Complaining About Books I Don't Like

(Book Reviews)

This Blog Has Moved!

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This blog, the one you are currently reading, is now defunct!

If you’re looking for my new internet place, head on over HERE. And then update your bookmarks/RSS feeds post-haste!

(Incidentally, if you followed a link to this blog from a forum or some other place where I’ve accidentally tied this old URL to an account of mine, please let me know in the comments. I think I’ve updated all of that, but I might have missed one or two. Thanks!)

Written by seanwillsalt

March 5, 2011 at 11:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Teaser Tuesday – Wednesday Repost

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(I’m reposting this from the main blog a day late, because I forgot to do it yesterday. Whoops. If you saw this yesterday and are looking for something else to read, I suggest going here or here.)


Today’s Tease is brought to you by Insomnia, which I just realized sounds like some sort of goofy man-perfume (AKA cologne). It’s a snippet from near the beginning of Castor that hopefully makes sense on its own.


I mentioned books.

Most of the young Half-Adapts on the plantation couldn’t read. For some of them, it was because they were too young to have learned on Earth and their parents hadn’t the time or desire to teach them once they arrived on Castor. Reading didn’t help with the field work, after all. Then there were the war orphans and the street urchins and the whatever-elses, the ones who spent their years on Earth just trying to stay alive.

I’m one of those.

But even still, I could read. I had gone to school on Earth for long enough that I could muddle my way through a children’s book and write my own name. Then I got to Castor and pretty much forgot about it until I was about twelve, when my wages went up enough that I could maybe think about saving up to buy something with them.

There was a bookshop in First Landing – actually a bookshop and a liquor store, if you can believe that. Don’t ask me why anybody thought those two would go together. I went in with my handful of coins and came out with something to read.

The books you could get that far from the Gemini cost an awful lot, which is interesting given how crap they always were. The covers were usually just a solid colour with the title written across the front, and the pages were so thin that you could see through them if you held them up to the light. But there was something about them that I liked, so I kept at it, and pretty soon I could read ‘properly’.

It turns out you can tell the different between a good story and a bad story even when you’ve got nothing much to measure them by. I knew without having to be told that the stories in those books were awful. Everything felt contrived, nobody acted the way real people act, the endings always had the hero killing a whole bunch of people and marrying some random woman with huge breasts – and trust me, they made sure to describe those even if they forgot to say how anybody felt about all that murdering going on around them. Some of the really hilarious ones were set on Earth, and you could always tell if the author was a native of Castor because he’d get the colour of the sky wrong or forget that people on Earth don’t all speak the same language.

How can you be the kind of person who writes a book and still be that stupid?

Written by seanwillsalt

February 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm

FutureWords Redux: FutureDiction

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Note: I’m currently in the process of moving to a new site, which is located here. It will be a ‘proper’ writing/reviewing blog, with my own name on it. For now I’ll cross-post all content so that the two blogs remain mirrored, but eventually I’ll be letting this one go dark and switching over permanently. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please consider subscribing to/following the new site.

A little while ago, I did a post for the Interrobangs blog on the subject of SF authors using ‘futuristic’ vocabulary in their work. That was inspired by a post over on the League of Extraordinary Writers…and now I’m going to shamelessly use their latest post on the topic as a launching point for my own followup. Think of it as two parallel discussions of a similar subject rather than shameless idea-mining on my part!

Using a bunch of dreaded FutureWords (see Interrobangs link above for explanation) is one easy/lazy way of giving your futuristic milieu a distinct culture, but there are better ways of doing it. If you’re good enough at crafting very distinctive yet natural-sounding dialogue, readers should be able to take a brief exchange between two characters or some first-person narration out of context and still be able to tell that it’s from your invented society – maybe there’s some characteristic slang, or a certain way of phrasing things unique to your world. Maybe the dialogue is  characterised by what is not said, implying a cultural taboo or unwillingness to talk about certain subjects. The League of Extraordinary Writers post uses A Clockwork Orange as an example, but I’d like to provide another:

I’m shaking from the charge to my blood at being hit, shaking from being so fired up and so surprised and so angry and so much hating this town and the men in it that it takes me a while till I can get up and go get my dog again. What was he effing doing out here anyway? I think and I’m so hacked off, still so raging with anger and hate (and fear, yes, fear, shut up) that I don’t even look around to see if Aaron heard my Noise. I don’t look around. I don’t look around.

If you’ve read Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go (which I think I’ve plugged at least a hundred times by now), you should immediately recognise the above snippet of narration as belonging to Todd Hewitt, the sole viewpoint character for that book. It is unmistakably his voice, and belonging to his world, from the ‘effing’ and the fairly old-fashioned idioms (‘hacked off’) to the mysteriously-capitalised ‘Noise’. It could only have come from that book and that character. (And I chose that paragraph at random, by the way. The entire book is saturated in Todd’s character and the world he lives in.)

You might also note that none of it sounds particularly ‘futuristic’, either, and that’s because it wouldn’t make any sense if it did. Yes, the book is SF (it’s set on a colonised alien planet), but Todd is definitely not your average SF protagonist. He is largely uneducated, for one thing, and has a very limited reference pool thanks to spending his entire life in a single isolated town. He calls his own planet ‘New World’ and Earth ‘Old World’, because that’s what the people around him call them, and he doesn’t bother stopping to comment on the fact that there are two moons in the sky. He is, after all, a teenage boy who has grown up on a rural farm – the fact that the farm is in another solar system is a secondary consideration, all things considered. This is a marked departure from most SF main characters, who tend to speak and think as though they’re reading from an encyclopedia.

I don’t mean to say that you should simply import stereotypes into your SF, though. It would be all too easy to take a character like Todd and turn him into a caricatured country bumpkin from Earth, if not for the fact that he’s spent his whole life being able to hear the thoughts of everybody around him and knowing that they can hear his thoughts in turn. He’s also never seen any girls or women before, since they all died of a plague shortly after his birth. Both of these things serve as the ‘SF’ conceits to his character, but never in such a way that they feel like authorial intrusion. It’s a remarkable balancing act on Ness’ part.

Obviously most people aren’t going attempt something as stylistically complex as The Knife of Never Letting Go, but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the way your characters speak and think. They should not pepper their dialogue with advanced scientific jargon unless they’re scientists or unusually interested in science;  just as few ordinary people today would talk about climate change in terms of El Niño cycles and CO2 emission levels, so your characters should not be mysteriously fluent in the terminology surrounding space travel or human cloning unless it makes sense given what else the reader knows about them.

This image has nothing to do with the topic of the post, I just think it looks awesome.

I’m going to be self-indulgent here and use my own WIP as an example, Just Because.

The main character of Castor is James, a 16-year old boy who lived on Earth for about nine years before being transported to the titular planet. He speaks in what I’m hoping is going to end up (after a lot of revision!) being a fairly characteristic way; it would be possible for a particularly astute reader to work out where on Earth he was originally from based on certain aspects of the way he speaks and narrates the story (this is a minor plot point in the book, since people on Castor don’t generally tell other people specifics about their lives on Earth). At the same time, he also sounds a lot like the people he’s lived with and around on Castor – which is to say, completely different from one of the other main characters, who has grown up in very different circumstances.

I don’t really see this as being different from the choices all writers make about how their characters sound. All right, there are some extra things to take into account when you’re talking about characters living on another planet (everybody in Castor is speaking a common shared language rather than English, for example, so there’s some aspect of Translation Convention), but it’s not that different or more complex than what happens when you’re writing characters in two different countries. Things only start to get really interesting when you then layer some SF considerations on top of the more everyday stuff. For example, nobody in Castor is likely to describe somebody in animalistic terms (‘weaselly eyes’ or what have you) because most Earth animals don’t exist on the planet. Also, James uses the word ‘Jesus’ as an expletive in the narration, but rarely in his actual dialogue; there is a very good reason for this, but it’s not spelled out explicitly.

As I’ve indicated above, you also need to pay attention to what your characters say, not just how they say it. There’s this weird tendency among SF writers to have characters be extremely knowledgeable about the futuristic technology of their world, mostly so they can explain it to the reader. But think about it: even if you’ve been on an airplane dozens of times, the chances of you knowing much (or even anything) about how they really work are pretty slim. It should be the same way in SF: yes, James was on a spaceship, but he wouldn’t be able to tell you the first thing about how one works or how they’re constructed. (Neither would Vidal, another character who is much better-educated than he is, for the simple reason that he has no particular reason to know about that.) On the other hand, the idea of space travel is something he takes for granted. He’s not likely to stop and think ‘Woah, spaceships. Holy crap’.

Bottom line: if you’re writing science fiction, it’s a good idea to put as much effort into how your characters think and speak as you do into the nuts-and-bolts detail of your worldbuilding. In fact, I’d say this kind of thing is actually more important in many cases…but that’s a topic for another (hopefully less long-winded) post!

Written by seanwillsalt

February 19, 2011 at 10:13 am

Sean’s Thoughts on YA Romance, Part XIV

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Note: I’m currently in the process of moving to a new site, which is located here. It will be a ‘proper’ writing/reviewing blog, with my own name on it. For now I’ll cross-post all content so that the two blogs remain mirrored, but eventually I’ll be letting this one go dark and switching over permanently. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please consider subscribing to/following the new site.

This guy has a lot to answer for.

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means that love is in the air and I have an excuse to complain about my favourite pet peeve! Of course, I refer to the many-headed beast that is YA romance. Almost everybody agrees that romance in teenage fiction is kind of…well, ‘stupid’ seems like too strong a word, so let’s go with ‘bad’. (Or ‘stupibad’, to employ a neologism of my own design.) Yet the same tropes keep coming up again and again – it’s as if the entire YA community is staring at an unsightly pile of cat poo in the middle of its collective living room, tut-tutting and complaining about what an awful smell it’s making and doing exactly nothing to clean it up.

If you follow me.

So, below I’ve summarised a few of the things I’d love to see less of in YA romance, along with a few of the things I’d love to see a whole lot more of. Keep in mind that I’m primarily talking about ‘genre’ YA fiction here – paranormal romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, even those new-fangled dystopians that are all the rage right now. Contemporary YA is much better about handling realistic and thorny teenage romances, although there’s one trope in particular that it could really do without.

Let’s begin!

1) Instant True Love, AKA Twu Luv.

You saw that one coming, right? I think I’ve written on this topic three times now.

There seem to be a certain number of YA authors who are under the impression that two people can and should fall in love instantly upon seeing each other. I understand it has even become popular in recent years for characters to have had some sort of epic past-love romance, just to bolster the idea that they can take one look into each other’s eyes and know on the spot that this is their Soulmate (I could do without ever seeing that word again).

Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with this? No? Well too bad, I’m doing it anyway.

Here’s how these scenes usually play out: the main character sees her love interest for the first time (it’s almost always a ‘her’), and the reader is treated to a long, loving description of his male-model looks and perfect hair and high cheekbones (why the high cheekbones?!). After the reader has finished digesting a big chunk of Beefcake Exposition, the main character will add a perfunctory note explaining that oh, she also felt immediately drawn to him in a mysterious, one might say supernatural way – if we’re lucky, that is. Sometimes it’s just the physical description and little else.

That’s not love, that’s lust. Go to any major urban area and walk around for a few hours. There’s a very good change that you’ll you spot somebody you consider to be extremely attractive. Would you say no to having sex with them? Probably not. Are you head-over-heels in love with them based on that one glimpse, and are you going to spend the rest of the day thinking obsessively about meeting them again? I certainly hope not.

Please, give the reader some other reason to think that these people are in love.

2) Stalking spelled backwards is ‘love’.

Yes, people are still doing this. No, I have no idea why.

AUTHORS: If your love interest is an insufferable asshole/a stalker/psychotic, nobody with half a functioning brain is going to want your main character to end up with him.

3) The inevitable love triangle.

Before inserting a love triangle into your story, ask yourself whether it really needs to be there. If the answer is ‘no’, do not put a love triangle into your story.

Oh, and you bonus un-points if the poor sap shoved into the Loser Corner is charming, loving and stable, while the designated love interest is creepy and potentially dangerous. See: every YA love triangle ever.

Closely related to this is the slutty best friend who exists solely to be a huge bitch and make the main character look better by comparison. I have talked about this elsewhere.

4) Normativity ‘R Us.

Picture your average genre-YA couple. If you didn’t immediately think of two white, able-bodied, straight and stupidly attractive people, you have far more eclectic reading tastes than I.

This is another Cat Poo Issue (feel free to use that one), since agents and editors keep saying that YA could do with more diversity, and I know for a fact that many people are writing books that try to take readers a bit further from their comfort zone than is normal. And yet, the shelves are still packed with covers showing white 25-year old models pretending to be 16-year olds. Yes, things are starting to change, but it’s happening sloooowly. (This is another area where contemporary YA is a lot better than genre.)

Take note, however: if you are going to buck the trend, please don’t treat your non-white-/gay/whatever characters as mere window dressing. Readers will notice if you treat their personalities like an attribute sheet that has ‘bisexual’ or ‘black’ tacked on to the end. Oh, and avoid stereotyping. You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that in this day and age, wouldn’t you?

5) The tragic death of Mr. Minority.

This one is probably more common in contemporary, to be honest. You know the story: main character is safely within the bounds of the majority, but falls in love with somebody who isn’t. Poignancy and coming-of-age ensues.

Then one of them dies. And when I say ‘one of them’, I mean the minority character.

This can cross over with what’s known as ‘Death by Newbery Medal‘. I suspect it’s a trope being kept alive by people who don’t realise that a better title for Romeo and Juliet would be Idiocy in Five Acts, by William Shakespeare. Killing off one of half (or even both halves) of a couple does not necessarily make their romance more meaningful. Mixed-race romance? The non-white character (who will often be poor, for extra Liberal Points) will almost certainly die. One character has a possibly-fatal-but-maybe-they’ll-make-it-through disease? They’re gonna die, usually in the most maudlin way possible. The characters are gay? If they manage to end up in a relationship at all (an iffy proposition in itself), they will almost certainly die, although it’s more likely they’ll stand on the sidelines until the author needs something tragic to happen so all the straight characters can learn an important lesson. That lesson is usually…uh…don’t be gay? You know, sometimes it’s difficult to give writers the benefit of the doubt…

This has the effect of suggesting there are two distinct kinds of love: there is ‘good love’, by which I mean ‘normal love’, where you get to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Then there is ‘bad love’, which kills you. Somehow, the publishing world has decided that this kind of story deserves to be showered with literary awards. Protip: your chances of scoring a major award increase if the minority character is killed in a hilariously out-of-the-blue fashion, like an off-page car crash or a sudden, random murder by a phantom mugger who the author conjures out of thin air in the last thirty pages. The last time I came across this was in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin (not YA), in which a young black prostitute is killed in a completely pointless, yet meticulously described car crash. I was laughing so hard throughout that other people in the cafe I was in started giving me funny looks.

Really, there’s no need for this. This kind of ‘us against the world’ relationship comes with a certain amount of emotional potential built-in by its very nature; you do not need to kill off one of the characters just to up the ante.

And finally…

6) Let’s be more speculative.

This is aimed squarely at the SF/Dystopian writers out there. Why are all of your romances vanilla one-boy-one-girl affairs? Your story is set in the future, land of limitless opportunities! Where are all the clone families and polyamorous three-way romances and matriarchal harems? Are you telling me you can come up with a dystopian society with all sorts of unusual social mores, but you can’t come up with anything more interesting for your characters to do than engage in a boring old high-school romance?

Let’s be more speculative about these things.

That’s all for now! I swear my next post will consist of something other than me complaining. Probably.

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Written by seanwillsalt

February 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm

NYT ‘Top’ 10

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Note: I’m currently in the process of moving to a new site, which is located here. It will be a ‘proper’ writing/reviewing blog, with my own name on it. For now I’ll cross-post all content so that the two blogs remain mirrored, but eventually I’ll be letting this one go dark and switching over permanently. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please consider subscribing/following the new site.

The New York Times recently caused a surprising amount of…I don’t know, commotion (controversy? discussion? panic?) by announcing that it would henceforth have a separate e-book Top 10 listing, as well as a combined e-book/print sales listing. Good all around, I guess, since it means the reading public can more accurately judge which books by established bestseller authors have reached bestseller status on any given week.

The problem is that I don’t usually look at the NYT Top 10, mostly because I rarely see books on it that I don’t already know about. I only did it today because Publisher’s Weekly ran an article on the new listings. Here’s the current top 4:

One bad book (it’s by James Patterson, so I’m just assuming) and three vastly overrated ones. These are among the bestselling books in the world as of this writing.

I think I’m going to go back to not looking at those lists…

Written by seanwillsalt

February 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Posted in Writing

Why, Indeed

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The ‘top searches’ box on my dashboard occasionally produces humorous results. Like so:

Top Searches

ya paranormal why are all the guys hot,


A question for the ages.

Written by seanwillsalt

February 7, 2011 at 6:04 am

Posted in Writing, YA

REVIEW: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

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The Adoration of Jenna FoxThe Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warning: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for The Adoration of Jenna Fox. If you haven’t read it, but are planning to, I strongly recommend you skip this review.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is absolutely the kind of YA science fiction I’ve been bringing up recently: mature, intelligent, and literary, it uses its speculative elements to tell a quiet story of the ramifications of scientific progress rather than choosing to go the formulaic ‘teenagers rebel against their corrupt society’ route. It’s thoughtful and at times thought-provoking, although I never felt as if I was as invested in its story as I could have been.

The premise sounds like it could be from contemporary YA rather than science fiction: Jenna Fox has lost most of her memory following a year-long coma brought on by a terrible car accident…or so she thinks. It quickly becomes obvious that her parents are keeping the truth from her, and that her ‘miraculous’ recovery may have a more frightening explanation than she thought.

So yes, the first third or so of the novel is taken up with Jenna slowly beginning to learn how her parents saved her life. It’s difficult to talk too much about the payoff to all of this, since it would involve major spoilers (which I’m saving for a bit later in the review), but the mystery itself is interspersed with the everyday details of Jenna’s strange new life. She visits her neighbour, reconstructs her partially-lost vocabulary by reading the dictionary, and watches recordings of herself in the hope that it will trigger something in her memory. Pearson conveys all of this in sparse, almost dream-like prose (that description is a cliché, I know, but it’s true in this case), which perfectly conveys Jenna’s disorientation and helplessness. It’s all far more engaging than you might think given the above description.

We’re also shown brief glimpses of the kind of future world we’re dealing with here: medical technology has advanced enormously, yet is strictly controlled by the government to avoid the further creation of drug-resistant super viruses and bacteria. This is something that’s already becoming a major problem in real life, so I had no trouble with suspension of disbelief. As science fiction authors go, Pearson is admirably restrained.

The big reveal itself, however, is handled a bit less gracefully. I’ve already warned for it once, but just to be sure: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

It turns out that only 10% of Jenna’s brain was saved following the crash. The rest of her is a kind of neural network/nanobot construction covered in cloned human skin, something that acts more or less like organic material while actually being completely artificial. A fascinating idea, to be sure, but Jenna’s reactions to all of this struck me as somewhat inauthentic and, to be frank, irritating.

When she first learns about how she was essentially brought back to life, she angsts. When it becomes apparent that her new body has capabilities far beyond what her father predicted (not super-hero abilities, thankfully), she angsts. Upon being told that she could potentially live for 200 years under the right conditions, she once again angsts. I can understand why anybody would be conflicted in that kind of scenario, but the sheer monotony of her limited emotional range gets tiring very fast. Worse is her apparent callousness in the face of the risks her parents took in saving her: in this future, we are told, everybody has a certain number of ‘points’ they can use to replace lost limbs or organs (which is a common necessity due to all of the deadly infections going around), and Jenna’s whole-body resurrection used up all of her allowance and then some. Many people apparently put their careers and even their freedom on the line to help her, yet she shows little indication of caring about them.

All of this sounds as if it’s leading up to some point about bioethics or scientific responsibility, yet that point remains frustratingly vague. One of Jenna’s classmates (who completely steal the limelight during every scene they appear) is a quadruple amputee due to a past infection, yet she still agrees wholeheartedly with the limits placed on medical research. Are we supposed to agree with her? I still have no idea, since Pearson seems content to sketch the vague outlines of several weighty issues without making it clear which side she comes down on – or even what the sides are. The admittedly audacious and fascinating epilogue doesn’t really help with this, since it just muddles everything that came before it.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of the novel’s philosophical ruminations will depend on your own worldview. At one point, Jenna asks her father where in her new body her soul resides. This had me rolling my eyes and wondering when she was going to get her priorities straight (I’d be a bit more worried about that whole ‘You’ll die if you go somewhere too cold’ thing, myself), but others might find it a more compelling question.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox calls to mind authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Meg Rosoff, who combine speculative elements with a very literary sensibility to create something that almost feels like a new genre. It’s the kind of thing YA desperately needs more of, which means I’m willing to overlook some of its annoyances and recommend it without much hesitation. If you like Ishiguro and Rosoff, you’ll probably like this. (And if you haven’t read anything by either of those people, it might be time for a trip to Amazon.)

View all my reviews

Written by seanwillsalt

February 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Posted in Book Reviews, YA


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