Category Archives: Reading

Kissing (Scene) and Tell Me

I know; two posts in a year! I’m trying to spend more time writing in 2018, because to write well, I have to slow down. I need active and passive think time, and the ability to walk away for a while, days even, and let questions and analyses dribble out of my brain. I have to clean house and read the whole internet first (too bad it’s so much longer than it used to be). I would really like to slow down.

And lately I’ve been especially struggling with two brains–one, the technical side that wants everything to be correct, the one that runs hot, the one that remembers how to hyperfocus, and details from that time before we were showered with praise for multitasking, and the other the curious, analytic brain that makes predictions and sees patterns and appreciates the bigger picture. When those brains are on at the same time, they’re both the worse for it. How do you turn off half your head? Also, I’m procrastinating on something I don’t want to do by writing this post. Yes, I am suitably ashamed and also sort of pleased that I am doing something I’m not supposed to. (Roll your eyes at flimsy rebellions here; spare me your disdain. I’m trying.)

But what I’ve been thinking about even more is reading. I’ve had a half-dozen different people ask me, just recently, how to become a better writer. Maybe how to improve their first crack at writing a story, or whether they should take some course or follow some career path, or go to some event. I want to say: Wait! The best thing you can do for your writing is read more.

Reading–and reading well–is a whole post on its own. But taking my advice in hand, painfully, as I’ve pinched a nerve somewhere, I am working on a very modest goal of reading 100 published books in 2018 (manuscripts don’t count), and I’m on track for that. I’ve read a handful of picture books, some middle grade, adult fantasy and nonfiction, graphic novels in MG/YA/adult, and and some genre and contemporary YA. And one…I don’t know what it was besides a pointless mess and I have no idea where it came from or why it was a book but I must have downloaded it by accident. I bounced out of two of the books around the 50-page mark, but I’m not missing out on anything, I promise. And you don’t have to read all of books if you don’t want to. It’s not my job to like things, and it’s not yours either.

I have more of a walking commute than a train one, and I get carsick reading on the subway. Most of my all-pleasure reading so far has happened on the subway platform (thanks MTA for regular overcrowding and delays that average I dunno 3 hours a week on lines I ride) and escalators (really deep stations), and I’ve also been trying to schedule 20 minutes before bed. I’ll probably finish book #32 tonight. If you need a kick in the pants, start with a small kick, like reading a chapter of a book a day, and you’ll find the groove. And I hope you’ll be finding polished work that you can absorb, enjoy, analyze, and be nourished by.

All of that leads up to: I read a book. I’m no longer in the business of reviewing what I read, and I could write a whole post on that and who gets to review and when and why bad reviews are good indicators that you’re reaching an audience beyond friends and family…

Anyway, I read a book. I’m going to be very vague about this book, because I know full well it’s typeset now and all, and written years ago at this point, and frankly, when I’m going to describe could have happened in any number of books.

I got to the last quarter and there was a kissing scene.

It was a good kissing scene!

Here are some reasons I thought it was a good kissing scene:

  • I found the characters who were kissing to be interesting. (Let’s not have the “likeable” discussion right now. Your eyes are probably glazed over already if you read this far.)
  • There was physical tension in the scene–the characters were in close contact, and aware of each other before they kissed. There had been other opportunities for them to kiss, but those hadn’t panned out, for various reasons, so there was a will they/won’t they vibe, too.
  • In the kissing, there was a nice mix of feelings and emotions and descriptions that were familiar along with unexpected, exciting, vivid sensations!
  • There was plot tension, because the stakes were changing around the characters–and the fact that they kissed meant that the stakes got an extra layer of change.
  • There was relationship tension; it was clear that the kiss signaled a verification that the characters had passed some point of no return, and that they were probably going to have a lot more points to deal with in the future, based on this moment.
  • There was emotional tension, because the characters both represented things that the other hadn’t dealt with yet. (In fact, it was a play on a classic romance trope! And was working in that moment.)
  • The characters liked and wanted the kiss! I liked the kiss! I’d have that kiss! (Other kinds of kisses: not discussed here.)
  • And in all, when those tensions were finally resolved, finally (always make the reader, or at least me, wait for it), they were more changed and renewed–there was new tension, instead of straight resolution!

A lot of the time, kissing scenes are boring and unbelievable, and don’t feel necessary or useful to the plot, and I don’t really need them to be in every story, and I’ve honestly read so many that it feels like there’s nothing new in most of them, so when there’s a good one, I’m extra pleased! Delighted! And this was like the third good kiss I’ve read this year!

So…why was I utterly dissatisfied, even disgruntled, afterward?

I flipped back through the (e)book. The writing wasn’t absolutely amazing, but it served the story and mostly didn’t throw me into editor brain mode. There was plenty of action and adventure, an interesting antagonist, and enough world building that I knew what was going on, and not so much I felt infodumped on. I hadn’t been excited about the premise, yet it had me engaged well enough to keep turning the pages instead of picking up something else. The characters were familiar types, but different enough and developed enough that they weren’t stock or mere outlines of interesting people, people that readers are often told to think are interesting instead of the characters just being interesting. I was, in the grand scheme of things, satisfactorily entertained.

What was my problem? I even went to Goodreads to see if I was missing something, and of course, as you can expect, the 1-star reviewers all had some different, or conflicting, reason why they hadn’t been happy readers. P.S. If you’re an author don’t read your reader reviews; they’re about the reader and not you and maybe not even really about your book; I didn’t like it so I gave it 1-star is not about you; plenty of people use the star system for reasons other than ratings, etc.

Anyway, here’s what I think, and I’m curious if there might be other reasons.

  • First, the two kissing characters didn’t get enough page time together, and when they did, they weren’t interacting with each other in sustained ways. By that, I mean that while they were on each other’s minds (at least in one direction; the POV was 1st person) for plot reasons, there wasn’t a lot to go on in terms of why they’d like each other enough to kiss. Or, hey, hate each other enough to kiss, because that was possible too!
  • When they met, in scenes, their interactions were brief and often utilitarian, or focused outwardly on action only, without an undercurrent of more…anything, and the longer scenes had a power imbalance that meant the smaller clues that they’d eventually be kissing didn’t land as much as they might have if the power imbalance had been addressed more or more intertwined with attraction (and attraction doesn’t have to be about, or all about, thinking a character is hot–it’s often as good or better if there’s some other sort of connection, or some other sort of connection that’s tied up with a little physical or mental want). In fact, there were a lot of weighty themes that weren’t directly addressed in the overall action plot, and didn’t necessarily need to be–but if if they’d been addressed in the emotional plot, that would have strengthened things a lot.
  • I knew the characters would kiss, but I wasn’t anticipating it because of the characters; I was anticipating it because I know how stories work. I didn’t get, say, a moment where they had to repeatedly grab hands to enter a throne room in the customary way turning into a comforting warmth turning into fingers entwined just a little too long. Or a irritatingly wry comment turning into a phrase that makes the character smile to outright funniness leading to appreciative laughter. (Neither of these examples is from the book I read.) There were some hints, of course, but they weren’t linked, and didn’t build on each other in a way that said these two characters would be interacting in a way different from how those two characters would interact with characters they would never kiss.
  • I’m sticking this in the middle because I don’t even remember if this was in the book–story details drain out my ears as fast as I pull them in through my eyes, much to my ongoing dismay–but I just want to generally complain about the word “falling” and the phrase “falling for them.” Please, if you love me, and even if you don’t, find some other way to say this. Or find something else to say.
  • It wasn’t until, oh, 10% of the book leading up to the kiss that the characters got to spend significant time together focused on their characters over/in tandem with their immediate actions, to go through things that involved making decisions together, to show the reader how they’d work together or react to things if they had to be a team instead of individuals–and even then, that section fleshed out the non-POV character and didn’t show me why that non-POV character liked the POV character so much.

Don’t get me wrong–there was lots I did like about the book, and I picked up the sequel right away. I figured out I’d also pre-ordered the author’s book coming out later this year, too, so good job me using up those ebook credits. I’ll probably stay up irresponsibly late tonight finishing the sequel.

Overall, though, a lot of ideas were laid out on the page but never fully examined, never pushed beyond what had to happen, minimally, for the plot to move on, never used to drive things in as razor-sharp a way as they could have. There was plot! I wished for more, though, and the book had a framework for something awesome that didn’t quite come to be.

I can see what I think this story wanted to be, and I wish I could have read that book. And then, highest honor, have read it again. I guess I just wanted to drag this story up a mountain, yelling at it to keep trying to get what it deserves, to go for every bit of better it could be, and be able to slap it on the back and tell it YEAH when it made it to the highest peak.

The moral is: it’s tough to trace and balance all of the different plots and types of plots, if you want to use those terms, all the way through a whole book. How is…another post. Happy–when this posts it will be–Wednesday!

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Filed under Reading, Writing

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been remiss: I have not been reviewing* what I read this year. (I keep wondering if I ought to, or even could, port those entries over here; however, this isn’t generally to be a book blog.) The asterisk is there because I keep running across so many posts that want to tear apart the idea of the reader review–it’s not in academic format X, one should have a certain background to review books, if you’re not going to give things five stars you shouldn’t tell people about them…argh. I agree to an extent that there are “reviews” that aren’t; posting jacket copy isn’t a book review, and my shorthand reviews are often more reminders for me when I return to a post than an in-depth examination on the page. Reader reaction to a book, even bad or ill-informed, can be a useful input. I quit Goodreads because I got tired of following the “rules” and having people think that a 3-star “I liked it” or 2-star “It was okay” were negatives, and let’s not even talk about why I don’t give Amazon the benefit of my mental energy anymore, except to say harassment, bots, and scraping.

All of that sounds cranky, doesn’t it? More than I’m feeling at the moment, anyway. So, let me give you the highlights of this spring and summer’s reading that you can currently buy. As always, I don’t get to reviewing more than a fraction of what I read, and disclaimer that due to school and work right now, I am not taking any outside requests to review books.

Adult

In FallingIn Falling Snow, Mary-Rose MacColl

Iris Crane, from Australia, goes to France during World War I to fetch her underage brother home. Once there, she is–distracted, I suppose–into the service of a women-run and women-staffed hospital, where she serves as a nurse and an assistant to the hospital director. Reveling in becoming her own, she neglects to expose her very happy brother, who is himself finding a place in the world. But the war looms over them, and they can’t see the threat approaching. In the seventies, Iris’s granddaughter Grace is an ob-gyn in a man’s world, and has to find a way to care for her family and her career as they teeter on the brink of disaster. Big, sweeping multi-generation family story, told with an awry sense of POV and tense that makes perfect sense to show Iris’s perspective. A very feminist story.

That’s a big picture, so I’m switching to thumbnails…

 

YA

courtCourt of Fives, Kate Elliott

I read this in ARC and couldn’t put it down. Sometimes, you know when a story has really taken a step ahead, and when it re-sets the starting line. I could tell you this is fantasy Little Women mixed up with Greco-Roman history and American Ninja Warrior (YEAH), or I could tell you that this is the real daughter of The Hunger Games (ALSO YEAH). My reading tip: pay attention to the peoples, their history, and their culture as they are introduced. I didn’t, and spent a lot of the book getting people confused. (Note: reader error. I actually did this on the book below, too, so I had a muzzy couple of weeks until I settled down and just read.) Luckily for me, that means a re-read. First in…a set of some number that I don’t actually know. Absolutely, positively worth your time, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this as a Cybils finalist this year, at the very least.

wrathThe Wrath and the Dawn, Renée Adieh

I really didn’t think I was going to like this; how many times have you read some big retelling and had it not work? Or, perhaps more accurately, had it not bring anything new to the table? I am picky, maybe too picky, about retellings. I want the story to be re-told, not simply told again with some details changed. I want the story to be transformed. I–maybe–don’t want it to be clear that something is a retelling, even. In this story, the great Shahrzad vows vengeance on the king who kills his wives, but finds herself in a more complicated relationship with the king than she anticipated. What makes this story work is that the author really, really knows what to do with romantic tension, and that is: pull the rubber band tight and aim it, but keep you wondering if and when the snap and flight will happen. Also, if you see a  physical edition, check out the really glorious cover treatment. Set to be a duology.

MG

egyptThe Egypt Game, Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I don’t think I read this growing up, so I rectified that. A group of kids in 1960s Berkeley gathers in a seemingly-empty backyard space and plays at Egypt, as they know it from books about ancient history. There are kids of different races, single parents, and free-range afternoons. But there’s a child killer on the loose, and it could be someone who’s watching all of them more closely than even their bright minds could have imagined. (And that’s the weakest part of the book; I think the murderer could have been a bit bigger part of the book and that plot line not so squished into its brief pages at the end, all without hitting gory or too scary.) I love the look back at kids before the time of the helicopter parent, and I think that–a limited amount of freedom coupled with the knowledge that there are caring adults around–is an experience that, with parenting style changes and cell phone ubiquity, few will have again. I love, too, the variety of people and households that appear in this book. Not everything holds up perfectly, as you can imagine, but there were some good surprises. I think, too, that the author really gets how kids learn (live?) for/through imaginative play, and their Egypt is clearly only their Egypt, standing in for real life where it’s harder for each of them to navigate and negotiate the same thoughts and feelings. That said, since the follow up is titled The Gypsy Game, I think I’m going to skip it.

Twesting gamehe Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

I’m reading all the game books this summer, yes. My first note: don’t get the Puffin Classics edition of this and then read the front matter, because there’s a piece about the book and author that actually spoiled, for me, the puzzle of the story. Not all of it–and if I told you why and you haven’t read, I’d spoil you–but enough to be irritating. I’m afraid that this wasn’t a great read for me; maybe I missed the right age to first read it, maybe I wanted more with more of the characters, maybe I thought the format wasn’t quite right (repackage this written for an older audience, and I might be all over it), maybe I wasn’t fond of aspects of the writing style. Maybe I thought it too weird that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the lives of children for this to be for children, because if a book for children stars adults, I want there to be some childlike aspect to the adult that appeals to the interests and cares of people of a younger age. I also felt like some of the way the mystery was handled was a stretch, and I didn’t understand (all of) what Westing wanted. Sorry, folks. I’m disappointed in me too.

HookHook’s Revenge, Heidi Schultz

Apparently, I have been on a middle grade streak, people (I also had a nice time re-immersing in The True Meaning of Smekday and Smek for President by Adam Rex in the late spring/early summer, but I’m going to assume you already know how fun those are). Here’s the tough thing: I find Peter Pan to be a difficult story all around. Barrie was a weird guy. There are hardly any girls, and they are servants in one way or another. Tiger Lily and her tribe are nasty stereotypes, and neither erasure nor amplification seems to be the way to go forward. That out in front, Hook’s Revenge is the story of Hook’s daughter, who has been left to relatives and boarding school, but who is absolutely not a pretty, coddles princess. When she is called upon to exact Hook’s revenge, you couldn’t ask for a more willing and eager…pirate. Jocelyn Hook is DELIGHTFUL, and the voice of the book utterly delightful too. Especially recommended for girls who think they need to be a certain way. Also my BFF should read this one.

PB

to the seaTo the Sea, Cale Atkinson

This is a lovely, vivid picture book about friendship and loneliness. The illustrations are deep and beautiful and, at least in color, unexpected. Pair it with its book trailer to extend understanding a bit. One of the favorites of at least one small person’s summer reading.

 

 

MimiMimi and Bear in the Snow, Janee Trasler

The spoiler alert on this is that I cry every time I read it. Look, people, if it comes with pictures, those “little” emotions, like happiness, sadness, worry, fear, joy, well, they stab me right in the gut every time. I read a review of this before it came out and put it on my to-buy list, and wasn’t sorry. Mimi and Bear are separated; will Mimi find Bear again? Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

 

 

Now, off to tackle chores and that pile of email that’s glaring at me from the corner.

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Filed under Adult Books, Fantasy, Historical, MG, Picture Books, Reading, SF and SpecFic, YA