Thursday, October 27, 2016

C'est Cheese

This is another in my series of “Things that Cheese Me Off,” road-trip division. Early in life I was introduced to the joys of the Sunday drive. As with any activity, it comes with its share of cheese-inducing possibilities. I was out on the road last Sunday. Along with the sought-for relaxation, I encountered a few mild cheeses along the way.

I left home early, armed with a bottle of water and a map, even though I knew where I was going. My destinations were two shopping malls about thirty miles from the home base, and around twenty miles from each other, along with a used bookstore near the first mall. By using the right roads I could travel in a circle for maximum sightseeing.

All started well. I took the four-lane Rt. 222 to Shillington, then opted to follow a back route to Pottstown, site of the Coventry Mall. More stuff to look at, less traffic. So I assumed. Even on secondary roads, on a Sunday, I encountered “Mr. Hurry.” You know the guy (or gal): they’re the ones who hang on your bumper because, even though you’re doing ten miles over the posted speed limit, that’s still too slow for them.

I ran into two of these on a stretch of secondary road barely a half hour into my trip. It makes it tough to cruise around and sightsee. I can only imagine the language they’re using regarding my driving habits.

This especially drives me nuts when I go Sunday-driving around home. I live in a county crisscrossed with two-lane back roads and all sorts of Nature to look at. There are always two drivers out on these roads: me, and the guy on my tail. And there’s nowhere to pull over and let them pass, which is how I usually deal with the Mr. Hurrys I encounter. It makes me nervous, always having to glance in the rearview and calculate how far into my back seat they’re going to penetrate if I’m forced to slam on the brake.

Fortunately, on this particular road I was able to slow down and pull over onto the shoulder so they could zoom around me. Ten minutes later I came to a red light and lo and behold, there were both drivers who’d passed me. I pulled in behind them and had myself a quiet laugh while we waited for the light to turn green.

My favorite example of this type of karmic retribution happened years ago. Same situation—twisty two-lane back road, guy on my bumper, no way for him to pass. I finally pulled off into somebody’s driveway, and he roared away toward the horizon, vanishing from sight within seconds. I continued on at my leisurely pace. About twenty minutes later, about thirty miles away, I once again came to a red light. You know who was already sitting there. For all his lead-footing and reckless driving, there we were, together again. Speeding doesn’t necessarily get you there any faster, so you might as well slow down and enjoy the scenery.

Which I did, following a stop at the first mall. Rather than backtrack, I went twisting around on some country lanes, in the hopes of hooking up with the state road upon which the used bookstore was situated. I came across a couple other drivers back here, but none behind me, so I was able to cruise and enjoy the fall leaves. Good thing I was going slow—I rounded one sharp bend and there was some guy taking his Sunday stroll along the side of the road. In the road, in fact. Nor did he get over onto the berm when he saw me coming at him. I was forced to pull into the oncoming lane (another curse, which I couldn't see around) in order to give him space. Luckily no one was coming. The pedestrian was probably one of those people I’ve talked about, who ignores Do Not Enter, No Trespassing and Closed signs, too. Had I ended up in a head-on collision, I’m sure Mr. I Own the Road would have glared at me and pronounced, “Stupid woman driver.”

I did make it to the used bookstore without crashing, however, and found a couple volumes at great prices. Then it was on to the Exton Mall. I stuck to highways for that leg of the trip. More available lanes removed the threat of Mr. Hurry. It’s a game I like to play on three- and four-lanes: stick to the speed limit and see who passes me. Today, as always, it was everybody. I’m content to stay at the back of the pack, seeing what’s by the side of the road.

Here in Pennsylvania it appeared to be signs supporting Trump. The whole time I was out, all the roads I was on, I did not see a single Hillary sign. I guess we’re all solid Republicans here in Dutch Country. Either that, or the Clinton supporters are lying low, and will make their presence known at the voting booth. Guess we’ll know in a week or so.

On the way home Karma decided to get cute with me and deliver a taste of my own medicine. Since the trip was now over and all sights seen, I felt okay with speeding on Rt. 322. So of course I ended up behind a family of tourists, out for their own Sunday drive. I could tell because they slowed down to wave to the Amish in their buggies, and the kid in the back seat took pictures. At one point they put on the brakes because omigod look, there are horses in a field. I sucked it up and held back and tried to keep an acceptable distance between us. This was one of those no-passing roads, so the tourists had accumulated quite a line behind them by the time they finally turned off.

And that’s what I do on my Sundays off: drive around aimlessly, look at stuff, and complain about other people. With winter coming on, I’ll be staying in and, I hope, writing more. Then from the proceeds I can hire somebody to drive me around and we can both complain. Enjoy your slices of cheese.

Friday, October 21, 2016


This is my review of the Throne of Glass series. Sort of. Eventually. First I want to talk about a related issue.

There’s this writer. They write genre. They’ve written over a hundred books. I have to stay vague here because I came across this in my freelance work and I don’t want to offend a client. I still have bills to pay.

But in my proofreading, I noticed something. Every single book of this writer’s that I read contained the same plot point: with about ten-to-twenty pages left in the story, the female lead gets abducted. Every time. Like clockwork. Things are going fine and suddenly the Evil Bad Guy pops up in the next-to-last chapter and nabs her. Then the heroes search frantically and save her right at the very last minute. Then it’s happy ending time. I’ve proofed at least half a dozen of these books and the formula remains unshakable.

This writer is wildly popular in their genre, a consistent number-one bestseller who’s making big bucks for their publisher. The readers don’t appear to mind the repetitive plots. Maybe they’re comfortable with it.

It’s like McDonald’s. You can walk into any McDonald’s in the country at any time on any day of the week, and you know exactly what to expect. There are no surprises. I thought readers wanted surprises in their stories. Perhaps I was mistaken.

Back in the ‘70s-‘80s, if you were a fan of romance novels, Barbara Cartland was huge. Her niche was historical romance. She wrote a ton of books. I never read any, but it’s my understanding she also used the same plot repeatedly. Arrogant older man, dewy young maiden, Victorian hijinks ensue. She also sold in mass quantities, and had a loyal, rabid fanbase. Even though, from what I’ve heard, if you read one of her books, you’ve read all of them. Literary comfort food? Is there such a thing?

Just to prove this doesn’t only happen in romance, there was one author I did read, in the science fiction genre. After a promising start to his career, he also developed a formula. He began writing what I dubbed “travelogue” fiction. The plots consisted of a group of characters moving from Point A to Point B, and having largely-forgettable adventures along the way. I discovered I could read the first three chapters and the last three chapters, skip the middle, and still get the gist of the book. That’s a shame, because I liked his writing style and enjoyed his earlier work. However, it was the later, formulaic works that started appearing on the New York Times best-seller list. Go figure.

Which brings us, finally, back to Throne of Glass. I’ve now binge-read the five books available, and I’ve noticed this writer, too, has developed a winning formula. Essentially, the bulk of any given book in the series is filler. Sometimes boring, sometimes entertaining, but filler nonetheless. The characters have adventures, have romances, yadda yadda yadda. Then, somewhere near the end, there’s a Big Reveal. The book’s "holy shit" moment. Nothing’s what you thought it was. The plot spins off in a new direction, to be explored in the next volume. After about 300 pages of filler.

Hey, it’s working for her. The series is a best-seller. If it ain’t broke …

I always thought the point of writing was to entertain the reader. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think without realizing it. Surprise them. Granted, there are some genres—romance, mystery—that require a formula. But you can still play around inside the formula and have a little fun. Or can you?

Maybe what I see as tedious repetition, the market sees as reassuring familiarity. It’s certainly popular, and profitable. Maybe I should forget about surprising readers and find myself a formula and start churning out predictable books that don’t upset readers by messing with their expectations. Finally get me enough money to buy that newer car I’m going to need next year.

# # #

Overview of Throne of Glass: go ahead and read the series, if YA fantasy’s your thing. You may or may not be disappointed. Opinions on Goodreads are evenly split between This is the Greatest Series Ever and This is Boring and Sucks. Personally I enjoyed it, even though I ended up skimming large chunks here and there. The writer has an engaging style and knows how to tell a story. I recommend you skip the first one, Throne of Glass, and start with the second, Crown of Midnight. That’s the novel where she hits her stride. It’s like the early Star Trek movies. Avoid Star Trek: The Motion Picture and go straight to Wrath of Khan. The difference in quality is astounding.

Although at this point in the TOG series, I’ve become more invested in the story of Manon the witch and couldn’t care less about Celaena/Aelin and what happens to her. Manon’s story is like an antihero version of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, my all-time favorite series. And she probably should have been a lesbian, and spared us all that forced, awkward hook-up with the prince. But that would have messed up the formula, and probably cost the writer sales. Or so I’ve concluded. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Not the Time or Place

I’ve finished my binge reading of the Throne of Glass series, with the most recent book, Empire of Storms, currently out on the shelves. Damn thing ended on a cliffhanger. Now I’ll have to wait an entire year for the grand finale. I should have read more slowly, but I was getting these books from the library and only had two weeks each. Even free comes with a price.

I was going to write a book review of the series so far, but a couple of reviews on Goodreads sent me off in the direction that follows. Overall the series has been getting rave reviews from the Young Adult-reading audience it’s aimed at. There have been dissenters. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

I don’t agree that an author is required to put some particular element, either overt or subtle, into his/her novels, just because a reader thinks it should be there.

What prompted this were the couple of negative reviews where the readers complained that the author hadn’t put enough people of color, or LGBT characters, into her story. It was strongly implied one major character was black, from this fantasy world’s equivalent of Africa. Two walk-on minor characters were gay. One lead character came out in dialogue as bisexual. That was pretty much it. The other characters, male and female, were depicted as white, straight, and oh so very physically attractive. As far as I can tell, this world doesn’t have any fat people of any age, race or orientation. Maybe magic really burns off the calories.

I think what may have brought on the gripes was the way the last book played out. At the end of the 700 or so pages, every major character had been paired up with a lover of the opposite sex. (Including the one main character from the first four books who doesn’t even appear.) Even the bi guy falls for a woman. One character who might possibly have been lesbian, or at the very least asexual, has a sex scene (admittedly an awkward, forced-feeling one) with a lusty, unbelievably handsome male. I can see where readers who support the gay cause would feel like heterosexuality is being crammed down their throats.

As a woman who waved bye-bye to 40 quite a while ago, I get a mite peeved at all the books with women barely into their twenties calling all the shots. Especially because they’re all thinner than I ever was or will be. Like real life, fiction is not fair.

And y’know what? Too frikkin’ bad. To me, and to the complainers. This isn’t my book, or yours. It’s the writer’s. This is how she chose to tell her story. If it doesn’t fall in line with your personal agenda, you’ll just have to suck it up.

Yes, inclusion of other races, peoples, and sexual orientations is a good thing. “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” That was part of the philosophy behind Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. He put blacks and Asians and women on the bridge with all the white guys. And a gay guy (George Takai), even if we didn’t know it back then. The most popular character on the show turned out to be the biracial alien. That was Gene’s vision. He fought for racial and sexual inclusiveness (and for Spock’s pointed ears). That was the story he wanted to tell.

But now that society has finally caught up with Roddenberry, it’s reached the point of getting out of hand. Now everything needs to be racially and sexually diverse. Whether it's logical in story terms or not.

Thor did this quite well. The inclusion of black and Asian Norse gods worked because they were people, not races. I notice from the commercials the remake of The Magnificent Seven is racially diverse. This is historically accurate. There were more black and Hispanic than white cowboys back in the real Old West, and a large Chinese population. But World War II movies? Sorry. The armed forces weren’t desegregated until 1948, by order of President Harry Truman. (Even then, actual desegregation didn’t happen until the 1950s, under Eisenhower.) Not to mention it’s totally ludicrous. The covert spy team sneaks into Nazi Germany, and they don’t think the black guy’s going to stand out? Gimme a break.

Here in my neck of the country we’ve had complaints that Valley Forge has no monuments to the Asians who fought in the American Revolution. That’s because none did. If it makes you feel better, there is a monument at Gettysburg to Stand Watie, the Cherokee leader who commanded the Confederate Indian Cavalry in the Civil War. Happy now?

Harry Potter didn’t have any gay characters. (Dumbledore wasn’t outed until after the series ended.) Neither did Twilight. Nobody seemed to mind. Twilight had a teenage girl lusting for a dead guy a hundred years older than she was. Nobody minded that either. Hunger Games described Rhu as dark-skinned, yet people were pissed when a black actress played her in the movie. You just can’t win.

As for me, I write M/M romances. That’s guy-on-guy, for those of you not up on the terminology. Should I be chastised for not including more women and straights in my gay love stories?

Here’s the deal: Sarah J. Maas has the right to write her series any way she wants to. If she includes—or doesn’t—peoples of varying races, religions, sexual orientations, ages, weight classes, eye color, left-handedness, or anything else you think she should have, that’s her decision to make. If what she writes doesn’t jive with your personal expectations, don’t read her next book. It’s as simple as that. If you’re really that pissed at her lack of inclusiveness, then I suggest you balance the scales by writing your own book, and make the characters as diverse as you think they should be. This is why writers write: to read the books we want to read. If the book you want to read isn’t out there, then go write it yourself.

As for me, I’ve got a WIP I expect will stir up a fuss. It’s about a circus run by shapeshifters. Since, in my view, the animal form’s continent of origin determines the human form’s race (shifters have to blend in with the majority population, after all), and most circus animals come from Africa and Asia, most of my characters are going to be non-Caucasian. Except for the hero, who’s white. Oh wait, he’s a gay guy. But the woman who owns the circus is straight. Looks like I’m not off the hook. We’ll just have to wait and see what the readers say.