Musings

Weekly Musing: Regretful Reads of 2015

To paraphrase a famous quote “Read everything you can get your hands on.” This means the good, the great, the bad, and the truly atrocious books. Up until the last few years I was always one of those people who had to finish a book no matter what. Even if I hated the book early on I still stuck it through in the hopes that perhaps the book would get better. However, the older I get and the more books I acquire, the more I realize if something doesn’t do it for me then it’s okay to not finish the book.

Even armed with this philosophy I still wind up finishing most books I start. There were a few I simply couldn’t finish and didn’t think it was fair to include those on my list of least favorite books of 2015.

Jessica Jones: The Pulse by Michael Bendis – I can’t really go into too much about this since the Netflix’s series Jessica Jones has recently premiered and I’m not sure if they pulled anything from this. Let me quickly state I read the first set of comics the Jessica Jones character appears in and loved, loved them. This joy didn’t transfer over to The Pulse which is the second volume of comics she is the center of.

And that’s one of my biggest problems with it. What made reading Jessica Jones: The Pulse rather unbearable is that despite being written by the character’s creator, she barely resembles herself. Supposedly she has a job with The Daily Bugle acting as a liaison between the paper and superheroes but she doesn’t actually do anything. All she does is whine. I guess when you leave your private investigation business you become annoying as hell.

Another thing that bugged me is how many of the stories don’t center on her. It’s more about other superheroes and J. Jonah Jameson. When she is there, she just exists. No clue where the gritty, troubled, and utterly human Jessica Jones we were first introduced to went. I have a hard time believing just because The Pulse is supposed to be more PG or PG-13 that that somehow meant the writer felt he needed to gut the character. Major disappointment.

The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White – I’ve previously reviewed this book so my reasons for putting it on this list have already been documented. I’ll save everyone the time of rehashing.

Amethyst by Lauren Royal – Much like last year when I read a book called Danielle simply because that’s my first name, I decided to read this book because the main character’s first name happens to be my birth stone. I need to stop doing that. They do nothing but disappoint.

Amethyst is a typical historical romance in that we’ve got our female heroine who meets by accident a rich, young, and handsome Duke, Baron, whatever title. Naturally they fall in love and live happily ever after despite trite obstacle after trite obstacle. And of course both our leads are involved/promised to other people they clearly shouldn’t be with because they are horrible people.

The only thing that was kind of neat was Amethyst was the daughter of a jewelry maker (hence her name) and was talented in her own right. Other than that, this was incredibly forgettable.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne – This book was weird which isn’t what I had a problem with. When a story is set in a hippie commune in modern day Wales it’s to be expected the characters and story are going to be a bit weird. What bugged me most about the book was not so much the head-hopping but which characters’ heads the reader was forced into.

If the author had stuck to the family at the center of the story then this book would have been better. After all, the heart of this book is how a family that has existed solely within the commune deals with the modern world as it creeps into their sphere. If the book had stayed focused on this family dynamic rather than subplots that really did nothing to support the main plot, then I would have enjoyed it more.

 

There you have it a nice short list of books that bugged me to read this year. Next week’s list of books I truly enjoyed is longer. Maybe that shows I’m getting pickier or maybe I just don’t want to waste my time. Who knows.

Book Reviews

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.

Musings

Weekly Musing: 2015 Rock Hill Writers Intensive

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending my first conference/writers workshop of 2015. What made it even more pleasurably was that it happened to be in my backyard. The 2015 Rock Hill Writers Intensive presented by the SCWW association was one day but as the name suggests, it was intensive.

My day started with me thinking I was late as I thought I overslept. In reality I was on time which allowed me the opportunity to get settled and talk to the people at my table. What was quickly apparent to me was just how many people attending it weren’t locals. For some reason, several people from Greenville, SC made the nearly two hour drive as well as people from small communities in both North and South Carolina.

After the opening address it was time for the first session. For mine I choose a topic called Whose Head is This? presented by Barbara Evers. It was about point of view and determining which one is appropriate for the story. Ms. Evers gave simple questions to think about for our characters such as how do they speak, think, what traits they use in life, etc.

Another suggestion, and one that I am still shy about using, are finding pictures of what we think our characters sort of look like but also pictures or physical objects which represent something about a character. For example, if a character wears a fedora, get a fedora and keep it nearby while writing.

Along with other reminders about making sure characters sound and think differently from each other, using a scene break if switching POV within a chapter, and whatnot, she gave a great suggestion. When going through the revision process, change the font for each character. For example, I’m working on a novel with two POV characters. Their chapters alternate in telling the story. By using a different font for each, it not only gives your eyes a break but it also is a visual representation of how much each character contributes to the story. This doesn’t mean the book should be 50/50 necessarily but if you thought character A had as much equal time as character B but they don’t, it can help you make some decisions.

The second session I went to was another one put on by Barbara Evers. This one was regarding the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and how to use that for developing characters. I’ve been pretty familiar with the Myers Briggs test since high school when I was first took it. Since then I have taken it several times during my life with the same results. INFJs unite!

But this wasn’t a presentation on our own personality as just a very condensed version of what the components that go into a MBTI personality. The main focus was how writers can, and should use it, with our characters and their stories. One of her suggestions was to try and take the MBTI test as one of our characters. I can’t honestly imagine being able to do that without my own personality biasing the test. However, because of the presentation I am more interested in picking up an official book on the different types. I also want to challenge myself to have characters who aren’t so introverted like me yet I do worry that I will go over the top and write a one-dimensional character.

After lunch was the third session. Unfortunately this was the dullest and least helpful one of the four I attended. It was also the one I was looking the most forward to. It was simply titled Historical Research and presented by Tally Johnson a very well-informed and knowledgeable presenter about South Carolina history.

This was one of the biggest issues I had with the presentation. In the program it wasn’t listed as being specific to just South Carolina history but general historical research. I was looking forward to perhaps getting some advice for different resources, how to go about approaching experts in a particular field, challenges of writing historical fiction, things like that.

If I was interested in South Carolina history, and I may very well be down the line, I have a very exhaustive list of resources I can turn to.

The fourth and final session I attended was titled Breathing Life Into Setting presented by Barbara Claypole White. Late in the afternoon after a long day, she still managed to have lots of energy which propelled her lecture.

I picked this session since setting is one of those things I feel is tricky to get right. Depending upon genre, setting might be just as important as characters, acting as another character if you will. That being said, setting, or world-building, can quickly take over the narrative in a bad way something Ms. White admitted is one of the things in her own writing she has a tendency to do.

She gave us some advice to think about as we revise:

  • Setting should never feel too comfortable and calm all the time for the character
  • Objects in a story should have some kind of meaning for the character
  • Opposites in preferred setting can provide a lot of conflict for the character. For example, a character who loves the beach goes nuts being holed up in a ski chalet.
  • Memories a particular place evokes in a character, whether good or bad

I was glad she went beyond the typical use of the five senses and went more into how setting helps the psychological make-up of the character and the story.

Since this was a local conference, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people attended as well as the overall quality of the sessions I attended. It was incredibly well-organized, must have been run by authors who are outliners rather than pantsers, and had a very welcoming atmosphere. I’m looking forward to next year’s intensive, knowing it will cover a variety of topics.