Tag Archives: books

Books: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

This is… a cute book, I guess. It’s a modernized version of Austen’s classic. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything else by McDermid, but her bio (and many other reviewers) mark her as a crime writer, so I’m not entirely sure why she was tapped to do this, the second in a “Jane Austen Project.” Maybe because McDermid’s name sells? But then, so does Austen’s, I would think? And not necessarily to the same crowd.

In this take, Cat Morland has the rare opportunity to visit Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival with their well-to-do neighbors the Allens. While there, Cat makes friends both fair and foul, as per the Austen way. She becomes smitten with Henry Tilney and simultaneously must put up with unwanted attention from Johnny Thorpe. Eventually Cat is invited to the Tilney manor house Northanger Abbey, etc. etc.

There are a lot of things in this book that don’t quite work. The dialogue by the purported teens, for one thing. The very black-and-white characters for another. Good people are clearly angels and the bad people have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Everyone in between comes off as a dimwit or simply dull. There are no facets to any of the characters at all. Even Cat is fairly annoying in that she is naive and often shrill.

The pacing isn’t great, either. There is a looooong wind-up before things actually happen. As I recall (and it’s been two or three years since I last read Austen’s novel), this is true to the original. BUT. If you’re going to rewrite it for a modern readership, why not pace it for one too? The result is a rushed ending, and not a very good one. Oh, it’s the requisite happy ending, but the conflict at that point, such as it is, is lame and not handled very well. I won’t go into detail in case you want to try this book, but… It’s pretty terrible. And if that “misunderstanding” had been moved up a bit and worked differently, it actually might have been both funny and a teaching moment. Instead it’s a throw away that reflects badly and leaves a bitter taste at the end of the book.

Finally, the book needed at least one more edit pass. There are some truly clunky sentences here that need smoothing out, some repetitious words that could have been tweaked. But I’ve noticed that, the more famous the author, the more corners they cut when rushing to publish. After all, the book will sell anyway, right? If I were a bestselling author, I’d demand more attention for my work rather than less.

All this sounds pretty damning, but I didn’t entirely hate the book. The faults are glaring and were a bit distracting while I was reading, but I did enjoy it to some extent. I gave it 3.5 stars on Goodreads (rounding to 4), though looking at it now I maybe should have gone with 3. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever read. Though again I have to wonder why these things get the go-ahead and my Shakespeare retellings do not. I’m sure name recognition plays into it, but here is Cat, an utter puddle of a protagonist, and my Nerissa (Hamlette) is considered too flippant? At least she has a personality, something Cat largely lacks except in a few scenes when she decides to be argumentative. Hmm…

Books: Revolutionary Girl Utena by Chiho Saito

I love Touga Kiryuu. So much so that the one and only time I went to an anime convention, I cosplayed as him. But at that time I’d only ever watched the anime. I’ve owned this really nice box set of the manga for a few years now, and I finally decided to read them.

Me as Touga Kiryuu c. 1998

Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a pretty strange story. Utena Tenjou [note: I’m writing the names in the English order of given name first] lost her parents when she was young, and while grieving her loss one day, she went wandering through the city and fell (or nearly fell?) in a canal or river. But a “prince” saved her. He gave her a ring with a rose seal on it and promised they would meet again some day. Every year she receives a letter from the prince. Finally, some seven years later (Utena is now 13), he says they will soon meet.

Utena transfers to Ohtori Academy, an elite boarding school whose symbol is the rose. In so doing, she stumbles onto a strange ritual performed by the student council (of which Touga is president). They duel for possession of a girl named Anthy Himemiya, who they call the “Rose Bride.” They think being her groom will give them powers “to revolutionize the world.”

It only gets weirder from there. At some point the center of the story ceases to hold and it begins to make less sense; the threads of story are pulled too thin to form full connections. That said, I still really love these characters. Utena is perhaps the least interesting (as is sometimes the way of main characters); the council members are far more fascinating. The angry Juri, the sweet but sister-hounded Miki, the obsessed Saionji… And of course Touga. My favorite. In the manga Touga proves to be even better because he’s given more depth of character, which I appreciate. But I do also much prefer the character designs in the anime.

This manga doesn’t take long to read, and it’s worth reading if you don’t mind a story where you walk away unsure of what exactly happened. There are many “side stories,” too, with maybe alternate universes or??? They’re all good, but they in some ways contradict the main manga. I guess it’s just the author playing with her toys and trying new things with them. Fair enough. If I had characters this amazing, I might do the same.

Books: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

I’ve never read any of Rankin’s books before; I happened upon this one in a library display. It looked interesting, so I borrowed it. And for the most part it was interesting. Though I don’t know if it was so interesting that I’d go read any of the previous books in the series.

So there’s this retired Scottish police detective named John Rebus. And there’s a DI named Siobhan Clarke who is kind of his protégée or something? She catches a murder case that for twelve years has been a misper (missing persons) but now a body has suddenly turned up. And Rebus worked on the original inquiry. So… yeah.

Even not having read any of the other books, I was able to follow this fine and discern/infer enough not to be confused. The mystery was a pretty good one, with Rebus getting a B plot in which he gets to poke around in one of Clarke’s old cases too. I guess my problem was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. They’re pretty dry, even at moments when they (I think) are supposed to be witty. So I don’t know that I’d want to revisit them. Then again, I read on Goodreads that this is something like the 22nd book in this series, so maybe the characters have simply atrophied. Maybe they’re way more interesting and engaging in earlier novels.

Anyway… an okay read, but nothing I’m in a hurry to devour more of.

Books: Zucked by Roger McNamee

Almost everyone I know is on Facebook. My friends, my family, the people I used to work with, people I went to school with, other authors I’ve met… In particular, if you’re an author, you’ve been told you simply must have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. presence. And I’ll admit that when I deleted my Facebook page a few months ago, and left pretty much every FB Group I’d been a member of, I saw my sales plummet. But I also so my general life satisfaction and happiness go up, so…

But this isn’t a book about how Facebook and other social media impacts your happiness; there are plenty of other books and studies that do that. Zucked is about how Facebook (and Google, and Twitter, etc.) undermines democracy and is generally dangerous to the population.

That’s right. Dangerous.

To be clear, though I deleted my author page on Facebook, I do still have a personal account. This is because I live far from where I grew up, far from family, and my friends are spread across the globe. It’s also because all my kids’ schools lean on Facebook to disseminate information. See, Facebook has made itself practically indispensable. And there’s no other platform like it because Facebook squashes or absorbs all competition. Unregulated, Facebook is pretty much a monopoly.

And while we all think it’s great that Facebook allows us to keep in touch with people—people who otherwise would never email, so you’d pretty much never hear from them again—and/or snoop on old friends and flames, we need to remember that it’s a business not a charity. Facebook connects people at a price. It’s free to join, but you pay with your personal information, which Facebook sells to anyone willing to make them rich for it.

At this point, I’m sorely tempted to delete my Facebook account, but the damage is done. I exist in their system, and my profile has surely been sold many times over. That data, once sent out, can’t ever be called back. Who knows how many copies of it exist?

But here’s the thing: I absolutely won’t let me kids sign up for Facebook. Or any other major social media platform. For their own safety (cyberbullying being a real issue) and so that they can hold on to their information until the day we have legislation and regulation to protect them.

If any enterprising startup would like to make an ethical site that connects people, or if such a thing exists, I’d love to hear about it. I’d much rather pay a monthly or annual fee to protect my data than sign up for a free site that sells me as their product.

Oh, but what about the book? This was one of the clearest explanations of how these platforms do business and how bad actors (like the Russians) are able to use those business models to their advantage. Points deducted for the “History of Silicon Valley” chapter, which gave me flashbacks to my college days when I had to take a bunch of history of media classes. That bit was mind-numbing, and I don’t think it contributed much to the overall case against these platforms. It was meant to give context, but… meh. I ended up skimming that bit.

Still, anyone who has Facebook, anyone who uses Google or Instagram or other major platforms, should read this book. McNamee has decades of experience and lays things out neatly. An enlightening read.

Books: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

You may have noticed from my reading history that I have an interest in the Romanovs. Mostly that interest has been focused on Nicholas II and his immediate family, but when I found this book at the library, I decided to go back a generation. Sure, it’s historical fiction, so I spend a certain amount of time reading a book like this with historical references in my other hand (not to undermine authors of HF, but because I’m a curious person and find I often want to look up facts and information about historical personages as I read fictional accounts of them). In particular, when historical fiction is centered around a well-known, well-documented figure, I feel the author must work harder to hew to the facts while still creating a compelling narrative. If the author chooses to, er, elide a few things for some reason, I do say it gives me pause. I have to wonder why. To make the story more interesting somehow? I suppose some readers would value a punched-up story over accuracy, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying Gortner does that here. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the subject at hand to judge, and maybe that’s what makes me a tad uneasy about the novel. I’d almost want to go read a biography for comparison.

But before I get much further, a quick synopsis: The Romanov Empress tells the story of Dagmar of Denmark, who became Empress Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III. It’s told in first person, which gives fair insight into Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, but necessarily means that anything she is not present for must be explained in dialogue scenes where she and Someone (usually Miechen) discuss politics or whatever. In fact, while the novel started strongly for me, by a little more than halfway through it began to founder for lack of tension, pace, action. Lots of terse discussions as the Russian Revolution built up around Minnie and the Romanovs. But nothing much else until the final few pages of being held by the Soviets and getting the bad news of her son’s family’s execution.

I almost wish the book had gone on a bit longer and shown some of Minnie’s days in exile. There is a solid afterword in the book that discusses where she and others ended up, but I might’ve liked to have seen it depicted. Another reason, perhaps, to pick up a biography.

This isn’t a bad book. I counted it as average on Goodreads, probably 3.5 stars but not quite worth rounding up to 4. I’d maybe try another Gortner book.

Why I’m Leaving Kindle Unlimited

Used to be, I made most of my money from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. I made as much—often more—from page reads as direct sales, so I kept my books in KU. But in recent months that has fallen off considerably to nearly nil. Therefore, I think it’s time to broaden my horizons and put my books out in wider form.

Amazon continues to have a stranglehold on the market, but it also makes it nearly impossible to be discovered. If you’re not already a known name, people aren’t looking for you or your books. And if you aren’t published by one of Amazon’s imprints or don’t pay them big bucks to advertise, you get buried.

That said, any new releases will get an initial KU launch. But if that ends up not making financial sense (as it no longer does with my existing catalogue), I’ll find other outlets. And of course I’ll continue to put my books out in paperback as well. The K-Pro is going to be re-edited and reissued, and I hope to have Peter edited and available again soon as well.

Books: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I have so many feelings about this book stemming from a dozen different places so that it would take a machete to cut my way through them all. But I’m going to try.

First, the setup: Alex is the son of the first female president, who was elected in 2016 (so I guess this is an alternate universe kind of book). His archnemesis is Prince Henry of Wales. He’s taken a dislike to Henry because Henry brushed him off at the Olympics in Rio. But after a publicity disaster at Henry’s brother’s wedding, the two of them are forced to fake an international friendship. That becomes a romance.

Bromance turned romance. There it is.

Now most of you probably know I love a good gay love story. But this one didn’t entirely work for me. I liked the idea of it, just not the execution. I felt like the focus was in the wrong place. But that’s a personal preference. As all reviews must be, mine is subjective.

I enjoyed the start of the book—the sniping and banter. Once the romance became set, things began to drag. The middle of the book is a series of situational hook-ups disguised as Alex embracing his new sexual identity in increments, but at the end of the day, this just makes the book another coming-out story. Hardly anything new. And it seems like the author really just wants to revel in boy sex rather than further the plot at all.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play more than half the book later when—hey, I think I’ve heard this before—a private email server is hacked and Alex and Henry are outed. Political scandal ensues, even as Alex’s mom is campaigning for re-election. And of course Henry’s grandmother the Queen is unhappy as well.

There’s something a little fan-fictiony about it all?

Not that I don’t love fan fiction, but I also believe in calling something what it is rather than trying to pass it off as legitimate.

But again, I’m me. I grew up in Texas—in the very Austin McQuiston writes about, and then later outside Dallas, so I’ve seen both blue and red Texas up close. I went to UT in Austin and got the same mass comm degree Alex’s sister June has in this book. I used to hang out at a friend’s lake house every summer. So, you know, while I can appreciate the love letter to my home state and town, something about it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the way the author forces all the representation down the reader’s throat: gay people, bisexual people, the blended Latino-American family, the trans secret service agent (male to female but still with a wife), the friend who is Indian… Instead of feeling seamless, it feels more like a giant neon arrow saying, “Look at me being inclusive!” And in the emails between Alex and Henry, the various historical extracts that also feel like a big neon arrow saying, “Look at how I did some research!”

Gah. All this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn’t. I just had some very specific, nitpicky issues with it. Like I said, I enjoyed the start. The middle sagged and the real plot kicked in a mite too late for my taste. I also didn’t love Alex, and since the book is told through his perspective, that wasn’t ideal for me. I mean, he was okay, but ::shrug::

If the focus had been more on Henry and Alex weathering public perception and private pressures, I would have enjoyed it more, I think. Instead, a lot of this book is the two of them having sex in various locations and trying to hide it. That gets dull pretty quickly. For me. Based on other reviews, plenty of people are happy with that kind of thing. But I want more story than sex, so this book counts as “just okay” in my estimation.

Books: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

I usually enjoy Weir’s books, fiction and non. (My favorites are Captive Queen and Innocent Traitor.) However, in this series I have so far struggled. I found the book about Katherine of Aragon to be repetitive and dull, maybe because Katherine echoes through the ages as having one refrain: “I am the rightful queen!” I didn’t even finish the Anne Boleyn book because (a) I’ve already read many books about Boleyn, so it didn’t feel original, and (b) I just wasn’t enjoying it. So I picked this one up with a lack of expectation… which may be why I did like it.

I’ll admit a certain curiosity about Jane Seymour, so it’s possible that my not already knowing a ton about the subject is part of what kept my interest. I appreciate that Weir makes a case for true love between Jane and Henry, and I like her take on Jane’s death (the author note at the end of the book is quite informative). There is an attempt to show how Jane might have felt in taking the place of the women she served, hence the “haunted” bit. At the same time, the book does uphold the image of Jane as saintly and seemingly lacking in any real flaws. Jane as devout, as manipulated by her family, etc…. That angle is well worn and can sometimes make Jane seem superhuman.

A number of reviews I read called this book slow and boring. I didn’t find that to be the case, but again, when one has few expectations for something, one is less likely to be disappointed. For me, this was the best of the series thus far.

Television: Good Omens

Good Omens is fairly high on my list of favorite books; my cat Crowley bears the name of one of the main characters. (Most people assume the name is from Supernatural, but I haven’t seen that show.) How delighted was I, then, when David Tennant was cast as Crowley? Off the charts, really, and he does a spectacular job opposite Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.

I’m not sure I can adequately encapsulate the story for those unfamiliar with it, but basically Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel, and yet they’re friends. So when the end of the world is on the horizon, the two of them team up to stop it because, honestly, they rather like the world. I suppose it’s just the right blend of bad and good to make them both comfortable without being bored.

There’s a lot more to it than that, such as witches and witchfinders and prophecies and the antichrist and his pet dog (and a character named Pepper!), but it’s all more complex than I can describe, and you might as well read or watch it anyway.

I usually hesitate over adaptations of my favorite books because (a) I worry it’ll ruin my mental picture by replacing my imagination with a “sanctioned” version, and (b) often they’re just terrible. But there’s no reason to be concerned in this case. Good Omens is a faithful adaptation, and in the places where it’s been changed, all the changes work. It’s well cast and just incredibly entertaining. And at six episodes, easy to binge.

I’d say I want more, and I do… except I don’t, if that makes any sense. By which I mean, it’s like a really good meal: so wonderful, you want to keep eating, yet you know that the food will only begin to lose its flavor eventually, and you’ll only end up uncomfortably stuffed, maybe even ill. Better to eat and walk away with the memory of a nice dinner than make yourself sick and come to feel averse to something you used to enjoy. Or, in short form: quit while you’re ahead. So many shows try to press their popularity by eking out season after season, all for the money, until they’re only remembered for not being as good as when they began. Better to tell your story well and end it (Babylon 5) than keep chasing the audience until they turn on you.

Long story short, the Good Omens miniseries is fantastic, assuming you like that sort of thing. I do highly recommend it.

Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.