Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why I love romance novels and why some of them are bad

This past weekend, I checked out a couple romance novels I had requested from the San Francisco Book Review. The thing about being a volunteer and/or paid book reviewer, is you have to read a lot of bad books to get to a good one and the good ones are kind of like a little morsel of awesome in your life that you cling to for as long as possible before it's back to the crap-slog. There's no good recommends from your friends because you're the one discovering what's good and what's not.

Everyone feels the burnout. And when you read more than 50 books a year, you feel it acutely. It's hard to feel the earnestness and optimism from a new voice when you're so bitter and cynical about something you've just read the week before.

But let me talk about romance novels for a while because I'm kind of an enthusiast.

Here's a picture of an advance review copy of a romance novel. This one was literally a stack of papers held together by brass fasteners. Side note - I would kill (ok, not literally) to be a part of the book-creation process, whether it's acquisitions or copy editing. Literally my dream job. So if you're an important person in a publishing house and you're reading this, hit me up bae.

Reading a Regency-era romance is one of my most favorite things. It's like eating a pint of ice cream for dinner. I love Eloisa James the best because she brings this ethereal fairy-tale like style to her writing. In fact, most Regency romance is like a fairy tale. There are dresses, parties, dashing rich men and campy villains (sometimes.) But here's where it can go wrong:

Stockholm syndrome: When the story sets up the hero and heroine to be isolated in one spot and they fall in love that way. With the books I read, I wonder about the future. If my logical brain can't wrap itself around a romance novel relationship enduring, I tend not to enjoy it.

No hook: The characters have to endear themselves to me. Fast. With romance novels, it's tough because they read so quickly.

No focus: Romance novels are first and foremost about two people getting together. I don't mind politics, social stratification, family members, etc., having a part in the development of a relationship, but if there's too much of that, I can't stay focused because the novel isn't focused.

Dumb-as-bricks heroine: The heroine is supposed to be the pasteboard for your reader. That beautiful dress your heroine is wearing, that ball she just went to, that searing kiss she just received -- that's your reader's dress, your reader's ball and your reader's kiss. Your readers are smart. So make your heroine smart, too. Have her stand her ground and make her own decisions because it's what your reader would do.

Mansplainy hero: The dumb-as-bricks heroine and the mansplainy hero tend to go hand-in-hand. The dumb-as-bricks heroine doesn't know how to do something in life and the hero teaches her how to do it. Sometimes that thing is sex, which is an annoying relationship dynamic in Regency romance (seasoned man vs. virginal woman nonsense double standard trope,) but you just kind of deal with it. That's when modern romance is more fun. But then you get into situations with traditional gender dynamics and that's a story for another day.

So good.


I read "The Girl on the Train" this week, and that was a heart-pounder. What a good book. I started reading it Tuesday night and I stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing it. Don't you just love books like that? I'm not going to spoil it because I actually want you to read it. I only spoil books that I don't want you to read! A lot of people compare it to "Gone Girl." It's like a Lifetime movie on steroids. In fact, it's going to be a movie in August!

I also read Tom Brokaw's book, "A Lucky Life Interrupted." You can see my review here.

In the queue:
The Moreva of Astoreth
The Bourne Identity
Cinder
The Circle
Clockwork Angel
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Our Kind of Traitor
Jessica Jones: Alias
Saga

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Selection series, exploitation literature, cynicism and literary burnout

I got myself a library card the other week and I'm addicted. I don't know why I didn't think to get one sooner. The library will help to supplement my steady diet of ARCs, romance and indie titles with older books that I've been meaning to read, but just haven't gotten around to buying/borrowing.

Here's my book queue. Three romance novels have since been added, and there's a scifi ebook that isn't in the pile.

So I found The Selection at the library because all of the other good books that I wanted were already checked out. It was just one of those books that I've always looked at and thought the cover was pretty and I was always meaning to get around to read. I've since learned that the movie version (which has not yet been greenlit) has a director.

Look at that. So pretty.


There are times when you CAN judge a book by its cover. Some of my indie books have horrendous covers that just make the book look SO unprofessional. Some of them I can't even talk about publicly.

But anyway, back to The Selection and its subsequent books.

The Selection takes place in the dystopian future, in a country called Illea, where there's a numbered caste system. Prince Maxon is looking for a wife. 35 women are selected for him to choose from, and they're all brought to the castle and given all of the dresses and awesome food they could possibly want. The book is told from the point of view of one of the contestants, America Singer (yup, that's her name). Her special gift is that... wait for it... SHE SINGS, though she doesn't do much of it in the book, you just have to take every other secondary character's word for it that she has a beautiful voice. She has red hair and blue eyes. You know, like the colors of AMERICA. Facepalm.

It's honestly not worth it to go into too much detail with the plot. Just know that our heroine, America Singer, is already in love with some guy named Aspen who is a caste below her, but she ends up falling in love with Maxon anyway in the usual conflicted love-triangle fashion. My library had the first book and the third book in the series, but not the second. I actually skipped the second book and had no trouble following the third one. So the second book is basically useless.

There are overarching themes of toxic masculinity, rape culture and slut shaming in this sad mashup of "The Bachelor" and "The Hunger Games" that would make any feminist weep with agony (and I did!) The teenagers in the book are so ridiculously petty and vapid, even though they're essentially training to run a country. They snipe at each other. They worry themselves over their dresses. Before America arrives at the palace, she meets with one of the Selection organizers, and he prods her about her virginity (because, you know, it's of the utmost importance) and says that if Maxon asks her to do anything (ANYTHING) that she should never ever ever reject him. America judges each of the other girls appropriately, remarking that she wears no makeup while one of her competitors, Celeste, wears a lot of makeup, and coincidentally, according to our beloved heroine, is too ambitious.

At any time, any adult character in the story could have stopped this whole trainwreck from happening, but the adults in the story aren't much better. In fact, it seems like every character, like the physical books, is beautiful to look at, but ugly on the inside. This book series perpetuates harmful stereotypes about adolescent behavior, and I would never recommend it for a teenage girl to read. There was nothing empowering or uplifting about its narrative.

Reading The Selection made me wonder if exploitation literature is A Thing. Exploitation films contain gratuitous sex, torture, violence and general mayhem, but the genre also refers to a film that's made cheaply to imitate another successful film. In some cases, it's meant to beat it to the theaters, but in other cases it rides on the coattails of the original's success. Some of them are created overseas. For every successful, meaningful book that is written, there's a handful of mediocre works that seek to capitalize on literary trends. I feel like The Selection series was published just to capitalize on the success of the Hunger Games. We've experienced "Twilight," then "Fifty Shades of Grey" was its imitation counterpart, achieving similar success, but it was a knockoff nonetheless. "The Hunger Games" was supposed to be a statement on the effects of war on children. "The Selection" just feels hollow in comparison, like the author was reading "The Hunger Games" with "The Bachelor" on TV in the background.

I've been reviewing books for a decade now, and I can't help but feel cynical about almost everything I read, and I honestly don't know what to do to escape this feeling other than just give up reading (which would be terrible.) I imagine this is how movie reviewers feel after a while. Everything I read feels unoriginal, like I've read it before. I experienced some serious burnout in January, and didn't pick up a single book for six months, and now that I'm reading again, I want to quit (again.) My issues with the book publishing industry, both traditional and indie, is a topic for another post. For now, I'm seeking something, anything to get me out of this funk and reading quality literature again.

At least I have my library card.

And also this podcast, in which I nerd out about Jane Austen in one of the episodes.

In the queue:
The Bourne Identity
Cinder
The Circle
The Girl on the Train
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Jessica Jones: Alias
Saga
Once Upon A Wine
A Scandalous Proposal
The Untamed Earl
The Moreva of Astoreth

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cold sheeping

I'm reading a thread on Ravelry about knitters making commitments to destash in 2016.

I've always made this commitment early in the year, and it inevitably gets derailed by the time my birthday rolls around.

Not all of my sock yarn. Just the brightly colored stuff.


On Ravelry, you can calculate the yards of yarn you have and convert that to miles. The knitters on the thread I'm reading have 25 miles of yarn. 92 miles of yarn. 125 miles of yarn. The most I saw was 180 miles.

I feel like I have a lot of yarn. I could knit more than 30 pairs of socks without buying a single skein. However, I only have about eight miles. 14,737 yards. It's really difficult to wrap my brain around owning 180 miles of yarn.

I used to have a hard time carving out time to knit, but last year I finished two pairs of socks, a sweater, a shawl and a hefty pile of dishcloths. This year, I've already finished a hat, and it's only the third week of January.

My strategy is to knit hats and cowls for family members out of the sock yarn I have. I'm a weirdo, so I've written a spreadsheet, complete with the person I'm giving a hat and cowl to, the yarn I'll use, and the pattern I'll try. I'm sick of socks. They take too long and it's like knitting the same pattern twice in a row, which is boring. Maybe I'll find some new inspiration in 2016 and bust my stash for good.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: "Magpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie Boutique"

Magpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie BoutiqueMagpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia's Favorite Pie Boutique by Holly Riccardi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This pie book is great for someone who wants to go beyond the basics. If you're an avid baker, you'll enjoy some adventurous twists on classics (cranberry meringue! blueberry rhuby rose! peach raspberry orange blossom!) You'll also see how Holly Riccardi explores her Pennsylvania German roots with savory pie recipes such as beef potpie and ham loaf pie. I can't wait to use her chicken potpie as a framework recipe to using up some of my Thanksgiving leftovers, and I'll have a great time trying some different variations on fruit pies when summer rolls around and more fruit is in season. Some of Riccardi's herb and spice choices are just fascinating (pink pepper in apple pie, black pepper in shoo-fly pie, basil-infused whipped cream.)

Some of the ingredients will appeal to foodies, but unless you live in a food desert with no access to the internet, ingredients such as lavender buds and orange flower water shouldn't be too difficult to find. I don't live in a major metropolitan area by any stretch of the imagination, but I've had decent luck with Amazon, Williams Sonoma, and various brick-and-mortar food boutiques in my town as sources for hard-to-find ingredients.

The book includes a comprehensive guide to creating the best pie crust possible, which will be helpful to beginners, but a bit too tl;dr for seasoned bakers. Still, sometimes a fresh perspective is welcome when embarking down a familiar baking path, and Riccardi's voice is instructive without being patronizing.

View all my reviews

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't like minimalism.

Bad minimalist philosophy spouts vague platitudes ("Society places too much emphasis on things.") and doesn't account for hobbies or why humans would be better with less stuff. The end goal is vague. For example, some theories on minimalism encourage those who pursue it to have only 100 possessions. Why 100? Will owning 101 possessions make you a breath away from total enlightenment? I think minimalism is a garish practice when it's made public, and its followers take on an air of smug superiority, like a race to see who can own the least amount of stuff ("Well I only own 99 things!") It's almost as bad as those who seek to own a lot of stuff. The sense of self-righteousness is the same on both ends of the spectrum. Minimalism is not supposed to be a competition.

My relationship with my things is my business, but I've been a cluttery person my whole life. Odds and ends litter virtually every flat surface in my apartment. I knit and cook, and I have skeins of yarn and kitchen gadgets out the wazoo. I have dozens of cookbooks and cooking magazines, huge stacks of knitting patterns, multiple needles and notions in every corner of the house. My apartment is well lived in, and its contents are a testament to the things that make me happy.

I picked up Marie Kondo's book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," because I'd heard good things about it, as well as a great deal of backlash. Much of the criticism was that Kondo comes across as smug and her methods extreme. Some of the 1-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads call Kondo crazy, criticizing her Shinto-based beliefs that our possessions have a spirit and we should respect our living space. Other comments were of the "what-about-me" type, where someone would say "What about my husband and five kids? What am I supposed to do with their stuff? This book is only for single people living alone!" which isn't necessarily true. Those comments were rude and completely missed the point of the book.

Another part of the book that was criticized was the idea of discarding books. I can say with certainty, as a person who reviews a book a week, that I already do this and bibliophiles can do this, too. My house isn't swimming with books. I have a big moving box that houses all of the books I want to donate. When it gets full, I'll find a place to donate my books. Sometimes, I find books that I think my friends and family would like, so I give them away as gifts. Most of them are ARCs or galley copies, so they can't be sold, and they can't just sit in my house. I've NEVER found myself missing a book I've reviewed and later discarded. Too many new books are published every month for me to worry about one I've read a few months ago. I keep all of my book reviews in files on my computer in case my editor has a question about one of them, but I don't personally go back and read any of them.

Kondo's book fundamentally transformed the way I view my things. While I may never part with my vast collection of small kitchen appliances, no matter how infrequently I might use them, I've found myself looking at some of the books and clothes I have and asking myself why they're even still in my house. I got rid of some uncomfortable shirts, perfume samples that didn't even smell good, cookbooks containing unappetizing recipes that were given to me as gifts, and clutter and papers that were doing nothing more than taking up space. While I thought my living space was a testament to what made me happy, some things just didn't belong there.

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" will probably affect the way I purchase things in the future. Usually, I purchase clothes for work when I have a coupon to a store. While some of the items there might not fit quite right or be in my taste, I'll purchase them anyway because I'm getting them at a discount and I have to wear something to work. In the future I might shop when I have a coupon, but refrain from buying anything unless it "sparks joy" or I'm absolutely thrilled with it.

Kondo describes our attachment to things as our way of holding on to the past or expressing anxiety for the future, and I feel like this is exactly right. And I think this idea is partly why the negative reviews of this book seemed so angry. We don't want to think of our way of living as the wrong way to do things. We can see this in the way we vehemently defend other aspects of our lifestyle such as our dietary choices and religious beliefs. It's healthy to reevaluate the way we live our lives, whether we read political news that doesn't align with our beliefs or we look at our things and determine it's time to let some of it go.

Maybe I'm not as critical of minimalism as I was when I started reading "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," but I won't start putting a quota on my possessions any time soon.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 3, 2015

Support for your book should come from an organic, genuine place

Among all of the things I do, a decent chunk of my time is spent reading and reviewing books for a small book review service. They're not in the business of writing vanity reviews (or so I'm told,) but in their sponsored review program, they tend to want their reviews skewed positively, focusing more on the good aspects of any given book and forming any criticisms constructively.

This past week, I ran into an author who, even though I gave him a 5-star review, he wanted to change some of the wording in my review to make it reflect more favorably on him as an author. In his book, his characters were overwhelmingly male, and he took issue with the fact that I pointed this out at all. Even though one of the women in the book was a nagging hen and the other was trotted out as a prize/motivation for the protagonist to improve himself at the end, the other two were real badasses. But I digress.

When I told him I wouldn't change my review for him, he tried to argue that what I said was "factually inaccurate." How can an objective criticism be factually inaccurate?

Rewording what I initially said about his book would have reframed my opinion into something I did not mean to say. I would have been attaching my name to words I didn't really believe in. It would have been a disingenuous, unauthentic glance at his work, rather than an honest one.

I've been reviewing books for about 10 years now, and I feel like this whole situation just opens the many different conversations authors should be having about how they should conduct themselves with professional reviewers and with their other author friends. There's a small pocket of authors out there who are ridiculously pretentious, have terrible egos and who bristle at the slightest criticism of their work. This behavior is compounded when they're self-published because all of their marketing and social media presence is up to them and not an agent or publishing house. Suzanne Collins wouldn't sit on Amazon for hours, arguing with her detractors. Robin Hobb doesn't give a flying fig about 3-star reviews (she's said so on Twitter.) Their work has been verified as good by the publishing houses that published it.

Purchasing a review isn't a slimy practice, in general, if you're paying for someone to be honest and you're open to constructive criticism from an objective source. It becomes slimy when you write a note to your reviewer asking them to reconsider their rating, or argue with Amazon reviewers over what they said about your precious life's work.

The thankless task of criticizing literature is slimy when authors rely on their network of author friends to boost their Amazon ratings. I'm going to read a book because the synopsis sounds good or your book cover is pretty or because a friend recommended it, not because your author friends all gave it 5 stars.

Criticism of your work is something you can take or leave. You can say, "Well it's clear this person didn't read my book, or they wouldn't have said XYZ." But it's telling when multiple reviewers (NOT your friends) start having the same criticisms of your book. Maybe you shouldn't dismiss them. Maybe you should take these things to heart and work on them for your next masterpiece that your friends and family will undoubtedly love. Strangers on the internet aren't going to hold your hand and stroke your hair and tell you you're the next George R. R. Martin. But they've taken the time to read your book. Maybe you should listen to them.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Looking ahead to 2015 knitting

I've been thinking about my yarn stash.

It started yesterday when I spent a couple hours untangling and re-winding some yarn my cat had gotten into. I had a good look at (a portion of) my yarn stash. I have a small 3-drawer storage bin for just my sock yarn, and it's so full I can barely close the drawers. In another bin, I have my cotton yarn for dishcloths. In yet another huge bin, I have an unfinished afghan project, a mitten kit and even more yarn. One of my favorite dyers is having an end-of-the-year 40 percent off sale, but I think it's time for another yarn diet.

This post about why we hoard craft supplies caught my interest and made me think about my crafting habits.

Basically the post says we stash for four reasons: time poverty, fear of missing out, owning the pretty and perfection. I can definitely relate to all of these.

Time poverty: I definitely don't have enough time to knit. Over the past several months, I've gotten into a new routine on the weekends. Rather than do fun stuff AFTER I finish all of the household chores, I give myself a day to be lazy and recuperate from the work week (Thursday) and do all of the chores (mainly laundry) on Friday. This gives me a good amount of time for knitting, in addition to the time I take either during the day before work or in the wee hours of the morning after work. In 2015, I want to make better use of my time away from work, whether it's using it for crafting or going to the gym. I've taken too much time to loaf around and do absolutely nothing useful.

Fear of missing out: I definitely fall into this trap. I'm afraid a colorway or yarn will be discontinued. I'm afraid a pattern will go out of print that I might want to knit someday. I forget that there will never be a shortage of beautiful yarn and patterns. If I EVER run out of yarn (I might--- I haven't reached SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy) yet) all I have to do is reach out and find more beautiful yarn and patterns. Don't panic. There will always be yarn.

Owning the pretty: Not so much. Sometimes with other things. I seem to have risen above the need to buy everything pretty. But I do come down with pretty severe cases of shopaholism sometimes. When I am particularly tired, I do what my boyfriend and I call "slopping" or "sleepy shopping." This can result in impulsive purchases. I never regret them, nor do I return things, but it's a problem.

My cousin's dress. I picked this purple after being torn
between four different colors and asking
my Facebook friends for advice.


Perfection: Since I am part Borg, this is huge for me... Kidding. I do feel the need to match up patterns with the perfect yarn. I'm a sucker for finding the perfect color. For my cousin's dress, I actually was torn between four colors and put up a poll on Facebook and Instagram, soliciting my friends' opinions. The thing is, I have enough yarn for dozens of pairs of socks and a couple shawls. But I'd have to buy yarn to make larger projects such as sweaters or afghans. I can't just reach into the stash and pluck out a whole sweater's worth of yarn.

For next year, I have plans for projects galore, but I'll try to whittle down my stash to manageable proportions. So long as I have time to pursue creative endeavors, and with a boyfriend telling me I don't need anymore yarn (just like he doesn't need any more sports team jerseys), I'll be fine.