whatever she believes in that she wasn't there to share the fate of her book.

There is no excuse for this shit. THERE IS NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER to present rape, ruination, and lying as love. All that we needed was for him to hit her and we'd have the classic trilogy of abuse - "Baby, you make me so crazy, I just can't help myself," "Baby, why you question me?" and "Baby, why you make me hit you?"

This isn't love. This isn't even in the same zip code as love. Not even the same freakin' time zone.

And that, readers, is why I yanked Rules of Engagement out of my keeper pile and have resolved that I shall read no more of Ms. Dodd, ever.
neadods: (Default)
I've been drafting up a book review - once again, a pretty negative one - and I just had this overwhelming urge of "is this worth it?" I'm probably reacting to the fact that Malice is coming up and I've recently taken some unpleasant drubbings over my opinions online, but still. I read a book and find unpleasant drek; someone else reads it and considers it charming. It makes me question whether I'm too harsh and I should just lighten up.

Then I think, "but is it really asking too much that a murder mystery actually have a murder and a mystery in it?" And "dudes, once you've turned the evidence into a collage, I don't think it counts as evidence anymore!"

So on I go.
neadods: (Default)
Textbook case of how not to handle a bad review

I dealt with an author like this once via Reviewing the Evidence. She didn't tell me that I'd die alone and unloved like the Nazi bitch I am (really - scroll down to the bottom of the page), but she did keep sniffing that if I was so unprofessional it was obvious that I had never met an author, much less had any experience publishing.

I got this from [livejournal.com profile] trollprincess, the first comment has a third party commentary that's even more priceless. No wonder it sounded like the author who dug into me!
neadods: (Default)
Other authors talk about writing in their LJs; I particularly recommend [livejournal.com profile] jimbutcher's occasional series on how to write F&SF. I've been chain-reading this month's set of review books and back-to-back comparisons like that have made me pensive about the structure of the cozy as a genre and how I go about reviewing. So, in an occasional series of LJ entries that are actually thought provoking, I present:

The Four Ps of Cozy Mysteries and How I Review Them )
neadods: (Default)
An alternate rant and humor link.

First, the funny. [livejournal.com profile] elainemc found this: the hilarious (and blasphemous) The Book of Fanfic (Chapters 1 & 2 in comments). "21: And, lo, too late did He start to regret that He had not used a beta during the Creation."

Put down any drinkables and swallow before reading Chapter 2, verse 17. You have been warned.

Second, the rant. This all came about when someone got their knickers in a knot that people picked on fanfic. Which is the way of the world, as far as I'm concerned - most of my favorite humor is sarcastic and/or editorial and all humor like that is picking on something.

However, the original ranter [livejournal.com profile] abundantlyqueer hit many of my hot buttons in the original rant. Snipped from the original (which is linked in the wank rebuttal):

creativity, sexuality, sensuality, and the urge to tell stories are some the best, most precious, most awe-inspiring features of the human spirit. every human spirit. even if that human spirit doesn't know how to construct a friggin' sentence to your satisfaction. don't you dare step on that. this is almost entirely a community of women, and y'know what? we have enough of the friggin' world shitting on us and stepping on us and telling us we're not good enough. we don't need to hear it from each other.

laughing at someone else's fic does nothing to convince me of your intelligence, education, or ability as a writer.
[snip]

I love this fandom, and I love the people who contribute, every single one of them, and so help me god if I ever see you shitting on that, don't bother asking if you can come stay in my house and eat my food. and you better believe, I'll minimize the shit out of the level of interaction I have with you.

I literally have PMS right now, so it's putting an edge on an already not-always-sweet temper.

Abundantly? Hon?

Get the fuck over it.

You're right on one part. Creativity and the urge to tell stories ARE some of the most precious features of the human spirit. Truely. I love creativity, I adore a good story. Finding one, however, is like panning for gold in the Pacific with a thimble.

I do not love any random set of words vomited out by someone's keyboard. Between my years in fandom and my months reviewing, I have read some shit that would make you want to bleach your brain, and it was NOT creative, it was NOT sexual, sensitive, precious, or awe-inspiring. In a few cases, it wasn't even recognizably a story. To quote an old humor routine, "That's not writing, that's just typing."

And I am not going to keep silent for the sisterhood, sweetie. Because we demean ourselves and our talents when we equate any awfulness with Austen, blather with Bronte, crap with Chaucer, dreck with Dickens, execrable with Elliot or shit with Shakespeare. To do so suggests that we are too stupid to know the difference. To accept it from ourselves is to suggest that we are not capable of doing better. There are a whole bunch of female authors who would beg to differ, my dear. If saying "anything you type is wonderful and anyone who disagrees should STFU" is your notion of feminism, then turn in your vote, slap on your lipstick, and climb back up on that pedestal so the rest of us can get ON with our lives.

I don't care what this makes you think of my intelligence, education, or writing ability. Tangle with the first two, it's going to be graduate degrees at 20 paces. Tangle with the last and... well, which one of us is familiar enough with the keyboard that we understand the concept of the "shift key" anyway?

As for the final threat, after I stop not shaking in my shoes at the idea of being ignored by the ignoble, I'm going to turn your anger right around. It's MY fandom too. You and your wanky little l33t-speakers flooding it with your masterbation-as-writing-exercise stories are serving the exact same purpose as the pokeweed in my garden - crowding out the good and the beautiful by out-multiplying and strangling it.

Don't expect me to play nice. And don't worry, I don't need to eat your food. I have my own food and my own house. I pay for them by writing.
neadods: (Default)
What amuses me is that most of the commentary on my last post centered on shared angst over Meg Ryan and Anita Blake and skipped right over the part that actually pissed me off enough to write the rant in the first place.

So I'm going to explicitly see if anyone wants to talk about it, because I am curious. So - what is your reaction to these hypothetical questions:

Situation 1
You have moved into your dream house. One day, you find hidden in a corner a fantastic invention, one which will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Do you:
A) Tell the previous owner and ask her opinion.
B) Say "Finder's keepers!"
C) Give it back to the previous owner.

Situation 1a
You find out that the previous homeowner is the widow of an inventor and who still keeps all of his notes. In light of that knowledge you:
A) Try to get the notes too. It's not like she knows what they're for.
B) Split the deal - sell the invention yourself and let her sell the notes.
C) Split the deal - combine notes and invention and share the sale proceeds 50/50 with her. (If not 50/50, which percentage to whom?)
D) Not your problem, you gave the invention back.

Situation 2
Assume you went for options B and A above, respectively. Then you find out that the crucial notebook is missing and a family lawyer is demanding immediate return of the invention. Your reaction:
A) That BASTARD! You'll fight to your last breath!
B) Well, it was fun while it lasted.
C) Dude, is it too late to discuss splitting the deal?

V. curious to know what you'd think.

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