Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders

Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders is the first book in the Daughters of Shadow and Blood series as well as Mr. Saunders’ debut book. The novel is a complicated story crisscrossing not only time periods but also countries as well to tell the tale of Yasamin, a former lover or “bride” of Dracula. The story bounces between Berlin in late 1999 and parts of Eastern Europe from 1599 to 1601. The main characters are Adam Mire, an American history professor who is an expert on Dracula and believes he is a real figure. He’s on the hunt for Yasamin Ashrafi who had a long relationship with the famed Dracula yet they parted ways some years ago for unclear reasons. Adam and Yasamin’s paths intersect as both are looking for Dracula’s missing medallion. Adam tracks Yasamin down, thinking she must have it or know its whereabouts; however, she’s just as curious to know its location.

The book is a cat and mouse game on multiple levels. The game is not just between the Adam and Yasamin but the people who have brought them together. Adam is chased by several different organizations who want him dead for obtaining information that will lead him to Yasamin and Dracula’s medallion. Another example of the cat and mouse theme is Yasamin’s flashbacks. Slowly the reader gets her story of how she started out as the mouse but later becomes the cat, helping Dracula manipulate events throughout Eastern Europe.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and letters, a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact there are many nods to Stoker’s Dracula and the original manuscript is treated as being more of a historical text rather than as a piece of fiction. It is also implied that Yasamin is probably one of Dracula’s brides or temptresses as portrayed in Bram Stoker’s novel.

I found myself more fascinated more by Yasamin’s story then Adam’s because hers carried the historical aspects of the novel. I also found her background and circumstances more interesting. Her transformation didn’t feel forced, unexpected, or rushed which I think is what a lot of authors would have done. I also liked Yasamin because she’s threatening in a quiet way and very rarely it seems does she resort to the tricks of mind control and using her sexuality readers often associate with vampires. Overall I thought she was the more complete character.

Adam is just sort of there for me. He’s lost loved ones due to his search although that seems to be more of a minor issue and doesn’t stop him. I wished Adam’s background and stakes had been developed more because it would have added more to him for me as the reader. I think the fling he has with a mysterious woman who saves from him from getting killed the first time was forced.

I appreciate reading a book centered on vampires to feel more like what traditional vampire novels read like. These are traditional vampires so nobody sparkles, walks around during the day (although they may be awake during the day), and garlic, silver, and crosses will affect them. I also appreciate it being set in the parts of the world where the legends first bubbled up and a cast that is non-American and even non-Christian as one of the groups after Dracula’s medallion to destroy it is a Muslim organization.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Even though it was a fast read, it was a bit difficult at times to keep track of the various timelines and locales.  I think it would have been nice for the novel to have had less side characters. It was sometimes confusing as to which secret group was after Adam and what their beef was with him as I think that detracted from getting to know Adam more. I also would have liked to have spent more time in the past especially since I’m personally not as familiar with those. It felt like as soon as I was starting to get immersed in the past, the chapter would end and I would be forward to 1999.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I’d I’d give Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin 3 pencils out of 5 and would definitely be interested in reading the next book.

Weekly Musing: Remake, Reboot, Remix, Re-whatever

Over the last decade plus, there’s been an explosion of remakes and reboots. Sometimes the remake/reboot is a way of updating an older TV show or movie. Sometimes it’s a case of a successful franchise being rebooted probably just so the studio can make more money. Mostly it is at the movie theater where we see these but TV is starting to pick up the torch. In the 2015 – 2016 TV season there will be a limited run of The X-Files and Heroes Reborn will pop up on the schedule. There’s also been a smattering of bringing back shows for a limited run like 24 but by and large, TV has been safe from this remake/reboot fetish.

One of the biggest reasons why remakes/reboots are popular is there is built-in brand recognition. This is coupled with nostalgia you can see why remakes and reboots are big business. Look at how many TV shows and movies from the ’70s and ’80s have already been released or in the works. No matter how truly god awful these things are, still Hollywood makes them because studios make back the stupidly ridiculous amounts of money they spent. But the problem with using nostalgia as a business model is that most people view the past through rose-colored glasses.

This isn’t to say that no reboots/remakes should ever happen. Some have been incredibly well-written and well-received both on the small and big screen. 21 Jump Street was hilarious although it only vaguely resembled the TV show. The Batman franchise on both the small screen and big screen has been wildly success. And the granddaddy of them all, M*A*S*H is probably more well-known as a TV show first then as a movie even though the movie came out in 1970 based on a book that had come out 2 years prior.

So, just for fun, what shows would I like to see come back? Keep in mind this list is purely for fun as there is a huge part of me that would truly shudder if anyone actually decided these were a good idea. And yes, my list is based purely on nostalgia.

Punky Brewster: Oh, yes, this should come back. Although if this were updated, Punky would probably be from a different country, it wouldn’t be an elderly man as her adopted father, the dog would be some messed up breed like a Goldendoodle, and Punky’s awesome bed would disappear. The show would probably be ruined by bring in a love interest for Punky’s adoptive parent and then more focus would be on that rather than the relationship between Punky and her adopted parent.

Out of This World: I think I’m probably the only person from my generation who watched this show. It was quirky, odd, and science fiction which I didn’t realize at the time. Evie, the show’s man character, was part human, part alien and could freeze time. Who wouldn’t want that ability? Given how popular extra-ordinary people are this is one show that maybe could come back. Naturally I think the tone would change from gentle, family-friendly to dark, gritty, and Evie would suffer from way more angst due to dad never appearing here on Earth. Also, Evie would probably be written to kick ass and fight crime instead of just being sorta normal. On second thought, maybe this shouldn’t be remade.

Daria: This is one show I truly, desperately wished would come back. Daria Morgendorffer’s biting and highly accurate social commentary is much needed. I’d love to see her as a grown-up, though not necessarily with children of her own, can’t see her as a mother. Instead of being jaded by her fellow teenagers, she would be jaded by her fellow co-workers and neighbors. I also think Daria’s take on gender roles would be refreshing and rational rather than the emotional Social Justice Warrior crap that currently populates the internet.

I can’t honestly think of any other shows it would be fun to “what if” they were remade. By and large I prefer original ideas or quality book adaptions to just digging up what worked in the past. I guess when millions of dollars are on the line, it’s better to go with the safe bet even at the risk of fatiguing audiences.

 

Weekly Musing: Take a Look at This

Book covers are a big deal. It’s what we, the reader, see first and if it’s attractive enough, prompts us to pick up the book. In addition to the basics like the author and title, we spend a lot of our time looking at the cover art.  After all it’s supposed to tell us what kind of book is in our hands. Is it an adventure novel with a ship tossed about in a violent storm? Is it a bodice-ripper with half naked people in awkward positions? Is it a YA book with an emotional teen on the cover? So much information is conveyed just by looking at the book cover, if anything, more than the blurb does.  At least nowadays with everyone having the attention span of a gnat.

With this in mind, I began thinking what personally draws my eye to a book. To be honest, I can’t recall what the covers of my favorite books look like because well, books go through cover changes. When I examine the covers in my own library, I notice what I appreciate most are simple covers. For example, I love these covers for my editions of the Outlander series, Pillars of the Earth, and A Song of Ice and Fire because it’s just a solid color background with an item meant to represent something about the novel’s world. Understated perfect for such sweeping epics. No need to clutter up the front with noise.

And I don’t think this pared down approach to book cover design is strictly for epics, I’m noticing it a bit more on some sci-fi books. The Humans by Matt Haig has an oddly wonderful cover. A human nose against a white background. Intriguing, what in the world is this about? It’s only when you read the book does the cover make a lot of sense. Or Lock In by John Scalzi. Again, very simple design with what appear to be white and red plastic figures. Why are some of them red? Only by reading the book does that cover make a lot more sense.

That’s the brilliance of a well-designed book cover. Don’t crowd it with lots of images or colors. Focus on one thing for the reader’s mind to linger over long enough to grab them. Of course publishing is a business which means they have marketing departments who do their homework analyzing what sells, what doesn’t, what is trendy, etc. when designing a cover. Each genre has it tropes and there are even gender biases in place to supposedly help us readers. Yet when covers stray from the expectation, I think that energizes a reader and cast the net out to a wider audience.

This is something to keep in the back of my mind as I hope to move forward in my writing career. When I get to point where I have a book(s) published, I’d like to see the covers of my book have the simplicity I admire. I don’t want them to fit into the trendy tropes of the time, why should I? If a book is to be hugely successful, its cover should strive to appeal to the general public rather than a specific group.

Simplicity in cover book art also creates this notion of timelessness. How many books have we picked up at a book store or yard sale or at the library with covers from previous decades? Nine times out of ten they look cheesy and dated. Admittedly some have some wonderful artwork and style a niche group appreciates today. However, most look so bad you may stay away from it as a reader. Shallow as it may sound, we humans are a visual bunch and we do judge a book by its cover so let’s keep it simple.

Weekly Musing: Oh, Look! A Squirrel!

If my somewhat crappy memory is correct, when I first started this blog over two years ago I believed I mentioned something about suffering from what I refer to as Writer’s ADD. What I meant by that is when I write, regardless if it’s an initial draft or revision, I can go along at a good clip then I just stop and do something else for a few minutes. Usually this is to help me think, like staring off into space, but truth be told there are times when those distractions are just excuses to not write. I’m not proud of this and I know the reasons why I allow it. Something I’m trying to work on that since I know my word count and efficiency would go up and shocker of shockers, maybe my anxiety would decrease some.

IMDb: It’d be too easy to say the internet as a whole since in 2015 that’s pretty much what a black hole the internet is. Of late, IMDb is the bane of my existence. Why I feel the need to argue with idiots about TV shows and movies is beyond me. I guess it satisfies my analytical nature and to participate in discussions. I’m also genuinely curious about others’ thoughts and perspectives. However, IMDb really isn’t the right platform for that. So many trolls infest it. Good luck trying to have a rational, logical argument with someone who clearly has the emotional IQ of a teenager who just sooooooo knows they are right. What’s worse is I wind up learning spoilers and have even come to loath a show or movie because of how nutty some of the fans are.

Games on my phone: I play three games on my phone. They manage to suck up my time because I tell myself I’m taking a break to think. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if these game breaks came after half an hour or an hour of writing but I stop after a relatively short period of time. I think it’s a combination of fear, anxiety, and writing gremlins creeping in to tell me to get stuck in a corner on purpose. Instead of just buckling down and tackling the problem, I justify it as a break.

YouTube: More specifically what are known as “crack” videos which are snippets of a particular show or movie people edit together with various pieces of music and dubbed over dialogue for laughs. Usually these videos are about 5 minutes or less which makes them incredibly dangerous. They’re potato chips. One just won’t suffice although if I see one more person using Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” or Dido’s “White Flag” I’m going to through something at my computer. But dammit, the lulz. So much lulz.

Spotify: This is a double-edged sword. I love Spotify because of all the new artists I’ve discovered, the playlists which help me tune out the world, and being able to create playlists for whatever I’m working on. However, dear god when an annoying song comes on and I have to stop what I’m doing so I can skip it. Or if I hear a song that blows me away and I have to stop what I’m doing and save it. And sometimes I just can’t get the right music mix and I get grumpy.

Oddly enough, there are common distractions which don’t suck me in. For example, Facebook. I can easily limit my time on that since most of it is just the same old same old. TV isn’t a distraction either since there is absolutely nothing on TV during the day I care to watch. I could very easily binge watch all the shows and movies I’ve got saved up but if I did that I’d feel so much guilt for wasting time. Same reason why I can resist the urge to play video games. Why those other things don’t feel me with as much guilt I have no idea.

 

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

This month’s selection, The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White, falls into a category I don’t normally read which is contemporary women’s fiction. After attending a session presented by Ms. Claypole at a recent workshop, I decided to read it since it sounded interesting.

The story is told from two points of view: Tilly Silverberg, a widowed gardener with a young son living in rural North Carolina, and James Nealy, a recent transplant to the area. Despite starting out in rural North Carolina, the bulk of the story takes place in England. Tilly’s mother suffers a fall, breaking her leg, which prompts Tilly to return to England with her son to spend the summer there helping her mother. The other reason is because James keeps hounding Tilly to design a landscape for his house even though she repeatedly tells him no.

The main characters are an unlikely pair since Tilly has chosen to isolate herself from society since her husband’s death three years ago, falsely blaming herself for following through with his living will decision. James suffers from OCD, anxiety, and other crippling mental health issues who has retired from his business at age 45 to work on conquering his issues. Due to James’ OCD, he persists in recruiting Tilly to design a garden even hopping on a plane to England to join Tilly and her son. Throughout the book, the two of them struggle to battle past ghosts which affect their current situation.

I had a hard time finishing this. More than once I wanted to just bag it but kept on reading because there were glimmers it would get better and more interesting. Except then I’d get disappointed as the story would slow down, the characters would become too self-absorbed, and unrealistic subplots would come into the picture.

It didn’t help that I didn’t care for either main character nor did I find the supporting cast very interesting other than Tilly’s son and mother. Why Tilly felt the need to lie about a potential life-threatening situation, only confiding in James, is beyond me. I genuinely don’t understand why her ex or James find her attractive. She’s nice and a good mother but she doesn’t offer much else other than an extensive knowledge of plants.

I found James’ behaviors and lack of impulse control scary more than endearing, while I understand he suffers from OCD and anxiety, a point hammered home ad nauseam, the way he acts from jumping on a plane to England because he can’t take no for an answer, to hiding important information like he has a grown son, bugs me as a reader. I supposed I’m to give him a pass because he’s good looking (debatable at best) and rich. Ahh, that lovely trope of no matter how messed up the male lead is emotionally, if he’s hot and rich, he gets away with it without too much second-guessing.

I suspect I was supposed to love Tilly’s zany best friend Rowena but she felt out of place and a stereotype. Another supporting character was Tilly’s childhood sweetheart who just happens to be going through a divorce at that exact same time and escapes to the village they grew up in. Naturally this creates a (forced) friction between James and the ex both of whom are competing with the ghost of Tilly’s dead husband.

The book is painful in trying to shoehorn in a romantic connection between Tilly and James. It takes too long to get to either of them explaining their feelings and when it does, it’s just awkward and unrealistic. If the book instead focused on developing a friendship between James and Tilly rather than a romance, I think it would have worked better.

Another thing that bugged me about the book was all the overwriting the author did. One of my biggest pet peeves and something I notice more with contemporary women’s fiction is how many questions are asked. For James’ personality it made sense to hear him internally questioning what he said and did since it was part of his personality but when both characters do it, it’s incredibly irritating. A lot of that could have been cut out which would have tightened up the flow of the story. Another issue I had was how inconsistent the author was in resolving twist both large and small.

 

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Unfinished Garden 2 pencils out of 5. It was forced and inconsistent in all areas but at least the scenery descriptions were lovely.

Weekly Musing: Picture This

This week I thought I would do something different. Something hopefully less wordy then my posts of late, a little bit more fun, and something more visual because sometimes that is the best way to express a thought. Or in this case just to brag a little bit about my writing space.

A while ago I found a link with pictures of 40 creative people, most of whom were writers. What’s so neat about looking over these pictures is how these people were either completely messy or completely organized, nothing in between. Granted some of these spaces have been preserved and thus tidied up for tourists.

My own writing space has evolved over the years and continues to do so. In our old house I took over a spare bedroom that overlooked the park behind our house with a boring view of the desert.

Now my writing space is different. When we were looking at houses, one of the requirements was that I had to have my own space and it had to be fairly good size. What I got was a loft all to myself although it is technically considered a bedroom since it had a full bathroom.

As you can see I have not one but two desks. One holds my laptop and is nothing more than a simple heavy-duty plastic table. Messy but still somewhat organized if only for me. It’s odd having a messy space because I’m a pretty organized person and can’t stand to have things out of their right spot. Yet when it comes to the space I spend a good chunk of my day, a little mess is fine. I can still find things including the desk top itself so no harm, no foul. Computer Desk

My other desk, free of electronics, is my actual writing desk. Admittedly, though, there are times I write in other places but this is my primary spot. As you can see, it’s a bit more organized as the space itself is an actual proper desk. I love it and the chair is really comfortable. Although it isn’t open like my other desk, I think the closed in space works well for me. Makes for mostly distraction free writing. I also have on it reference books I use most often. Tucked away in a drawer are legal size pads for when I’m just brainstorming or revising. Writing Desk

Since my writing sanctuary is a loft space, the one thing I didn’t get was a view. All I have are a couple of windows that look out to the side of the neighbor’s house. At least the cat enjoys the view. Windows and bookcases

As you can see I do have somewhat adequate room for bookcases although if I don’t stop acquiring books I’ll run out of space. I also have filled up pretty much every available piece of wall space with various things including 2 white boards, a map of the United States, and a dry erase calendar to help me keep track of deadlines and events. I’ve even tacked stuff up on the closest door but that’s as part of research for a book I’m working on. Corner Whiteboards

There you have it. My lovely writing space. Not my ideal but it’s more than functional especially when I consider the floor as additional work area. I love it for its openness and being completely separate from the rest of the house. Definitely my own personal corner of the world.

 

Weekly Musing: Retirement Home

This week’s musing is inspired partially by a book I recently in addition to my own observations and discussions of writers and general readers alike. Of late I’ve been thinking more and more about tropes I see in books or in the shows and movies I watch. A few months ago I touched upon tropes in romance that make me not want to read much in that genre, but this musing is much more general.

Recently I finished Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett and while it kind of confused me and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not as a reader, as a writer I appreciated what the author did. The book centers around a trio of witches and it is immediately clear these are not your typical witches and this book isn’t going to be your typical mash-up of fairy tales and fantasy. He twists so many of those tropes on their heads that it honestly keeps the reader guessing at how it will end.

This got me thinking about tropes I see a lot of that really annoy the hell out of me. Below are some of those I wish would be retired, or at the very least, if they continue to be employed, take a cue from Pratchett and others and flip the script.

Lying: I don’t know why but I’m noticing this in a lot of late. When I say lying, I’m referring to the kind where one character doesn’t want to tell another character, usually a loved one, a secret because they want to protect them. Yet they have no problem being truthful to a relative stranger or a new acquaintance mainly because that new person has quickly figured out what the big secret is from the start. Naturally wayyyyyyyyyyyy too much time is devoted to whether or not the loved one(s) will find out/be told the secret. Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, they will. They always do unless they happen to die.

So why freaking bother with this crap? I know it’s about drama but it’s so colossally annoying. I’m not saying people need to be 100% because no one is, but to string the truth out for hundreds of pages for no reason other than to manufacture drama is damn taxing. How about layering the lies? Or telling half-truths? Or slight omissions? Or if a character must go down the lying route, delve deeper into the motivation beyond the character believing they are protecting others because we know they aren’t.

Perhaps the character should start with the truth from the beginning. That, in and of itself, can generate all kinds of drama. When we think about our own lives, there are times when we feel comfortable telling the truth to someone that later on it turns out to have been a big mistake. Yet for some reason when it comes to literature and TV and movies, characters constantly lie, lie, lie. The burden is enormous and causes bigger problems then there really needs to be.

Nerds: While I believe the geek shall inherit the Earth, I would like many of the stereotypes and tropes associated with nerds to be retired. As a nerd I will admit that while it’s nice seeing my fellow geek brothers and sisters represented, it’s also annoying because so often the various degrees of nerdiness is ignored.

Some nerds are born, gifted with high intellect and naturally drawn to certain things. Some nerds are made, discovering the older they get they really are a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan because that stuff resonates finally. Not all nerds wear glasses. Fun fact, near-sightedness is actually the dominate gene, not perfect vision. Not all nerds are dateless and sexless. Not all nerds are adverse to showers and personal grooming. Not all nerds are stick thin or morbidly obese and have a diet which consists solely of Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Not all nerds are fashion adverse or horribly awkward.

Like every other stereotype out there, yes, there are people who fit the mold but by and large, nerds are a diverse group of people. Some are really into comics but not computers. Some are really into computers but not into science fiction. You get the idea. So let’s try to retire the nerd trope especially as more and more things associated with a fringe group have become mainstream and socially acceptable.

Angsty hero/heroine: While I’m all for a well-rounded and well-developed character, I’m getting a little bit tired of a hero/heroine who either starts off full of angst or through the course of the story becomes more emo. Oddly enough this is usually related to all the lying the hero/heroine does. Hmmm, wonder if there might be a correlation?

I think this became popular because it’s a quick and easy way to add depth to a character. Kill off someone close to them or have them be forced to kill someone, bam! Instant guilt and darkness. Oh, but some of us in the audience are getting tired of that. Again, it comes down to how to add drama to the story and make the hero’s life as trying as possible. But for all the darkness very little thought is put into bringing light into the hero’s/heroine’s life unless through a love interest. This in and of itself is something that should be relied upon less.

Heroes don’t have to be Mr. or Miss Happy All the Time types of people because no one is. The appeal of a hero is how they pick themselves up when things get bad. The hero’s journey can inspire us, but if you make the hero too full of angst we just don’t care.

Women Who Kick Ass: Let me preface this by stating I have fond memories of 1990s/early 2000s TV as having a lot of great female characters. It was awesome and great as a girl growing up seeing women who had something to offer beyond looks. However, partially as a result of this I noticed a trope developed. It was Women Who Kick Ass. The main problem I have with this is it gives the impression that the only way to be a strong woman is to literally be a strong woman. Apparently a woman who isn’t physically strong isn’t a strong woman even if her strengths come in other areas.

I get why this became popular especially over the last couple of decades. For too long history, society, culture, literature, TV, and movies have treated women as something so weak physically that this must mean women are the lesser.

So how do we fix this problem especially with the massive social and cultural upheaval the 1960s and 1970s bring us? Go in the complete and opposite direction. Yet even with women embracing the idea they aren’t weaklings, there is still a struggle on how to present a strong woman as feminine.  Xena may have been a warrior princess but let’s face it, her outfit wasn’t the most practical. We can kick ass as long as we look good doing it.

Hmmm, but what if you are un-athletic? Or not cute? Or both? What if you are the quiet female? Not necessarily passive and full of no self-esteem but just someone who’s more introverted? In an attempt to pump up the self-esteem and image of women that we can do anything that somehow got translated into in order to be able to do anything, you must be physical and kick ass. I get not wanting little girls to grow up believing they need a man to solve everything for them. Or to give little boys the impression females are dumb but Women Who Kick Ass ignores other things that make a female strong.

 

Like everything else, these tropes are what I see most commonly that I’m getting tired of. These things are cyclical and a few months or years from now it’ll be another set of tropes that will be popular. Granted the reason why these exist and continue to be used is because as a reader or viewer we still respond to them. I’m not trying to say that using any or all of these tropes are a bad thing for a writer because there are plenty of writers who do a great job with tropes to make them feel fresh and still relevant. Again that’s when taking a trope and adding some kind of twist to it.

Yet part of me can’t help but think buying into these tropes is just cheap and lazy writing. It’s far easier to go with people’s expectations rather than digging deeper and deeper into characters and story. It feels like to me it’s a way to shut the door on the endless possibilities that exist within the infinite universe of a writer’s mind. For my own works, there are times when I do make a conscious decision to at least try something different. Sometimes I think it works but admittedly there are times it doesn’t work. At least it’s worth giving a try.