What’s truly amazing is that, in a time period when I can’t even remember when I last changed my socks, I did recall I had a blogging anniversary coming up before the website notified me.
So, 6 years. Yes, it’s been a while. And this blog has been through some changes.
Honestly, when I first started it, I did so because I had a new baby and no sense of self; Muffin took up so much of my time and energy (as infants tend to do), and all my previous incarnations — Early Childhood employee, dance teacher, possible-one-day-author — were completely on hold. I wanted to do something just for me. It would help maintain my sanity while caring for a preemie who required more of my patience than I thought existed.
The blog began with weekly posts about family life and me exploring this new space, and what it could mean for a modest housewife trying to find her place in it. Despite social media hardly being a new thing by 2015, I hadn’t gone any further into it than determining which YouTubers were appropriate for White Fang to watch.
So, diving into blogs of all sorts and eventually getting on Twitter, Facebook, briefly Pinterest, and Goodreads for a while became a journey, full of ups and downs, and not only did I learn a bunch about how real people behave in cyber-life, but also — in a non-cliche way — about myself.
The more I got into reading blogs about publishing and writing, the more determined I grew to join the swelling ranks of indie authors. The less I wanted to post humorous quips from my kids; the more I wanted to focus on the things that shaped my passions and goals.
And I did it. I created author accounts and learned how to use Nook Press, and started uploading files and pressing the “Publish Now” button.
That was 7 books ago — 4 in a series, and 3 collections of short stories. Am I a bestseller? God, no, not even close! But I can still pick up one of several paperbacks with my name on it and honestly say, “I WROTE THIS.” The fact I have accomplished something I dreamed for years of doing can’t be changed or taken away.
And while my blog now covers everything from brutally honest book reviews to sly comments on the state of life, my writing style hasn’t strayed far from the “cozy fantasy” I always hoped to produce.
It’s interesting that it appears I haven’t changed that much, after experiencing so much that has certainly broadened my perspective, my outlook, and my plans.
I’m continually meeting new people that either affirm or challenge thoughts and opinions I’m used to (for good or for scream-inducing). I’m frequently learning about authors and movies that are increasing my personal database of new likes or dislikes, reinforcing my own tastes and standards.
I’ve also realized that, while it’s important to keep your eyes open, and sometimes your mind, holding true to what your heart yearns for is vital to having health and happiness.
Therefore, in spite of the downs, I’m still here for the ups. In the last 6 years, I’ve met so many wonderful friends; supporters and loyal readers; once complete strangers who stumbled on my little corner of the blogisphere and never left. You’re a big part of the reason I haven’t wandered off to other pastures, and why the flowers and sunshine are still hanging around here.
This unremarkable, naturally introverted, happily-low-key moth was, is, and will be forever grateful to be sharing this path with all of you.
2020 was definitely a year for finding ways to escape, learn, reflect, and decompress. As I sought comfort in the new and the familiar, I did, in fact, learn a few things about myself.
I am officially immune to hype. After struggling through several adult contemporary new releases that were hyped to the moon and back (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue being my latest example), I discovered that just being exposed to lots of people squealing in joy does not mean I will contract said experience. I will undoubtedly sound very, very old when I say this, but it is now a proven fact: I like what I like, and cannot be swayed by hype. I’ve now tried 4 novels by V.E. Schwab, and the verdict is in: This author’s style and my expectations for reading do not gel.
This is not something I have to be ashamed of! It’s pretty liberating, really, to come to the conclusion that not getting excited about all the 1,947 impending publications for any given year will save me time, money, and heartache. I don’t have to apologize for being a picky reader! I still appreciate that other readers are massively delighted when mainstream bestsellers publish something new, and wish all the bookworms and the writers love and success.
And I officially no longer feel like I’m missing out — because I know that I personally am not. For me, there is no amazingness in poorly written dialogue, inconsistent characterization, improper historical research, and thinly veiled political agendas masquerading as plot. What used to be YA lit is now rife with all these things, and it’s why I’m done reading what’s marketed as YA these days.
Less than 75 pages into These Violent Delights and I heard the final nail banging down into the metaphorical coffin lid — I am DONE internally fighting with cardboard characters who speak and think as if they’re in 21st century America no matter their setting or time period, with editors who allow way too many tangents that don’t advance the story, and with writing that head-hops, doesn’t explain the world, and leaves a bunch of plot holes.
What I previously loved most about YA — the simplicity of story, fresh characters, and a bold, honest approach to make that connection with readers — is now absent. So, yes, fans of these trends, flail away. But if you need me, I’ll be over here in my fairy-light-ringed blanket fort, enjoying Maggie Stiefvater and Terry Pratchett classics for the dozenth time.
Will I actually tackle more “grown-up” selections, though?
Probably not! There was so much relevant non-fiction and opinion pieces coming out, especially this summer, that the flood couldn’t be ignored. After reading a number of opinions disguised as facts (and appropriately throwing them at awesomely cooperative walls), I found that adults really just want someone to listen to them, whether they’re right or not. It’s the same argument that was made for including controversial topics in YA fiction, back in the day. And the listening part is where a lot of people are failing lately.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? was the only book I read this summer that gave me hope for the future — not just regarding racial relations, but of relating to one another as humans. I’m aware of injustice, of intolerance, and hatred; but I want to see something else, something beyond pain and sorrow. I’m not one for wallowing; and since nonfiction publishing is intent on drowning in the crap right now, I’ll be striding off to another section of the bookstore.
This was also the year that my family finally started using streaming services. And I do feel myself drawn to the comfortable vibes of the known, the well-loved, the favorites. Baby Yoda is the mascot for all of this — including the prequel-we-didn’t-realize-we-needed syndrome — as well as for finding light in the darkness.
I want to be awed, inspired, and happy when I read or watch something meant to make me temporarily forget my troubles. The Child provides the perfect example of all that. We can address the tough topics in a rough time without furthering despair and anxiety. We can remain hopeful and find love and beauty in the midst of hurt.
Given the world circumstances, seeking warm fuzzies has become a passion. I dove into Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue, a brilliant move. I am not too old for anime, or for children’s stories that appeal to everyone. And quite frankly, I WANT to live in a world where the cat bus can take you around the forest, and sharing your umbrella with an enormous furry troll brings your family ultimate protection.
So, settling in with the comfy and the tried-and-true doesn’t feel very edgy; it sounds tranquil and calming.
I’m not just older; I’m also wiser. And more secure in the decisions I make.
After a year of craziness, a more steady pace is desirable.
I was among the many who looked forward to this title’s release. I even managed to score a free copy through an unused credit to the Book of the Month club that had slipped my notice. I started reading it with a sense of anticipation and joy.
Unfortunately, that joy faded rather fast.
I’ve tried other books by V.E. Schwab, and been either disappointed or confused, or kind of impressed and ultimately puzzled. Her ideas are lush and engaging, but her execution just runs circles around me. Maybe I’m too analytical, or not analytical enough, when it comes to the literary process and this author; I always struggle to follow the plot and have trouble accepting the 5-star reviews, when my reading presents so many difficulties.
I was really hoping The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue would prove the exception to the rule. But after finishing it, I believe I can conclude that Schwab and I are not on the same page.
The novel starts off a bit slow, but its early chapters are a truly delicious stroll through an incredibly atmospheric day for Addie in modern New York City, showing how she’s found the benefits of her curse, takes advantage of having no responsibilities or obligations, and yet, you can also palpably feel her loneliness and isolation.
The problem with this introduction, though, is that it quickly sets the tone for the rest of the book — and it draaaags. Despite multiple passages returning to Addie’s youth, and her life before she made her Faustian bargain, we get very little insight into WHY she was so desperate to make such a deal, other than the fact she didn’t want to get married and have kids and have that be “all there was to life.” Yes, that’s kind of mundane; but that perspective among an 18th century peasant woman is NOT realistic. How would she have obtained the information and education that led her to believe there were great cities and amazing sites to experience in farflung lands? And without wealth and status, how would she ever plan to go there and do these things? It doesn’t make sense.
Addie has no personality, either — no interests, no pursuits, no motivations for wanting to live forever. The most we’re given is that she appreciates art. Well, that in itself doesn’t justify making a deal with the devil. And once she’s figured out how her curse works, she takes a loooong time to actually start doing anything with it. Mostly she steals food, borrows housing, poses for artists, reads a lot of books. She seems to have no sense of nationalism or concern about the French Revolution, or Germany invading in World War Two; she seems a hollow shell of a person who’s selfish and shallow at best, and at worst more like an android than a passionate, striving human. The last is clearly what the author wants us to believe, but if all the pretty description and intricate dialogue can’t provide actual reasons, than, nope, I don’t buy it.
Maybe I read too much of certain genres, but also I saw the plot twist coming from a MILE away, and therefore it made no impact on me. And I found it to create more complexities for the story, not develop a happy ever after for the protagonist.
In the end, I’ve decided this is my last attempt at V.E. Schwab. I appreciate her popularity, as her writing is immersive and easy to zip through; but if she can’t learn how to actually plot and character, then I won’t be changing my mind anytime soon. Sorry, fans.
SO! It’s been a pretty long, sometimes grueling journey to get this one into print and onto shelves. But FINALLY Fire and Wind is available on Amazon, and the Barnes & Noble link will be ready soon, too!
Just a couple of notes for my readers: If you haven’t yet finished Healers and Warriors, Volume 3 of the Order of the Twelve Tribes series, there are a few spoilers, since I’ve tied this standalone novel into the canon. (Because I’m clever like that.) But, if you need to catch up, Volume 3 (as well as Volume 1 and 2!) is on sale at Amazon and B&N, paperback and ebook.
It was about a year and a half ago that I started on this project in earnest, and too many unforeseen obstacles made it a lot more difficult to complete than I would’ve hoped. The fact it’s AT LAST a reality owes a whole lot to Editor Extraordinaire, Deborah O’Carroll, whose sharp eye, patience and compassion never seem to wear thin, and who was a never-ceasing cheerleader for seeing this book brought to life!
Also, big shout-out to Megan McCullough for the terrific (as always!) cover, though we had to wait a bit to share the final product!
So, there we are — another release under my belt! And always and forever, THANK YOU to those of you who have supported my work from the start and are still cheering me on! Realistically all these stories would still be in notebooks in a drawer without you all!
As one of you definitely knows, and the other has heard tossed around in adult discussion, it’s an election year. One of you is already old enough to know what issues are important to you, and how you would vote if you were eligible. The other…well, we’ll get there (but please, not too fast).
The year I turned 18 happened to be one of a Presidential election. Your Grandpa took me to the polls with him on the day, made sure one of the officials explained to me how to fill out the ballot, and then I was in one of those curtained booths, on my own, to make up my mind, to cast my vote.
Before the day, there were no conversations trying to persuade me to vote one way or another. I generally knew what values and policies my parents held regarding politics and various moral/social issues, but I never felt any pressure to conform to them.
In our family, the message I’ve always received is that voting is a privilege, one hard-earned by those who came before us, who were willing to fight for it, so exercising that privilege on Election Day has a sense of civic duty.
Ages ago, long before you were born, your great-grandmother researched our family tree, going back as far as she could. She found out that your great-grandfather was directly descended from John Alden, a passenger on The Mayflower, one of the first English ships to land in the New World.
We literally come from people who risked their lives to gain independence. We come from folks who felt thinking for yourself mattered, a whole lot. In our blood remain the ideals of personal freedom, liberty, and speaking up against injustice.
So, as your mother, I say: When you’re old enough to do so, vote.
Don’t vote for the candidate “everybody else” is casting their ballot for. Choose the candidate who has policies that align with your values and desires for the future of our family, your friends, this country, this world.
Do your research ahead of time; know your history; read up on science, philosophy, and religion, so that you understand the issues and the debates around them. Connect with others who agree and disagree with you, find out what they believe and why they feel that way.
Know why you’re choosing that candidate, that party, that view. Vote in the way your conscience, your gut, steers you.
I won’t tell you who to vote for, and you don’t have to tell me who you chose on the ballot. Though you can if you want.
It’s that time of year again. Writers everywhere are closing their eyes and flipping a coin to determine if they will participate in National Novel Writing Month. It’s a period fraught with anxiety, excitement, and caffeine — and that’s just the process of choosing your project and doing battle with the NaNo website to get your details uploaded.
I’ve completed the NaNo challenge of writing 50,000 words on a single WIP 3 times now. Not 3 years in a row, because my 2019 entry was a dumpster fire of epic proportions. So, why, I’m sure many of you are asking right now, are ANY of us writers even toying with the notion of undertaking this endeavor in 2020, a year that has been notoriously uncaring about anybody’s plans for anything?
Well, it’s many reasons. Partly it’s the idea of having something normal and expected to hold onto in these otherwise turbulent and unprecedented days. Some of us are working from home, anyway, right now, so we may feel that time is on our side, as well as being in the right atmosphere to just dive into a fresh manuscript. (I mean, if we’re already still in our pajamas and on that second cup of coffee…)
Then there’s also the intense underlying desire for something new to be comforting and not panic-inducing. On the one hand, we would argue that NaNo does bring about a certain amount of panic on its own, just by existing; but it’s a familiar obstacle. We’ve run this marathon before, and survived it. We know what’s coming. And that’s valuable at the moment.
There’s also the idea that, in a year of intense, unwanted, new-and-unusual things, this is something that we expect, and can control. Ultimately we decide whether to participate in NaNo, whether we quit early, or stick it out to the bitter finish. (Well, hopefully not so bitter.) We can choose the project, if we outline first or totally make it up on the fly, if we’re going to work on a few projects at once and cobble together our numbers, or if we end up writing a novel that’s going to keep tallying words well beyond 50,000. This level of manipulation ability can in fact produce somewhat of a high in the current world climate.
And in an era of “social distancing,” and downright toxic screaming every time we catch up on the news, belonging to a community that puts aside its differences to unabashedly cheer each other on for the next 30 days, no matter where we live in the world, is very attractive. December 1st will come, and unfortunately some of us will be back to style and genre debates, cancel culture wars and cutting people down. But for now, it’s purely going to be, YOU GO, YOU WRITE THE THING AND REVEL IN IT.
Divisions in society are part of human nature, it appears, so when we can find something to all agree on, let’s hop straight on that beautiful bandwagon.
As for myself, I’m still debating whether to forge ahead with an official NaNo undertaking or not. Realistically I will still be figuring it out on November 1st. Right now it is all I can do to get through a Covid-altered Halloween without disappointing a very eager 6-year-old. November 1st needs to wait its turn.
I do have a couple of projects to choose from, that I want to start, that I’ve been wanting to start since quarantine. Putting the pressure on myself of trying to write during that period was not, in hindsight, wise. Again, NaNo is a familiar pressure, and I can draw a line in the sand anytime I like. Actually finishing a new draft this year would be immensely satisfying.
And NaNo would, in fact, be an okay way to approach it.
Whether you’re NaNo-ing or not, remember that this month is a great month to write, re-write, outline, pants it, or not write at all.
I’m asking for myself as a writer, as well as a reader.
Recently I started reading The Lost Book of the White, which is the second in The Eldest Curses spinoff series by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu. Now, I will admit, I skimmed the first chapter of the first book and chose not to continue with it. But I was legit excited about this new addition to the Shadowhunters world.
The Lost Book of the White is set after the events of The Dark Artifices, and it picks up with the original characters — Clary and Jace, Isabelle, Alec, Simon and Magnus — in their present day. So, FINALLY moving forward with the people I cared about the most.
I was very turned off by The Dark Artifices focusing on some of the most unnecessary and dull (in my opinion) characters mentioned towards the end of The Mortal Instruments. I struggled to finish the first book in that trilogy, so really had no qualms about setting it aside. Despite my — at the time — really wanting more from the Shadowhunters world.
What’s changed, then?
Last night, around page 150, I gave up on The Lost Book of the White. It was becoming painful to try to persist in slogging through anymore. The characters I loved for years were flat, not like themselves, and not what I expected. The plot was recycled from other tales in the same universe, and read pretty stale even from the beginning.
And I remembered a while ago, how I wrote a post on my jumbled feelings regarding the many Shadowhunters novels. And a post about when ongoing series should stop. I had realized that the norm for any sort of genre is to simply persist with a series basically until the author dies, and that many readers get tired of the same characters and similar plots after 6 or 7 books. I could count myself among that group, and was beginning to wonder, as a writer — how will I know when enough is enough with my own fantasy series?
White Fang and I were talking about Percy Jackson, how years later it’s still popular with middle schoolers, and how fans keep hoping for future movies or a TV show. It’s become a sort of cult classic. It seems to me that Rick Riordian did see the value in stopping, even with a big bestseller on his hands.
There’s the difference between Cassandra Clare and other YA authors, it appears. Many YA authors known for a particular title or genre often try their hand at something else, or take a break from publishing. Clare is just constantly rehashing the same old, same old, either not willing to give up a proven cash-cow, or maybe this is the only idea she has. Yes, I’m aware that sounds pretty mean, but when an author has more than a dozen titles in their bibliography that are allllllllll in essentially the same series…
As a reader, I am merciless. As a writer, I try to notice what works and what doesn’t for others, not just in terms of sales, but also in terms of process, self-care, and longevity of certain genres. As both, I’ve heard this message loud and clear: When series drag on for too long, readers stop reading.
So, this is when I get my analytical hat on. Even if I’m having a great time writing, yet again, about characters near and dear to my heart, if the plot is getting harder to make cohesive, if ideas for non-related stories keep interrupting me, would I have the guts to decide the end is nigh?
And to stick to that decision? I believe authors can get easily swayed into continuing with a series for many reasons, but not always good ones. The story is our creation, so shouldn’t we care about maintaining its integrity more than money or status?
The tricky thing is that writers really SHOULD be who decides when what finishes. But, although we mostly create our work in a solitary fashion, we are definitely NOT the only people who contribute to the books.
That includes readers. While we don’t write our stories just for the readers — meaning if people love what we wanted to write, awesome, but if they don’t, so be it — we would do well to pay attention to feedback from our audience.
I don’t for a second mean listen to the haters. All art is subjective, and some people will just never like your work, no matter how much you try to make it amazing and perfect. But when you receive constructive criticism from trusted sources — such as betas or ARC reviewers that you know are being open-minded and fair — giving their thoughts some consideration isn’t unwise.
So, just when should a series be complete?
Most stories will reach a natural conclusion, no matter how deep or complex the world-building. Maybe it’s the mindset of “too big to fail” that pushes some of us to pursue labored extensions?
Endings can be anxiety-producing, yes. But what if the lasting result is a hole too big to climb out of? Personally, that worries me more, and what I’d prefer to avoid.
And a cute anime kitten pair to start off, because, why not?
So, after not reading much of anything new for quite a while (I know, what was I doing with myself during quarantine with both kids at home?), I’ve finally been catching up on new releases or recent hits. I have to say, I’m a little surprised at how out of touch I apparently am as to what’s a big deal in publications right now — I’d never even heard of any of these titles until I was processing them at work. Well, there was one exception. But, still. Anyway, this is exactly why reviews are still important!
So, getting right to it…
A Burning was…well, I’m not sure what it was. I know it intended to be a poignant and timely read, about hatred and intolerance in India. It fell quite flat for me. The writing was so hard to follow, I spent much more of my time puzzling out what the sentences were actually trying to communicate than getting the overall tone and atmosphere. There were alternating POVs throughout the story, and the only narrative that used proper grammar and logical ways of thinking was the most unlikable character. Two of the narratives were clearly connected, but the third had nothing to do with either of them, and was obviously just the author wanting to make a commentary on the issue of LGBT discrimination within the country. And there’s nothing wrong with that, truly, but I, as an analytical reader, would like the story I thought I was reading not to be hijacked. The novel suggests in its early chapters it’s going to be the tale of a Muslim woman falsely accused of detonating a bomb at a train station. That is an interesting enough story in itself, especially in India, where Muslims do face a lot of prejudice. Instead, we got mostly reports from the trial and a rundown of how poorly the suspect was treated in a women’s prison. With convoluted metaphors and turns of phrase that most English-speaking readers wouldn’t be familiar with. Sigh.
Transcendent Kingdom was another tricky one, in terms of its presentation, and what its goal was. On the surface, it’s about an immigrant family, depression, addiction, and loss. And, yes, it does cover all of this, in a very sad and difficult, yet very well written and engaging, narrative. The main character’s mother is struggling with clinical depression years after losing her son to a drug overdose. The narrator is getting her PhD in neurology, so that she can research a possible cure for addiction, obviously inspired by her brother’s tragic end. And while none of this is particularly uplifting, these are unfortunately relevant topics to address, and so I just went with it. Here’s what bugged me the most about it: After several chapters of explaining the backstory with the brother and the narrator’s current situation in the lab, the novel plunges headlong into deep flashbacks that focus so much on bashing everything, that it has an almost gone-off-the-rails feel. The author bashes modern Christianity (and while I have my issues with that as well, not all 21st century churchgoers are hypocrites, and God as a concept or as a focus of worship is not evil or wrong). She bashes the African culture her characters emigrate from. She bashes the Ivy League campuses where many religious students do feel their beliefs are questioned or judged — but she makes it sound like every.single.Christian.teenager going “into the world” will OF COURSE face ridicule and scorn. Then, on top of all that, many unnecessary conversations about the narrator’s sex life and preferences were thrown in, and I gave up wanting that sort of graphic discussion in my enjoyment reading a while ago. So I reached the (anti-climatic) conclusion with mixed feelings.
The Vanishing Half was pretty interesting — in terms of the topics, not always the writing. The style fluctuated for me — in some chapters, it was engrossing, in others, it dragged. The premise starts at a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s, where two “Negro” girls who are in fact so light-skinned that they’re mistaken for being Caucasian, leave home and just drop off the town’s radar. The twins go into the city, to make their own way in life, and while one returns home eventually (with her own clearly black daughter), the other marries a white man and never tells anyone her true ancestral and racial roots. This story spans decades and covers a lot of what people were struggling with then on race, sexuality and gender, changing laws and unchanging attitudes. Some of the characters I just couldn’t sympathize with, but I also wondered if that was partly because I never lived in their world, with their perspective.
Where the Forest Meets the Stars could not have been more disappointing. It’s unrealistic from the start (the conversations characters have are NOT AT ALL the conversations people would have in real life), and only gets more and more unbelievable as the story progresses. I don’t think the author did a smidge of research into how child endangerment laws work, nor how social workers are told to handle cases with traumatized children, nor how super-smart 9-year-olds from terrible homes would really act. I can’t go into more detail without massive spoilers, but this tale just felt so amateurish and got more ridiculous with every page. The lovely cover LIED.
Bring Me Back was the opposite of every thriller I’ve ever tried — and granted, that isn’t many!, but I found it to be not at all thrilling! The narrator is totally bland, apart from he has anger management issues, and otherwise he’s a non-descript self-made man in the suburbs with a wonderful girlfriend…who gets caught up in the sudden resurfacing of the decade-old mystery of his ex-partner’s unexplained disappearance. And this isn’t as exciting as it sounds! The action starts almost right away, and most of the backstory is filled in via confusing flashbacks, and there’s very little character development provided for any of the folks involved. The author did give that a stab with the narrator and his current girlfriend, but it still doesn’t go deep enough for us to really connect to either of them, to begin to unravel the mystery for oneself, or to care about who lives or dies. And isn’t that the heart of the thriller genre?
Chosen Ones is the exception to only running across these books at the library; Veronica Roth’s adult fiction debut was reviewed by blogger The Orangutan Librarian last month. Back in the day, along with everyone else, I read the Divergent trilogy, and, like many, had a lot of issues with it. But I did give Carve the Mark a shot, and while I ended up not caring for the storyline, I found the author’s writing to be quite improved, and determined to keep an open mind. So when my library’s copy of Roth’s new fantasy arrived, I grabbed it.
The novel centers on 5 former “chosen ones,” who were, when they were teenagers, selected to battle an ultimate evil and save the world, and how they’re all managing, or suffering, as adults. That was a different take on the overdone trope, so I looked forward to what would hopefully be something a little fresh.
Well, it didn’t last long. Before the halfway point, the focus abruptly shifts to the resurgence of a familiar threat and…yup, that’s right, the out-of-practice-superheroes have to step up to repeat history. Siiiiiiiigh. I didn’t even finish this one after the “twist,” threw in the towel around page 150. Next time I don’t think I’ll give this author the benefit of the doubt. If you’re going to dust off a stereotype and take it in another direction…then stay the course. Don’t fall back into the cliches. Your audience will thank you for going down the road less traveled.
The one thing this last selection did for me was point me firmly back towards fantasy (after reading a LOT of contemporary). It reminded me that no matter how much I’ve been let down by recent fantasy titles, for me there is always the possibility of a new approach, unique characters, a plotline that isn’t totally worn out. I will keep coming back to this genre without fail.
Here, to finish this post off, have another cute animated cat.
I’ve been watching a lot of CinemaSins on YouTube lately (warning: that channel is for mature audiences only), hence the title of this post. For anyone who has no idea what I’m referencing, CinemaSins is a small group of independent movie critics who provide a snarky, often humorous spin on our favorite films, or the films we love to hate. The caption for each of their videos begins “Everything wrong with…” and insert the title of the movie.
Last week, I decided to check out from the library a juvenile series called “The Wildwood Chronicles” that I’ve seen multiple times while carrying out my shelving duties. The covers alone drew me in, and overrode my slight misgivings about the length of the books. (Each one has a total of more than 500 pages. And, yes, someone expects middle-schoolers to be reading this.) Anyway, I hauled the stack home, and dove in.
A few pages in, I realized I’d read the first book before. But I had very little recollection of what happened, so I kept going. I wondered why some things came back to me right away (like the startling opening where the protagonist tries to chase down a bunch of crows that have just literally grabbed her baby brother and flown off), but others (most of the secondary characters, for example) weren’t familiar.
I read on, growing increasingly confused, as A) the plot makes very little sense, and B) I couldn’t ever recall seeing “Wildwood” anywhere on blogs or reviews. Wouldn’t an MG fantasy touted by the marketing as “the American Narnia” have received a lot of attention?
The premise of “Wildwood” is that 12-year-old Prue loses her baby brother to the aforementioned crows, and immediately develops a plan to retrieve the child, while keeping his sudden disappearance a secret from their parents. On the one hand, we can all understand Prue’s motivations; but on the other, I highly doubt that most 7th-graders would have the fortitude to carry out such actions, no less on their own. At that age, most kids, having just experienced something so traumatic, would simply run home to their parents and sob out the terrible truth.
There’s also the fact this story is set in the very real city of Portland, Oregon, which is a significant population center, and most of it rather urban and modern. However, Meloy, the author (a Portland native) chose to put a huge, dark, looming forest — called The Impassable Wilderness — on the outskirts of the city limits. Now, I’m all for artistic license, but this…just doesn’t jive. I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I can certainly look at an atlas, and see that there is no such area right next to Portland.
So, we start off with a wobbly foundation for a very long novel. It only gets worse as we proceed further.
As Prue travels through the “Impassable Wilderness” — which turns out to be a civilization unto itself, with humans who live about as we did in the 1940s or so, and animals who talk, walk upright, and wear clothes — she gets waylaid by several subplots that have little to nothing to do with her brother’s plight. This means the reader is being constantly introduced to new characters, locations, and motivations, and it’s really hard to keep track, and stay invested.
Here we reach the moment CinemaSins would warn, “Spoilers! (Duh!)”
You’ve all heard me whine before about irresponsible, or downright stupid, parents in YA/MG. And I’ve come across some pretty bad ones, but it has to be said that “Wildwood” takes the cake. Prue’s parents are portrayed as former hippies on steroids, who feel it’s totally fine to let their daughter be a self-proclaimed vegetarian, babysit her little brother all day long, without any help, and apparently not go to school for weeks at a time because the talking animals need her (insert massive eye roll here). About halfway through, Prue feels defeated in her quest to rescue the baby, and goes home and comes clean with her parents. Her mother and father have, at least, posted missing flyers for their children and are appropriately distraught. But they go on to tell Prue a far-fetched tale about how they made a fertility bargain with a magical figure from the I.W., and how apparently the baby wasn’t ever theirs rightfully, and Prue shouldn’t risk her life going back to Wildwood, they can be a happy family, just the three of them…right?
No, I’m not kidding.
For some reason, I did keep reading (maybe self-inflicted torture was the only option on the menu that weekend?), and when I finally crossed the finish line…I realized I was going to read the other two. Not because the book suddenly got much better. No, simply to see how bad it could get.
The sequel is called “Under Wildwood,” and is even more meandering. It carries on the pattern of numerous subplots and trope characters that I wasn’t interested in. And it adds in another POV; the first installment was told from Prue’s perspective, or that of her classmate Curtis, who (for some unknown but slightly stalker-ly reason) follows her into the Impassable Wilderness and they get separated early on (of course). But the second book also includes the POV of Curtis’ younger sisters, AND, at times, of a strange man running the orphanage Curtis’ sisters have been taken to “temporarily.”
Yes, that makes about as much sense as you’d think it would. The idea is that, after Prue (with a saved baby in tow, don’t worry) makes her way home from the I.W., Curtis remains there, and his parents believe he’s gone missing, and they decide to travel the world (yup), to try to find him. Instead of leaving his sisters with grandparents or neighbors or family friends, they put the girls in an orphanage (yuuuup). And of course the people who run the establishment are terrible and yadah, yadah, yadah.
Meanwhile, political regime conspiracies in Wildwood have overtaken most of the main plotline; Prue is suddenly painted as a sort of savior for this world, which takes a page straight out of Narnia, and seems to give it the bird. Prue isn’t an ordinary kid who stumbles into this magical place that she’s destined to help; she’s the most mature and responsible 12-year-old ever, who suddenly has incredible powers that she learns how to use in about a day. If you (Meloy) don’t like The Chronicles of Narnia, fine, you don’t have to. But there is something seriously pretentious — and offensive — about ripping it off, to “make it better,” and then shove that in your audience’s face. It isn’t just arrogant and off-putting in general; it’s disrespectful at a level most readers (and writers) would find unacceptable.
Don’t ask me why I kept going. I guess I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe curiosity killed the cat. But, yes, I wasted one more night on the final book, “Wildwood Imperium.”
Anyway, I managed to grasp the resolutions of the main plot — but, wow, did the author make me work for it. Between the not-at-all-subtle political messages, the many and varying subplots, and my ongoing frustration with the majority of the adult characters being totally dumb, it was a struggle.
In the end (spoilers! duh!), Prue stops a Big Bad Woman (strongly resembling the White Witch of Narnia) from taking over both Wildwood and the outside world using Plant Magic (yupper), but it means she’s almost wiped out (dun, dun, dun), and has to be buried in the local foliage to hopefully survive. Which she does, coming back as a tree in her parents’ backyard. Ahh, yeah, you did read that right. Sorry. Then the tree turns back into a person and her family’s reunited, and, er, yay, I guess.
Curtis finds his sisters and they all go home and are reunited with their dumb-ass parents, and, supposedly, yay and happy stuff.
Except I’m not buying it. Any of it, really.
Not a SINGLE explanation is given for why Prue was so special in Wildwood, how she even had powers, or why the natives let her just waltz in and become their messiah. I’m genuinely not sure how the stupid, nasty man who ran the orphanage fit into that whole subplot, as it was so dull and overdramatic I’ll admit I skipped big chunks of it. The notion of Prue and Curtis going missing for long periods of time and their families NOT being investigated for committing a nefarious crime just isn’t realistic.
The residents of Wildwood are gullible, elitist, and too mysterious for their own good. They indicate having a poor opinion of “Outsiders,” but there’s never anything included in the text to suggest why. Were people from Portland really mean to the I.W. natives? Did Portland even know what was really out there, hence the blocking off the area and calling it dangerous? Or vice versa?
The Plant Magic doesn’t make much sense, and its origins and operations are hinted at being more the basis for a religion in Wildwood rather than as a magic system. We’re left utterly scratching our heads as to how it connected with Prue, the “normal” kid.
We receive very little background before being dropped straight into the story — we have no idea what Prue’s parents do for a living, if she has any friends or hobbies (apart from the fleeting comment she might like to draw birds). Curtis is the “nerd” in her class, who everyone wants to avoid, but they somehow wind up close friends. As the story goes on, we do get a little more information about Curtis’ family, but most of what we’re told about Prue’s is little, insignificant details — they like to go to farmer’s markets, her dad hates to take out the trash, her mom is bad at knitting. None of it MATTERS in the context of what’s intended to be this sweeping fantasy epic.
This is a series that reminds me — painfully — why middle-schoolers say reading is boring.
And this could also be why I’ve never come across this trilogy anywhere in the blogisphere. Most reviewers are adults — or at least in their late teens — and many of us who read MG fiction want something that appeals to people of all ages. If a book or series is so tedious that even an adult, with greater levels of patience and tolerance, doesn’t want to sit through it all, how in the world can we get 6th-graders excited about it?
Usually I leave it up to you, my readers, to determine whether you’d enjoy a particular title. But I can honestly say, when it comes to “The Wildwood Chronicles,” I don’t recommend even that.
Good morning! Welcome to another dose of whinging about subpar reading experiences!
I remember saying not all that long ago that I really wanted not to harp on the negative too much in my blog posts; how I was okay with writing negative reviews if the target — I mean, title really warranted it, but I didn’t want to find myself wallowing in the gripe.
I can still see the point of that. (Really, I can.) However, I’m also realizing that there are benefits to evaluating why a style (or genre) tends to become so disappointing, and learning how to make (hopefully) better choices next time as a reader.
(It’s all part of this pandemic-instigated self-reflection I’ve been, er, wallowing in lately.)
Criteria #1: Just because I didn’t finish it then, doesn’t mean I have to finish it now.
Reasoning: I used to be the queen of DNF. It was far too easy to check a dozen books out of the library, read 20 pages, toss it aside, and return it to the drop box. Eventually, I got fed up with feeling, well, fed up. So, I vowed to change my pattern. If it hasn’t caught me before page 100, then I assume it won’t. But, until then, let’s give the story a chance.
Counter-reasoning: If I’ve spent at least an hour/reached page 100 without becoming involved, chances are…I never will, and I shouldn’t feel guilty about throwing in the towel.
Example #1: Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
This is the start of a juvenile fantasy series I’d walked past many times while shelving. So I finally picked up the trilogy, and began reading the first book almost right away. Before I was very far in, it hit me: I’d read this before.
Why did I remember so little of it, though?
So, I kept going. Well before my benchmark of 100 pages, my question was answered: I must not have finished it…because it’s boring and nonsensical as hell.
The action begins in the very first paragraphs of the first chapter, with the protagonist and the major conflict introduced in basically the same breath — 12-year-old Prue is watching her baby brother being carried away by a group of crows. Just…what?? On the one hand, it’s such a startling opening, that you feel you have to keep reading to find out the whys and the wherefores.
On the other, though…as you proceed and the nonsense just builds up, without being dispersed… You will forgive yourself for selecting the “step away” option.
And “Wildwood” really checks all the boxes for me in this regard. While I’m not opposed to action starting early in a story, if this action isn’t tempered with at least some background or more information about the characters or setting, then I get easily frustrated and pushing forward doesn’t really feel worth it.
This novel is absolutely the latter. As the 500+-page story progresses, we get more and more names and faces and places thrown at us, but very little explanation as to just how this world works or why many of these secondary characters are important. As I kept reading, finding very little illumination, and discovering my wrists were hurting (yes, 500+ pages!), my desire to complete this tome waned.
I did make it to the last page…but I do feel it wasn’t worth my time and effort.
So, yes, it IS still okay to DNF.
Criteria #2: The cover is so intriguing/beautiful/unique, the story inside must be just magical/amazing/awesome.
Reasoning: Some of my favorite books became faves purely by having a cover that I couldn’t ignore.
Counter-reasoning: Marketing lies.
Example #2: “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley
This is an adult fiction that tries to blend history with…I guess a kind of mysticism, and the overall effect is…confusion that also creates dullness. Which feels odd, because the blurb makes one think it’s supposed to be about time travel and Victorian London and blending immigrant culture with the natives, and it all just sounds…well, not dull.
But the writing tends to simply wander, and take a while to make relevant points, which meant I was quickly losing interest, anyway. And the hardcover’s font is thin and small and hard to read (especially when you live in a house with lighting from the mid 20th century), and this just adds to the “what the what?!” atmosphere.
I gave this…experiment till page 150, and when I at last opted to let go, there wasn’t an ounce of guilt.
It’s important to recognize when something just isn’t to your taste and move on, not feel the need to apologize for it. Not with something as subjective as art.
Criteria #3: Even if I didn’t care for several books by a particular author, if I REALLY liked some of their earlier work, I should leave the door open for liking their newest release.
Reasoning: Pretty clear.
Counter-reasoning: None, really.
Example #3: “The Eldest Curses” series by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu
Back in the day, I LOVED “The Mortal Instruments” series by Cassandra Clare. The fifth and sixth books in the original canon fell flat for me, and I still disagree with the directions taken towards the end, but overall the story has a special place in my heart. The “Infernal Devices” prequel and “Dark Artifices” spinoff did literally nothing but bore me, which was a punch to the gut after my enjoyment of the early tales.
So imagine my excitement when I found out the latest Shadowhunters addition, “The Eldest Curses,” centers on the original characters; and while book 1 was sort of a prequel (set during “The Mortal Instruments”), the second installment picks up where the characters are NOW. We FINALLY get a proper sequel to the tale of Clary and Jace, Isabelle and Alec and Simon, and I am psyched to start on it! Reading this book will feel like coming home, I already know it.
It’s not that I specifically held out hope for this exact premise being executed and published within my lifetime, but… I won’t lie, it does feel kind of like a fiction miracle.
While I’ve had many more misses than hits in my recent reading history, I hold out hope that the scales will tip back in my favor.