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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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