Books

I have to admit, I’m still trying to wrap my head about the scandal that gripped the self-publishing community regarding erotic e-books in the past few weeks.  I’ve been digging around, and this is what I’ve been able to find:

Sometimes I have no problem writing a review, because I have very strong feelings about a book one way or another—either love it or hate it.  But when I don’t have strong feelings about a book in either direction, writing a review becomes much more difficult.  Such is the case with Redemption by C. J. Barry.

As part of Fright Week and this group discussion of the works of horror master Stephen King, Big Ross discusses his love for the short story 1408.

Tony Lazlo here. I met Andi Cumbo-Floyd through Twitter, where she holds weekly discussion with other writers. She's one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I've interacted with, and her writing reflects that. Besides her ongoing pursuit of creative nonfiction, Andi is also a teacher and editor. She recently launched a new online community for writers, and she maintains an artistic commune of sorts on her 10-acre farm in Virginia. I'm proud to feature her here on CC2K.

Monday, 30 September 2013 01:00

Books Calling for Adaptation

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Last week, I wrote about the television adaptation of the Outlander book series, and about my concerns that certain elements of the book series might not translate well into television (and inadvertently infuriated a lot of Diana Gabaldon fans when I did).  But I stand by what I said: some books simply don’t translate well to television or movie format (e.g. The Time Traveler’s Wife’s non-linear narrative would have been very hard to pull off on-screen even with the most brilliant writers and directors in Hollywood).  Other books actually translate much, much better than you would expect.  (John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, which worked onscreen namely because Irving, who also wrote the script, was willing to make the necessary changes to the story to ensure it worked—primarily, shortening the time frame so that baby-faced Tobey Maguire didn’t have to age 20 years.)

But some books just beg for an adaptation.  Certain books/series just have that something that you know they will, in capable hands, adapt well for either the big or small screen.  So today, I’m going to talk about a few that I think would.

Starz recently announced that one of its new series, set to debut in spring 2014, would be an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  The first book follows Claire Randall, an English woman who travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.  She finds herself forced to marry to a young man named Jamie Fraser, but as she gets to know the Highland warrior their bond grows, and Claire must choose between her life—and her husband—in 1945 and the man she’s grown to love in 1743.  Irish actress Caitriona Balfe has been cast as Claire, with Scottish actor Sam Heughan playing Jamie Fraser.

I’m writing this as a book article, but it really applies to all entertainment/storytelling mediums. Yesterday I watched the movie Bachelorette, starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan. It centers around three young woman who find out that one of their high school best friends (Rebel Wilson) is getting married. Rather than being happy for their friend, the three friends are aghast that their heavyset friend is getting married before any of them are. With its dark, sardonic humor, it’s clear that Bachelorette was going for the same demographic as 2011’s Bridesmaids. Yet the movie made barely a ripple, and a year after its release, it’s already been relegated to the $2.99 and under section in the video-on-demand library.

So it got me thinking about something: are likeable characters required in order for stories to succeed? Certainly, there’s ample evidence to the contrary: Humbert Humbert, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter. But all three of these characters have something in common: they’re men. Where are our unlikeable female characters in fiction?

I have to admit: I’m a little biased. As a reader and viewer, I much prefer characters that are at least somewhat sympathetic, if not always likeable. I didn’t really dig Bachelorette because the main characters were just completely lacking in redeeming qualities. Yet even with the selfish “heroines” of Bachelorette, they’ve given an overly sentimental final act that seems to say, “See, they aren’t so bad after all,” as if the filmmakers feared what would happen if they let them persist in their completely selfish, unrepentant state. The other (albeit limited) examples of unlikeable heroines I can think of—Bad Teacher, Young Adults—follow the same trajectory.

Meanwhile, Humbert, Bateman, and Lecter get to start out as horrible people in their fictional spaces (much MORE horrible than any of the female heroines, since they’re killers and pedophiles) and stay horrible throughout. There’s no redemption for them, and no one asks for it.

We seem to judge female characters by different standards than male ones. Or is it just that we don’t like those uncomfortable in-between spaces when it comes to women? I’m a big fan of "Game of Thrones," and one of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard, of both the television series and the books, is that Catelyn Stark is not a likeable character. But what did Catelyn do? Reject Jon Snow because she couldn’t forgive her husband’s infidelity? Release Jaime Lannister and risk compromising her son’s war in order to get her daughters back? Meanwhile, Cersei Lannister is the more overtly “bad” character, in her continued scheming and covering the misdeeds of her psychopathic son. But it’s Catelyn Stark who gets singled out as unlikeable.

Unlikeable or unsympathetic characters may not be my thing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think female characters should be given the same breadth of possibilities as male characters.

A Missing Peace by Beth Fred is a YA romance that starts out on a very She’s All That trajectory: popular guy Caleb makes a bet that he can get the new girl, Iraqi war refugee Mirriam to go to the prom with him.  But the story really excels when it focuses on the cultural dynamics of Mirriam and Caleb’s relationship and of Mirriam’s life in Killeen, as well as the revelation of a shared history that connect Mirriam and Caleb.

 

I just finished reading a (very!) dark romance titled The Tied Man by Tabitha McGowan, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  Let me just start here: in my non-CC2K life, I write fiction, and my stories tend to land on the dark side of the spectrum more often than not.  Violence and gore are common, and I may be known for starting pieces with a dead body or two.  This has earned me more than a few weird looks from friends, family, and even members of my writing group.

I can’t even imagine the kinds of looks Tabitha McGowan gets.


The book description, courtesy of Amazon:

Lilith Bresson, an independent, successful young artist, is forced to travel from her home in Spain to the wild borderlands of northern England, to repay her feckless father’s latest debt by painting a portrait of the enigmatic Lady Blaine Albermarle.

On her first night at Albermarle Hall she meets Finn Strachan, Blaine’s ‘companion’, a cultured and hauntingly beautiful young man who seems to have it all. But Lilith has an artist’s eye, and a gift for seeing what lies beneath the skin. She soon discovers that Blaine is more gaoler than lover, and if the price is right, depravity has no limits.

As the weeks pass, Lilith finds that she too is drawn into the malign web that her patron has spun, yet against the odds she forges a strong friendship with the damaged, dysfunctional Finn. In a dark, modern twist to an age-old story, Lilith Bresson proves that sometimes it’s the princess who needs to become the rescuer.

Please note that this storyline contains depictions of drug abuse, violence and non-consensual sex.


(For the record, the description is really, really not kidding about the last part.)

The book is being categorized by Amazon as a romance, although I’m not sure that’s the appropriate designation.  The romance between Lilith and Finn is certainly an integral part of the story, but to me it feels more like psychological thriller or horror.  Most of the romance readers I know are looking for something escapist.  This is definitely not it.  It feels like Nora Ephron and Chuck Palahniuk got together and had a love child.  But for me, someone who revels in the darkness, this was not a bad thing.  The story is well outside the normal boundaries of romance, but that made it more engaging.

The book is compulsively readable.  From the time I started until the time I finished, I couldn’t put the book down.  The characterizations, especially of Finn and Lilith, are great.  McGowan avoids falling into the trap of making Lilith into an angel devoid of personality whose only role is to save Finn, a common trap romance writers often fall into.  Lilith is short-tempered, sometimes thoughtless, and has a troubled past of her own.  She’s also just as trapped at Albermarle Hall as its other “employees.”

And Finn…what can I say about Finn?  Years of continual abuse have taken him out of the normal “damaged hero” realm to another level altogether.  Finn holds himself together (barely) with a steady stream of drugs and alcohol, and even that’s not enough to stop him from frequently lashing out at the few people who care about him.  A few times in the story, Blaine—a villainess with a kind of unredeemable evilness that seems straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale—tells Lilith that Finn is not damaged, but broken, that there is nothing left of him to save.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether she was right.  Still, Finn is a sympathetic and likeable character, especially as the affection between him and Lilith grows.

The book seems to run counter to the current trend of BDSM-themed romances, in that all such encounters portrayed in the book are both purposefully violent and definitely non-consensual.  I didn’t take this as necessarily a condemnation of the BDSM culture: Finn’s participation is forced, and in BDSM-themed romances, it’s very clear that both parties enjoy the exchanges.  But some people might read it that way, so it’s something to be aware of going in.

I did have a few minor issues with the book.  McGowan has this tendency to write long stretches of uninterrupted conversation, which sometimes caused me to lose track of who was speaking or even whose point-of-view we were in.  (The story alternates between Lilith and Finn’s first-person narration.)  This is a pet peeve of mine, writing-wise, and McGowan does it quite a bit.

I also had difficulty suspending my disbelief at times.  Although it is explained and portrayed very consistently in the story, I had trouble buying that Blaine was able to psychologically manipulate so many people into doing her bidding, and that she was able to find so many “guests” not only capable of the kind of sadism shown in the story, but who get off on it.  Lilith seems to be the first person to object to Finn’s treatment.  In a less compelling novel, this might have been a bigger issue.  But I was so wrapped up in finding out what happens to Lilith and Finn, so engaged with and attached to their characters, that I barely noticed while I was reading.

The last time I felt so messed up by a book was when I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  The Tied Man has a more optimistic ending than that one, but it still felt like the book was…unfinished somehow.  It’s not a cliffhanger, and the plot came to a natural conclusion.  But there are so many things left unresolved at the end of the book that I couldn’t help but feel like Lilith and Finn’s story wasn’t finished yet.  So I was very pleased to learn that McGowan is working on a sequel, titled Unbound.  I can’t wait to read it.

This book is not for people who prefer their romances to be all sunshine and lollipops.  But if you are the kind of person who likes darkness before the light, or someone who really wants characters to earn their happy endings, this might be one to try.

Magic Rises, the sixth book in Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels series, is coming out tomorrow (July 30).  This series is, and continues to be, one of my favorite urban fantasy series.

Kate Daniels starts the series as an underachieving mercenary and loner, hiding her identity from…well, everyone.  She’s got a big target on her back, and if word gets out who and what she really is, she’s dead.  But when her guardian is killed in the first book, she makes a choice to search for his killer, risking exposure at every step.  Throughout the series, that’s the choice Kate makes: allow herself closer to people and the world and risk her life, or protect herself and live in isolation.

The series has some of the most kick-ass worldbuilding I’ve ever seen.  Kate lives in a future Atlanta where magic and technology battle for dominance.  The backstory is that magic dominated during ancient times, until technology tipped the scales.  Within the last 25 years, though, magic has tipped the scales again, causing creatures once thought imaginary to re-emerge.  Magic destroys anything technological, so you have cars dying, lights going out, and skyscrapers falling from the sky.  Andrews (the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team) borrows liberally from the mythology of different eras and cultures.  Nothing is off limits.  The idea behind the series is that what was once real is now real again.

There is a romantic subplot in this series, between Kate and the shapeshifter alpha, Curran.  One of the things that I like about it is that it’s more realistic than a lot of fictional relationships.  The push-and-pull dynamic between them continues for several books.  Though there is always attraction and lust between them, they don’t always like each other very much.  Curran is extremely dominant and used to being in control all the time.  Kate’s a loner who doesn’t trust anyone.  These problems don’t resolve immediately, or easily.

But I think my favorite part of the series is the evolution of Kate herself.  I have to admit, the first book didn’t immediately grab me.  Kate is such a loner, and it seems like she doesn’t care about anyone or anything.  It took a while to really get into Kate’s head to see why she is the way she is.  But throughout the series, she begins to form greater, deeper attachments to the people around her—something that isn’t easy for her.  As her investment in other people grows, the stakes become higher.  Kate cares about these characters, but we care about them, too.  Kate matures a lot through the series, and seeing this is one of the biggest payoffs of following the series.

One of my pet peeves about long-running series is…well, that they never seem to stop running, and they never seem to be going anywhere.  The Kate Daniels series, on the other hand, does have an overarching plot arc.  Each book stands alone, but the series is driving toward an endpoint—and fast.  With only a few more books remaining in the series, it’s a good time to catch up from book one.

Start the series off with Magic Bites, followed by Magic Burns, Magic Strikes, Magic Bleeds, Magic Slays, and Magic Rises.  There is a side novel, Gunmetal Magic, that takes place in the same world and follows another character in the series, but you don’t need to read it to follow series continuity.  However, if you do, read it between Magic Slays and Magic Rises.

These books are perfect if you’re looking for a summer beach read.