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Books: One Day in December by Josie Silver

I’m a sucker for love-at-first-sight stories and tales of destined soul mates. Which is why, when I read an online blurb about this book, I thought it would be right up my alley. And it started out well, for sure. But about 30% of the way in…

Just so you have a sense of what I’m talking about (in case this book is unfamiliar to you), let me give the setup in a nutshell: On… wait for it… one day in December, Laurie is riding a bus and sees a guy out the window at the bus stop. And it’s the aforementioned love at first sight. The guy reacts a bit slow, though, and doesn’t make it onto the bus in time. Laurie and her best friend Sarah then spend a year looking for “bus boy.”

So far so good. I liked Laurie and Sarah, though Sarah is a bit too perfect. I realize the reader is seeing her largely through the eyes of Laurie and Jack (more on that in a minute), people who love her and do believe she’s amazing, but… Please. No one is saintly enough to always have charitable thoughts about even their best friends or girlfriends. And best friends/girlfriends are not always wonderful, which is pretty much how we see Sarah 100% of the time. Blech.

Anyway, it’s not really giving anything away to say that, roughly a year after the bus incident, Sarah brings home a new boyfriend (Jack) who is, of course, bus boy.

This is where I started to struggle with the book a bit. It became harder and harder to continue to like Laurie, or to like Jack much at all. The author works hard to make them each sympathetic, and I acknowledge Silver also seemed to be laboring to give Jack and Laurie facets and depth. Unfortunately, for me it didn’t really work. I found Laurie whiney and Jack to be a jerk.

The story is told from two POVs, and that didn’t work much for me, either, because I didn’t find Jack all that distinctive in tone. It’s not that he and Laurie sounded the same—not at all. He just wasn’t interesting. Self-pitying asshole seemed to be his main mode, and I found it tough to live in such a character’s head for any length of time.

Also, the book felt like a slog through a good chunk of the middle.

I will say I liked the ending. So, in short, it started well and ended well, but the middle 50% was a trial. This book ends just as you would predict, so for books like this one, the journey toward that end is meant to be the fun bit. In this case, however, it wasn’t fun at all. I ended up giving it three stars on Goodreads, but only because the moderately amusing ending saved it from receiving two. Even now, I’m thinking this is more a 2.5-star book, but I rounded up like they teach us in school.

Maybe chick lit just isn’t my tea.

No Hope for the Self-Pubbed

Yesterday I was told that, since I have already self-published my work, I will never be picked up by an agent or have a traditional publishing deal. Not just for the books that I’ve self-published, but ever. Because the only self-published authors that get agents are ones who sell a zillion copies of their stuff, thus proving it’s market worthy. In other words, only the self-published authors who don’t need agents ever get them.

My books are of solid quality. I know this thanks to (a) good reviews from professional sources, and (b) feedback from agents. The “problem” with my books is that I write stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre* and/or stuff in unpopular genres. Basically, what I’ve been told by agents is that, while my work is good, it’s not marketable.

Which is why, I suppose, I don’t sell a zillion copies.

And therefore I will never get an agent or a big publishing deal for anything I write, no matter how good it is or how marketable it may actually be.

This is what I’ve been told. By traditionally published authors, mind. Maybe I should ask an actual agent? Pretty much every one that I’ve submitted to has told me to try them again with other works. I used to think they were just being polite, but I later heard at a conference panel that, no, that’s a line they only add to their rejection letters when they mean it. Which should mean, just maybe, that even if I self-published that book, they might still be interested in something new by me?

Publishing seems to be contracting and expanding in strange ways. There are more authors than ever, more books out there than ever, and yet fewer and fewer authors seem to be able to get agents and traditional publishing deals. Or maybe it just seems that way when one stacks traditional authors next to all the indies. But it does feel like agents and publishers are actually narrowing their focuses rather than widening. They seem to be less comfortable taking a chance on someone new. (Just like movie studios these days, leaning heavily on known IP rather than being willing to try anything original.)

It seems like certain genres do well in the indie market (romance, thrillers). Well, that’s also like indie films, isn’t it? Indie drama is pretty common, but how many indie action movies are there? Not many (if any) because indie filmmakers can’t usually afford to make a big budget film. At least with books the cost is more or less the same regardless of genre. It’s the ability to reach the various markets that causes some indie genres to stall, I think. Romance and thriller readers are typically voracious and will pick up a wide variety of titles in their preferred genres. More literary reader, though… are harder to reach via indie outlets. Underserved markets are more willing to go indie, assuming they can find your books in the piles of content out there. (Hey, if you like historical fantasy gay romance, try Faebourne! Yeah, again, my oddly specific books keep agents from picking them or me up…)

I guess the question eventually becomes: Do I want an agent and traditional publishing deal? And the answer is: I’d like the option. Maybe it’s that old need for validation, but… Yeah. I’d like an offer someday. At the same time, I won’t waste too much time chasing agents. Because I might like to have an agent, but I’ve learned I don’t have to have one to be happy or satisfied with my work.

Random

Today I got frustrated and angry because someone bought my ebook and then returned it. Look, I understand that if you click “buy” on accident, or if you get a few pages in and decide it’s not for you (read the sample first!), but this person had the book for at least a week because s/he bought it at full price, and it’s now on sale. That means they could very likely have bought it, read it, and returned it. Which is a crap thing to do to an author. Especially an indie author. Publishing houses have lots of money to back them; a return or two won’t hurt. But us little guys (and gals)… Someone told me they thought Amazon had a policy that didn’t allow returns on ebooks if the reader goes past a certain percentage? Is that true? Last time I looked (and it’s been a while), it wasn’t, but maybe Amazon got smart? Then again, Amazon seems never to have been on the side of the authors.

Anyway, to distance myself from my woes and irritation, I decided to distract myself by cataloguing my various tarot and oracle decks. Final tallies:

  • 39 tarot decks
  • 7 Lenormand decks
  • 15 oracle decks
  • 9 “other”

I posted a new tarot video to YouTube, too, so please go take a look, Like, and Subscribe! Maybe I’ll do this instead of writing. (I do private readings for those who are interested. You can’t return them for a refund, though!)

Movies: Parasite (2019)

I actually found this movie difficult to watch. Not because it’s bad; it’s far from that! But because it is so tense and anxiety inducing. At least for me. I don’t mind a good thriller, but whew. This film had me in knots.

I went in knowing very little except that I’d heard Parasite starts as one kind of film and ends up as another. And of course I’d heard it’s incredible (and therefore nominated for so many awards, having already gathered a fair amount of hardware—”hardware” being the industry term for award statuettes). I won’t be able to see all the nominated pictures, but I’m trying to get through at least a few, so last night I watched this one.

A non-spoiler sketch of the plot: a poor Korean family is given a lead by a friend that allows them to insinuate themselves into a wealthy family’s household. The poor son goes to tutor the rich daughter, the poor daughter becomes an art therapist for the rich son… Pretty soon the whole poor family is employed by the rich one, the latter none the wiser that their entire staff is related.

And then things go sideways.

That’s all I’m going to say about it. The movie is clever and intense, well written and well acted. It’s solid, is what I’m saying. Deserves all the accolades it’s received. And still I had the hardest time sitting through it because I was squirming so hard.

Worth a watch? Absolutely, if you can stand the mounting tension.

The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy

Okay, so I’ve had some time to sort of mull this whole thing over, and while my feelings are still complicated, I do at least have some overall thoughts about those last three Star Wars movies. Keep in mind that this is all purely subjective. In fact, this post is as much for myself as anyone, as writing helps me suss my thoughts.

I really enjoyed The Force Awakens. Yes, I knew as I watched it that it was pretty much, beat for beat, a retread of Episode IV. But I didn’t care. At the time, I was so excited to have a new Star Wars movie—one that was so much better than those prequels (which I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch again since seeing them in the cinema)—that I was probably primed to like it no matter what. But I loved the new characters, the dynamics that were being built. We took our kids to it, and at the final scene my daughter (who was seven) asked, “Who is that?” And with tears in my eyes, I said, “That’s Luke Skywalker, baby.” So, yeah, I was all in. I saw the film three times in the cinema and have rewatched it several times at home.

Sure, later on I had to wonder at Rey’s sudden ability to beat Kylo. I pretty much had the idea she had to be Luke’s daughter, ferried away to keep her safe or something, and I know I’m not the only one to lean that way. But whatever. I was open to whatever was to come next.

I had more complicated feelings about The Last Jedi. There was a lot I liked about it (mostly Kylo/Rey stuff) and just as much that I didn’t (the moments of humor felt misplaced to me). I was a bit confused by Luke’s final stand or whatever, not sure why he had to die except that mentor characters always have to die, I guess. I had no problem with the introduction of Rose and still don’t entirely understand the ire people have toward her, or toward the movie as a whole, except for misogyny and racism in general? I’ll admit that after the first viewing, I didn’t think I liked this movie, either, though I couldn’t immediately say why. However, I also saw this one three times in the cinema, and came to like it more and more. It is, for me, about on par with TFA, or I may even like it slightly more simply because it definitely feels more original.

Ah, but then The Rise of Skywalker happened. And I just… can’t. I can’t with this movie. I think what I can’t get over is the return of Palpatine. The groundwork wasn’t laid for it, so it feels just so improbable. And the sending out of a message? And the idea that Snoke “worked for” Palpatine or some such? None of it makes sense. The killing and immediate resurrection of main characters cheapens everything. It doesn’t feel like there are any stakes because Rey has already managed to defeat Kylo many times, and characters don’t stay dead, so… ??? Do I like that Kylo is redeemed? The fangirl in me adores the character of Kylo Ren. He’s easily the most interesting, most developed character in these films because he’s the only one given deep-seated conflict. Yes, he behaves like an angry emo child. But that’s at least interesting. And I’m a Reylo fangirl, so…

And yet. Here’s where we get into the world of fandom vs. canon. Let me just say I studied fandom psychology as an undergrad. But that was in a pre-social media world (yes, I’m that old). Fans didn’t really have a hope to influence creators because they didn’t have that kind of access to filmmakers. So wish fulfillment for fans came in the form of fan fiction. And that was fine. We all understood that we could make up our own stories and enjoy the characters in our own ways and the creators could do what they were going to do, which we may or may not love, but we didn’t really get too upset about because we had our own outlets for rewriting things the way we wanted. But now fans feel entitled, it seems, to certain outcomes. And they do get angry when things don’t go they way they want. Fans want to write the scripts. And that’s just ridiculous.

But it does seem to me that creators do sometimes give in to that pressure. So I feel like Kylo’s (Ben’s, if you prefer) redemption and that Reylo kiss was definitely a bow to fans. I swooned, of course, but was it the best direction for the story? I do have some doubts about that. (I think it would have been more coherent to follow Ben Solo/Kylo Ren as the main character of these films, probably because I do still find him to have the most interesting arc, but that’s just me, and didn’t we just talk about fans trying to steer the ship?)

For me TROS ruined things. I was all in until this film. I can forgive a lot, but this one just had too many problems for me. The sudden excising of Rose’s character, the insertion of random other females as if to be sure the Finn/Poe fans didn’t get their way—it just felt too disjointed from what came before. It felt, as I’ve said previously, like Abrams and Johnson were in a tug-of-war instead of building on each other’s works to create a cohesive whole. If you tell two architects to build a building that consists of three wings—Architect 1 gets wings 1 and 3 and Architect 2 does the middle bit—but don’t give them more guidance than that, the final structure might not end up looking quite right. Particularly if Architect 1 had stuff he expected wing 2 to have but Architect 2 does his own thing? They need to work together for the design to mesh.

I only saw TROS once in the cinema. I know I probably need to see it at least one more time to resolve some of my feelings about it. I mean, I think I could at least sit through it again, which is more than I can say about the prequels. But at the end of the day, the sequel trilogy was, for me, a game of diminishing returns. I enjoyed the first, most of the second, and almost none of the third.

So much of today’s biggest series start strong and founder because no one has a big picture vision, or if they do, they allow outside influences to alter it and therefore undermine what’s being built. We need showrunners/creators that don’t just have a great idea but also have the ability to follow through (or the willingness to delegate rather than control issues). And while fans have a right to their opinions, I don’t think they should demand that things go a certain way to satisfy their particular desires. Yes, even though you think you could do it better or your idea is the best. That’s what fan fiction is for. Leave the creators alone.

Movies: Joker

Decided to go ahead and watch this one, and I can see what all the buzz is about. Joaquin Phoenix does a stellar job overall, though I have minor quibbles. So many people love the score, too, and I think it’s quite good, but I also found it a bit distracting? Then again, this isn’t my usual kind of movie, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.

For those even farther behind than I am in these things, Joker is a movie about, well, the Batman character’s origins, I guess. Phoenix plays Arthur Flack, a hapless clown-for-hire with dreams of being a standup comedian. Arthur is a bit… shy of a full quotient of IQ points, I guess? He has a mental illness that can cause him to begin laughing uncontrollably during moments of intense stress. And he also has a habit of daydreaming and not always knowing the difference between those daydreams and reality. In all, he’s portrayed as someone childlike and well intentioned who has been dealt a poor hand in life. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who wants to see it but hasn’t.

Honestly, I found the first part of this movie kind of boring. It’s all very artsy and atmospheric, but it took a while for anything interesting to happen (in my opinion). Once things did get rolling, though, I mostly enjoyed it.

I will say I find it crazy annoying that every movie even tangentially related to Batman has to do the killing-Bruce’s-parents thing, though. We all know the story, we’ve seen it hundreds of times, and in this movie it just wasn’t necessary at all. It added nothing, nor did it give the Waynes’ deaths any new twist. So boo to that.

Anyway, I’m sure Phoenix will win the Academy Award because, hey, a movie that kinda sorta talks about how the system fails those with mental illness, plus a lead who not only lost lots of weight for the role but also plays someone mentally ill? That’s a done deal, isn’t it? Look, I know I sound snarky, and I kind of am. I haven’t seen all the contenders, so I can’t really say if Phoenix deserves to win. But I know what the Academy tends to like. This role ticks a lot of their boxes, and Phoenix does well in it.

Overall, I’m glad I saw it, if only to see what all the hype has been about. The movie is lovely to look at and interesting, but it reminds me of a glossy magazine ad for cologne or something. Artsy but a bit opaque in what it’s really trying to get at. Which is funny since at the same time I felt a bit beat over the head by the underlying social commentary. Well, those ads often have a pungent sample in them, too, don’t they? This isn’t to say Joker is a bad movie or has no merit or whatever. But for me there was a lot more style to it than substance.

Books: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Here’s another one that I didn’t realize was part of a series until I read some of the other reviews after the fact. It seems like, though, that the main female character in this book was a minor character in a previous book, so maybe I didn’t miss anything too important.

First, the pros of the prose, so to speak: I like stories where a middle-age woman gets to have a romance. And I’m a sucker for a whirlwind foreign romance, too.

That’s about all I can say that I enjoyed about this book.

The tale in a nutshell (no spoilers): 54-year-old Vivian goes to England over the Christmas holiday with her daughter who has been tapped to help dress an unnamed Duchess. This means they’re staying on the Sandringham estate, in the Duke and Duchess’ “cottage,” no less. Well, okay, I guess I can relax my sense of reality in the name of wish fulfillment. But I won’t say it was easy.

Anyway, Vivian meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. And they hit it off. And… that’s really the whole story, more or less. There are contrived conflicts, but they never last more than a couple pages because both Vivian and Malcolm are incredibly reasonable people. So there’s no real tension, just a sense of meandering as Malcolm introduces Vivian to first Sandringham and then London. And then they must negotiate their long-distance relationship, and that’s pretty much it.

What I saw in many reviews was that this book was boring, and I’d mostly agree. It’s cute, but it’s far from compelling. Neither Vivian nor Malcolm are a commanding presence on the page. The reader alternates between their POVs, but most of what we’re privy to is repetitive and fairly uninteresting. In fact, the big drawback here is that there is so much telling in this story and so very little showing. We’re told over and over again how attracted each of these characters is to the other, but I never really felt that at all. I was just supposed to believe it because they said so.

Also, a lot of these characters sounded alike. You would think a woman from Oakland, California would sound pretty distinctly different from a man serving in the Queen’s household, but… apparently not! Everyone in this book says or thinks “wow” constantly. And on one page I read “Thank God” no fewer than three times in as many paragraphs. Enough to draw my attention, anyway. Was this book rushed to print? Did it get an edit at all? Did they talk to anyone from England? “Wow” is not something I’ve heard a lot while there (and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in London).

Pffftt. I dunno. This one just didn’t work for me. I so wanted to like it, and from what I’ve heard maybe her other books are better? Or maybe her writing style just isn’t something I can jive with. ::shrug::

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.

Author M Pepper Langlinais