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Hits and Misses: Revisiting the Past (With an Eye to the Future)

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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

Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles): Meloy, Colin, Ellis, Carson: 9780062024701:  Amazon.com: Books

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

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: Pulley, Natasha: 9781620408346:  Amazon.com: Books

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

Amazon.com: The Lost Book of the White (The Eldest Curses 2) eBook: Clare,  Cassandra, Chu, Wesley: Kindle Store

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.

Shouldn’t we all?

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Yes, Our Reading Perspectives Do Change Over Time

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On a totally separate note, I just discovered that the “new WordPress editor” is a thing.

Ahem.

Pardon me for a second while I run around screaming.

Okay, it turns out that the program itself isn’t awful to use. (So far, it seems…) It’s just that I have a very strong aversion to sudden change out of my control. That’s why I really like to control change when I can.

Hey, that ended up leading very well into the topic of this post.

A long while ago, I wrote a post about how our expectations or hopes for what we get from reading can — and often do — change either with our age or after certain experiences in our lives. I definitely feel I’m coming up to a new stage in this area.

After I also wrote a post about how it’s totally acceptable for adults to read YA fiction…here I am, wondering if I can really carry on reading YA fantasy.

And, yes, I do believe this has to do with the fact I’m now over 40. Because, although I write YA-appropriate fantasy myself, I am growing increasingly frustrated and/or bored by plotlines that revolve around love triangles during the fall of the oppressive empire.

But, I still get frustrated and/or bored by adult fiction that focuses too much on gory murder mysteries unrealistically solved within two days, or fluffy insta-romances between physically perfect people with dream jobs and all the latest tech.

So, the question doesn’t just become, What do I read next?, but also, What am I really looking for in a book?

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Since the pandemic meant I was without access to a library for at least 2 months, I was forced to re-evaluate my reading habits earlier this year. I found affordable bargains on series I’d started but never finished, for whatever reason, and worked my way through them. And when I came to the end of that journey, I realized that my reading tastes have really altered.

I used to be a big content avoider. Trigger warnings were my speciality. I didn’t want to read depictions of abuse, graphic violence, or explicit explanations of trauma. But just this week, I finished “Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi, a novel that centered heavily on the narrator’s loss of a sibling due to drug overdose and her mother’s depression. It’s a heavy read, not much comic relief, and there are several long passages of deep reflection in each chapter. It takes determination to finish. And yet, I don’t regret reading it.

I’m also becoming more willing to try “timely topic” novels, which in the past I have avoided like the plague, because I don’t want an agenda (of any sort) shoved down my throat while I’m trying to enjoy a story. But I did find “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett very interesting, despite its long-winded digressions throughout many of the chapters, creating a number of subplots in what, on the surface, is supposed to be about a light-skinned black woman who decides to pass for white in the 1970s. Whereas before I’d be skimming or outright skipping large chunks of such a novel, to get back to the “actual premise,” in this case, I thought the subplots were more engaging — and they were big on conversations about race and gender and how different things were in the mid 20th century from now. Very “hot button,” and I wasn’t instantly turned off.

I also seem to have developed more tolerance for books that meander and don’t get to the point right away. Even 6 weeks ago, if I couldn’t get into a title before page 25, I tended to just put it down and not bother again. Lately, I’ve really been stopping myself from DNF-ing. Partly because I have actually discovered the value in pushing forward and enjoying at least half of the book. But also because I want to spend my reading time as something relaxing, to be savored, no goals to meet, no rushing.

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I’m also realizing I care less and less about what new releases are tapped to be super hot. It’s almost the reverse of jumping into the hype. I’ve been terribly disappointed by almost every single “you have to read this!!!” title I’ve picked up since 2018. Either the characters were all stereotypes, the plot recycled from other books/movies that did it better, or I just didn’t care for the writing style (purple prose, all show and no tell, and dozens of pages of unnecessary text are my worst enemies). And these trends have seemed to run rampant in publishing (at least in the genres I prefer) recently. So now, even if millions of other people are raving about it, I’m just going to be, “you do you, folks,” and not count on said title blowing me away.

Right on the heels of that is the fact I’m no longer putting much stock in others’ recommendations. Not that I want people to stop sharing their new favorites and promoting them — not at all! But I’ve accepted that I just am a finnicky reader, and while I’ll certainly continue to read others’ reviews, I’m not going to add every single new hyped release to my TBR. This attitude is actually quite freeing (for my wallet, too!).

But the downside to this is that I could quickly run out of new possibilities. So I’ve promised myself not to be too hard on authors I tried once and didn’t really hit it off with. I won’t shell out unlimited opportunities, but if their first book didn’t do it for me, maybe their second — or even third! — will. Even our favorite authors sometimes produce a work that misses our personal mark. So, I figure only allowing an acclaimed writer an hour of my time isn’t quite fair.

Well, that does it for me this time around! What about you? Have you noticed your reading preferences and goals change over time?

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children's fiction, pop culture, Uncategorized

Harry Potter: The Invisible Moth’s Definitive Commentary

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Okay, nothing like striking while the iron is hot! A few days ago, I posted on all the division that’s erupted in the Harry Potter fandom as a result of recent real world events regarding its author. As I was writing that post, I realized that, despite being a fan myself, I’ve never put together a comprehensive review of the series. But after touching on this topic during the weekend, the relevant points for this post started to come together.

I loved Harry Potter. Most of the plot, characters, humor, the more serious themes, and certainly the world-building. It takes all the familiar archetypes — the special orphan/chosen one, the wise mentor, the bumbling but loyal sidekick, the smart one, the pure evil villain with a Grand Scheme — and puts them into a world we recognize. Struggling with difficult teachers and classes, hanging out with your friends, playing a sport, fighting with your siblings, worrying you don’t really know loved ones, even sneaking out to do something you’re told not to do — take away the magic and fantastical creatures, and this is an ordinary child’s life. It’s why these books will live on, for quite a while, no matter the general public opinion of the author in Real Life.

Now, I will definitely admit there are certain plot holes, character arcs that could (should?) have gone in a different direction, and other aspects that bug me. Some of them can be shrugged off and don’t really impede my enjoyment of the particular novel or series itself; others start to irk me when I go back to them.

Get yourself a comfy sofa and a snack; this is going to be a long one.

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One: The over-expansive world development that ultimately falls flat. 

Something downright amazing about books 1-3 is the world-building. We start with an orphan who has no idea of a magical legacy, and are taken on this incredible journey where we, along with Harry, learn about a whole world that’s as fantastic as it is dangerous. To begin with, most of the focus is on Hogwarts, but soon we get into Wizarding families, like the Weasleys; hear more about the divisions within this community and what allowed Voldemort’s rise to power; and some of the wonderful or worrisome mythical beasts and beings that also populate this realm.

In book 4, due to the Quidditch World Cup and TriWizard Tournament, this universe just explodes. What was already a pretty big premise gets rather enormous.

But this is also, sadly, where the series sets itself up to trip — and tumble down the stairs, landing in a heap of tangled hair and untied shoelaces. The fourth novel is when the page count significantly increases, when we get an idea of just how intense the conspiracy is to bring Voldemort back, and when the subplots begin to nearly overtake the main one. What was once primarily the tale of an unexpected boy wizard began switching to a world on the brink of civil war. It isn’t simply an ambitious shift; it’s almost impossible to pull off without any mistakes.

Many of us were beginning to miss the simplicity of the early books. Sure enough, The Order of the Phoenix confirms that the boy wizard is now being prepared to defend not only his own survival, but that of the entire community around him. And that’s where my enjoyment starts to fade.

Not completely. But The Half-Blood Prince hardly felt to me like the rest of the series. Too many new minor characters overshadowed the regular secondarys we’d grown attached to. Harry went from wanting to be a normal kid, despite his Chosen one status, to willingly spying for Dumbledore. And the twist ending that destroyed his mentor of the past several years — and set the whole series on a vastly alternate track — disappointed me, and made me slightly nervous about what awaited in The Deathly Hallows.

Here’s one of my most despised tropes in high fantasy: The meandering, long-lasting, booooooooorrrrrrrrrrring QUEST. It has very nearly ruined the entire genre of high fantasy for me, and I avoid it like the plague.

Cue Book 7 being 75% the above trope.

Is that me you hear screaming? Why, yes, yes, it is.

Not only was it disappointing, it felt like a copout. It made me wonder if Rowling was so tired of being badgered by fans that she was going to finish the series as quickly as possible, regardless of the fitting-ness — or not — of the ending.

All that incredible world-building from before just sort of drifted into oblivion. The fates of so many characters were thrown to the winds; we had literally no idea what happened to them during those 8 or so months Harry was in the woods.

It’s lame.

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Two: Deaths I will never get over.

  • SIRIUS BLACK.
  • CEDRIC DIGGORY.
  • Albus Dumbledore.
  • Fred Weasley.
  • REMUS LUPIN.
  • HEDWIG!!!!!!!!!!!

Three: Character developments that make no sense to me.

Ron Weasley. Starting out as the bumbling but loyal sidekick, Ron progressed into a selfish, petty, jealous jerk. Harry forgave him time and time again, despite it being pretty clear by book 6 he was growing pretty tired of breaking up the constant fights between Ron and Hermione, of having to defend his friendship with Ron to other students, and wondering if Ron could be trusted. I didn’t understand why Harry wanted Ron to come on The Quest — and indeed, Ron abandoned them the minute the going got tough. Ron and Hermione as a couple I didn’t get, either; there’s no romantic tension between them on page until well into book 6, and isn’t substantial enough for us to believe they got married later on.

Severus Snape. He’s the bad guy — right? While I never thought Snape was actually evil, he wouldn’t ever be mistaken for a nice person. But in books 5 and 6, when we learn that Snape is “only a bully because he was bullied as a child”, I have to say, it feels…false. Bullying is wrong, period; how James Potter and his friends behaved towards young Severus wasn’t okay, and we should recognize they made a poor choice. As adults, Lupin and Sirius do appear to show remorse for that, though they agree they won’t ever be friends with Snape — who is a big jerk. Yes, it was commendable that after all of that, Snape did save Harry’s life on a number of occasions. Yet, his really awful behavior (and there’s a ton of it) means we shouldn’t really sympathize with Snape.

Albus Dumbledore. Not the most disappointing for me, but the most shocking. Dumbledore is the guy, who has such strong intuition into everything that he’s always 37 steps ahead of everybody else. He’s directly responsible for Harry staying alive through the course of the series. So, why, then, does Dumbledore suddenly change in book 6, from wanting to protect Harry at all costs, to making him a spy and unwitting soldier in a war that was never his to fight? It’s immoral, unethical, and makes me question sooooo much about Rowling’s motivations behind everything in The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows.

Remus Lupin. This is my most disappointing. Lupin the practical, the stalwart, the level-headed in a crisis becomes…Lupin the whiny, the angsty, the grumpy. What?! How?! So he fell in love and had a son — doesn’t that usually make tragic cursed individuals HAPPYGrateful? And he hardly seems affected by Sirius’ death, and considering how long those two were friends, that’s just bizarre.

Four: Parts in the universe that leave me scratching my head.

Why do all the professors need to live at Hogwarts? Seriously, why aren’t they allowed to have little houses in Hogsmeade, with their own spouses and kids and pets? This makes the idea of signing a contract to teach here akin to joining a religious order where none of the participants are permitted to marry and reproduce. Odd, very, very odd.

It’s not at all realistic that everyone marries someone they went to high school with. In smaller, close-knit communities, people who have been acquainted for years through relatives or friends often do end up marrying. HOWEVER, the idea that 90% of Hogwarts alumni pair off together is just RIDICULOUS. Lily and James Potter were students together, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, the parents of most of Harry’s friends, etc., etc. And in the epilogue, we find that Harry’s generation did the same exact thing. Just…no.

SO MANY IMPORTANT CHARACTERS DYING OFF PAGE in the last book. The battle for Hogwarts takes up, like 100 pages. WHY is Harry absent for so much of it?! He doesn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to some of his dearest friends, like Lupin. WHY is his POV the only one during these incredibly busy and vitally necessary scenes?!

The last minute twist about Neville Longbottom possibly being The Chosen One. Just…WHAT?!?! And HOW did it never come up before that Harry and Neville shared a birthday, that Voldemort went after both families, that there was a prophecy?! Does this Big Reveal in The Order of the Phoenix mean EVERY TIME Harry asked someone why him, what made him so special, HE WAS LIED TO?! Deatheaters, Aurors, the Ministry of Magic, AND DUMBLEDORE knew about the prophecy. So…just…GAH.

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It’s reasons like this that I just stop myself from thinking too hard about this world nowadays. Holding onto my joy for this series is becoming more difficult as time goes by.

Honestly, I believe that Rowling was an inexperienced writer who had a great idea, and was given a chance to run with it; then her fame went nuclear, and her editors and publisher let her do whatever she wanted. And the series suffered for it. If someone had jumped in about halfway through book 5 and insisted on a complete turnaround from what we got, I wonder if many of us would feel very differently now about Harry Potter.

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