Posted in 1940s, Books, Books I dislike

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Posted in Books, Books I dislike, Historical fiction

How not to write a parody

Egads, what an absolutely terrible book! Little wonder Ms. Randall was sued for copyright infringement. As a result of that settled lawsuit, all copies now have to bear a label marking it as unauthorised parody. Publishing house Houghton Mifflin also had to make a contribution to Morehouse College, a historically Black college supported by Margaret Mitchell’s estate.

I love the idea of GWTW from the slaves’ POV. In fact, Ms. Mitchell’s estate did too, seeing as they gave Donald McCaig permission to write Ruth’s Journey about Mammy. But Ms. Randall’s book falls flat for so many reasons, not just because she wrote it without permission.

And why might that be?

1. Way too short! While GWTW is over 1,000 pages, TWDG is all of 208 pages, slightly under 6×9, and with rather wide margins on all sides. Unless a story is set over a very short timeframe, hist-fic is not a genre that lends itself well to brevity. That leads to underdeveloped, shallow, rushed stories.

2. Too much rambling on the way to getting to an actual plot.

3. Diary format is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work here. While I love epistolary novels, this wasn’t a story crying out for such a style. It doesn’t even read like a real diary!

4. Impossible to make heads or tails of anything unless you’ve read GWTW. Characters are dumped on the page with the presumption the reader knows who they are. There’s a huge happy medium between the infamous Chapter Two of The Babysitters’ Club and dumping characters on the page with no context!

5. Speaking of, everyone but Mammy has a stupid alternative name. E.g., Scarlett is Other, Ashley is Dreamy Gentleman, Pork is Garlic, Mr. O’Hara is Planter, Belle is Beauty, Melanie is Mealy Mouth, Rhett is R, Mrs. O’Hara is Lady. Even the plantations have new names. Tara is Cotton Farm and Tata; Twelve Oaks is Twelve Slaves Strong as Trees.

6. Radically changing established characters. Ashley is gay and had an affair with Prissy’s brother (whom Melanie had whipped to death); Mammy and Prissy are murderers; Belle is a lesbian; the O’Haras had a loveless marriage; Pork is a criminal mastermind and murderer; Rhett is absolutely nothing like his alpha male self and has a breastfeeding fetish.

7. Killing off both Mammy and Scarlett. Yeah, those are convenient plot developments! As awful as when Mammy was killed off very early in Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.

8. Awful, juvenile, embarrassing prose. The sex scenes were also very cringey.

9. A lot of inconsistency in language. Either your narrator speaks vernacular or proper English. She can’t do both at once.

10. Inconsistency in tense. I feel very strongly writers need a LOT of practice writing the classic default of past tense before trying present. It’s very hard to pull off well if you don’t know what you’re doing and haven’t a feel for whether it’s a natural fit for a particular story.

11. Cynara has no personality. She blandly recounts events in a very stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear style. Third-person is the default POV for a reason, particularly with a large ensemble cast. Not nearly as many stories need to be in first-person as their authors believe.

12. Way too much telling! I can’t be emotionally pulled into a story that’s little more than “This happened. Then that happened. Name said this. Name did that. This happened twenty years ago.” Give us active scenes, not dull summaries of events!

13. Chapters are so short and underdeveloped! This ain’t the kind of story where fragments work well.

14. Cynara is a total Mary Sue. Enough said.

Again, I love the idea of a GWTW spinoff told from the slaves’ POV, esp. with the twist of the protagonist being Scarlett’s secret halfsister. However, this story would’ve been so much better if it were told concurrently to GWTW, not after the fact. I also would’ve preferred Cynara to have her own character arc, not just be a Black version of Scarlett, right down to having an affair with Rhett since age fifteen.

A good retelling, parody, fanfiction, or spinoff should put the author’s unique spin on that world, not radically alter established characters. TWDG does absolutely none of that. This is pure garbage, little more than a poorly-written, huge middle finger to fans of the original novel. All the characters come across as terrible people, and the paper-thin plot is unrealistic soap opera-esque garbage.

I recommend avoiding this steaming pile of disjointed garbage.

Posted in Books, Books I dislike

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Posted in Books, Books I dislike, Historical fiction, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

How not to write Russian hist-fic, Part II

Egads, there are so many historical inaccuracies in this book, I had to write a second post to cover everything! I felt like I were reading a book by a 13-year-old given carte blanche to spew out whatever flowed into her mind, with no editor or historical fact-checker. It’s like a kid who reads too much and understands too little, can’t research properly, and half-understands and misunderstands what she actually does read.

What else was wrong with this book?

28. No one likes infodumpy dialogue! It’s even worse when it contains the actual words “As you know.”

29. I kind of doubt a 15-year-old in 1917, let alone one from the highest reaches of society and extremely sheltered even by the standards of that era, would’ve known or used the word “penis.”

30. Speaking of, there appears to be zero truth to the oft-repeated urban legend about Rasputin’s member being cut off and preserved.

31. Even if thugs did draw an obscene cartoon of Rasputin sodomising Aleksandra on the garden wall, would any of the children have known what it represented? Given how completely sheltered they were, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn even the oldest had no idea what sex is.

32. I get the impression Ms. Lawhon just paraphrased certain passages from the websites and books she used, like writing a history paper.

33. This is the first I’ve ever heard of Anna Anderson meeting Ingrid Bergman or Hitler!

34. I might be mistaken, but 1958 seems kind of early for someone to use the word “mantra” in a non-religious sense.

35. Did Dr. Botkin really explain an orgy to his son Gleb? Since Ms. Lawhon aged him down five years, he’s only eleven in 1917. I can’t imagine any high-society parent of that era broaching such a subject with a child of that age, or using the modern term “having sex”!

36. Not nearly enough commas. Are writers allergic to them these days?

37. Overuse of “that.” That’s (no pun intended) one of the first things writers are taught about reducing wordcount!

38. Anna Anderson’s passionate advocate at Le Figaro was named Dominique Auclères, NOT Aucléres. Ms. Lawhon couldn’t even get the accent mark correct!

39. At one point, she leaves off the first accent in Champs-Élysées.

40. Was she taking her direction in Kerenskiy’s portrayal from the blatantly biased historical revisionism in Eisenstein’s October? He comes off like a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, evil criminal mastermind with nothing but contempt for the Romanovs!

41. Aleksey was not a toddler during the 1913 Tercentenary. He was eight years old. Oh, and he wasn’t walking at that celebration either, owing to still not being fully recovered from his serious injury at Spała, Poland the year before. Photos and film footage show him being carried.

42. Imperial and royal titles are capitalised when referring to an actual person and thus standing in for a proper name. E.g., the Dowager Empress, the Tsar, the Empress. For that matter, Imperial Family is also capitalised, and Russia’s ruling family was not a royal family.

43. Aleksey’s title was Tsesarevich. Tsarevich merely referred to any son of a Tsar, not the heir. And the spelling Tsarevitch? Did she take her transliteration hints from Constance Garnett? That’s how outdated that style is! I only did that when I didn’t know any better.

44. By age twelve, Aleksey was no longer an out of control spoilt brat with a huge sense of entitlement. When he found out his father had abdicated and there wouldn’t be a Tsar anymore, he showed no concern for the loss of his position as heir. He cared more about how that would affect the empire as a whole, and his family’s personal future. Oh, and the news was broken by tutor Pierre Gilliard, NOT Nicholas.

45. Tsarevna hasn’t been used as a title since the 18th century! The last women to bear it were the five daughters of Tsar Ivan V. From 1708 on, the daughters of a Tsar were called Velikaya Knyazhna (Grand Princess, mistranslated as Grand Duchess).

46. Aleksandra’s birth name was Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice, not Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice.

I get the impression Ms. Lawhon just skimmed the books she references, pulling out the flashiest and most riveting bits and leaving everything else ignored or unread. Not a one of these errors would’ve been made by anyone who’s done serious, meaningful, deep research on these subjects. Her ignorance of Russian history is painfully obvious, though she claims her research inspired her to study it at university.

If you can’t get the seemingly smallest details right, why should anyone have faith you got the deeper ones correct? When a book rife with historical inaccuracies gets popular, people with no prior familiarity with the subject innocently believe this misinformation and in turn pass it along. It then becomes much harder to rebut said inaccuracies.

Posted in Books, Books I dislike, Historical fiction, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

How not to write Russian hist-fic, Part I

Like clockwork, I’ve yet again been disappointed by a recently-published popular historical novel. This time, it’s weak writing, gimmicky structure, reams of inaccuracies, and the author’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her dislike of her characters.

No one forced her to write this book. If she truly wished, a thousand times over, she’d been writing about the history of barbed wire instead, she had no business writing this! Write something you’re truly passionate about, and don’t use your Author’s Note to insult people who are truly enamoured of your subject matter.

What was wrong with this one?

1. The world does not need yet another book about Anastasiya. If not for Franziska Schanzkowska’s decades-long pretending act, she probably would’ve remained the least-known of Nicholas II’s children.

2. Backwards narration is very difficult to pull off well. I get why she moved FS backwards while moving Anastasiya forwards, but this wasn’t executed well.

3. Since everyone but delusional Anastasians knows Anna Anderson was indeed FS and not Anastasiya, there’s no real mystery. We know who she’ll be revealed as, and that Anastasiya didn’t survive.

4. Lots of confused homophones! “Heals” vs. “heels,” “peeked” vs. “peaked,” “wretched” vs. “retched,” “peeling” vs. “pealing.” And “publically” and “chuggs” are straight-up misspellings. Do big publishing houses no longer employ editors, or do their editors just give books a surface once-over?

5. On the FIRST PAGE of the 1917 story, she misidentifies Aleksey’s famous spaniel Joy as a female! Every single book on the Romanovs is quite clear Joy was MALE! Yes, Joy is typically a female name, but the dog was male!

6. Tatyana’s dog was named Ortipo, NOT Ortimo!

7. Anastasiya’s dog Jemmy (here called Jimmy) was a lapdog, NOT a giant Husky! The author decided to completely change his breed so he could escape, and because she has a huge black dog herself. Guess what, Aleksey’s dog Joy really did survive! Why not incorporate that detail into your story!

8. None of the Imperial Family’s dogs were thrown out of train windows.

9. Gleb Botkin is aged down by five years.

10. Tutors Pierre Gilliard and Sydney Gibbes are combined into one person. I hate composite characters!

11. Lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova is given the nickname Dova “because another Anna would have been too confusing.” Her real nickname was Nyuta. Guess what, lots of people in this era had the same small pool of traditional names, and somehow they were able to distinguish between all the Marys, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths, Williams, and Roberts!

12. The characterisations completely contradict the established personalities shining through in their letters, journals, and other documents.

13. Grand Duchesses Kseniya (Xenia) and Olga were the Tsar’s younger sisters, not older.

14. By 1917, Aleksey was hardly weak and frail. His physical health had improved marvellously, and he was almost as tall as his 5’7 dad.

15. Aleksey never walked again after he fell getting into bed the first night in Yekaterinburg.

16. She combines three Yakovs into the vile Yakov Yurovskiy “because I had no way of differentiating between so many Yakovs, and only room for one besides.” They have different surnames, you fool!

17. She gives Yevgeniy Koblinskiy the nickname Leshy because she’s convinced his surname is too similar to Aleksandr Kerenskiy’s. “I find these Russian names sound all the same. It’s damnably confusing to me[,] so I thought to spare the reader as best I could.” WTF! Just because YOU find Russian names confusing doesn’t mean everyone shares your Anglocentric views!

18. Tomas is not a Russian name. The Russian form of Thomas is Foma.

19. Perpetuating the almost certainly untrue story about the Grand Duchesses being raped on their way to Yekaterinburg. Ms. Lawhon changes it up by having it happen on the train, not the Rus steamer. She also falsely puts Aleksey and Anastasiya in the same cabin, and has Aleksey going back to sleep after the screams start.

20. Mariya sleeps with a Yekaterinburg guard. WHAT!

21. Russian and Polish surnames differ by sex. A woman is Romanova, not Romanov. A man is Schanzkowski, not Schanzkowska.

22. Nicholas and Aleksandra’s children called them Papa and Mama, not Father and Mother!

23. The term “gulag” did not exist in 1917. It’s an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey (Chief/State Administration of Corrective Labour Camps). This system was officially founded in 1930, though Soviet labour camps in Siberia began in 1919.

24. Where are all the other servants who accompanied the Romanovs into exile?

25. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Eve on 6 January, not 24 December.

26. Ms. Lawhon’s negative attitudes towards royals shows through loud and clear. She’s perfectly entitled to those attitudes, but if she feels that strongly, there’s no point in writing about them!

27. The Tsar’s wife was called Empress and Tsaritsa. Tsarina is an inaccurate English word that doesn’t exist in Russian.

To be continued.