Thoughts On: Character Looks

“Thoughts On” is a feature where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale last year, partly because the adaptation was coming out and partly because why hadn’t I already read it? The tricky thing about reading a book after you’ve seen promotional materials, though, is that it’s really hard to imagine the characters as anything other than the actors.

Aside from the illustration on the cover, we get no visual clues as to what Gilead or our characters look like—but I’m a visual learner, y’all! Unless a physical characteristic is explicitly mentioned, I imagine kind of like a blurry outline. But when it is? I’m often thrown out of the story. Regardless of whether Elisabeth Moss was how I imagined Offred to look, she’s close enough that thinking of her face when reading didn’t take me out of the story.

Which is where the graphic novel adaption comes in. I loved the book and also really love the TV show. I was excited to experience Atwood’s story in another format—until I paged through the book. I understand that Renée Nault was going for a morose dystopic vibe, but the way she drew the characters is so far from how I now see them that I can’t even pick it up.

The Commander

I won’t say that Joseph Fiennes was my first choice to play The Commander—he’s a little short and definitely less imposing than what I imagined—but he oozes a smarminess that has made me swear at the screen. Nault’s Commander is so old-looking and physically over-bearing that it makes everything he does in retrospect so much grosser.

Aunt Lydia

Eek! I know that Aunt Lydia is a literal monster, but Ann Dowd’s mannerisms and vocal inflections completely sell the character that I don’t need her to also look the part. (Dowd looking like someone’s beloved mother or grandmother over Nault’s Red Skull really highlights how evil Aunt Lydia is.)

Serena Joy

There’s really no way to make Yvonne Strahovski as ugly looking as her fictional counterpart—Nault’s Serena Joy really makes physical her emotional decay—but there’s just something about Strahovski’s acting (as well as a beautiful person being unallowed to play up her looks) that I really love. The show has attempted to make us sympathize with her, and I don’t think that’s possible with Serena Joy looking so gaunt.

Moira

I wanted to highlight Samira Wiley’s casting as Moira as one of the few times where I became disappointed in the book after I’d read it. There are times when an adaptation can improve on the original!

So tell me, friends:

  • Are you a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale casting? Or did the actors butt up against how you envisioned the characters?
  • Are there any movies or TV shows that completely nailed who you think of when you read the book?
  • Are there any that completely fail? (One of the reasons why I couldn’t watch The Passage was because all I saw was Zack Morris with a beard!)

Thoughts On: Backlist vs. Frontlist

“Thoughts On” is a feature where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

back·list /ˈbakˌlist/ noun
a publisher’s list of older books still in print, as opposed to titles newly available (known as the frontlist)

When I first started blogging, I almost exclusively read and reviewed backlist books (even if I didn’t know that’s what I was doing). I’m a very conservative book buyer, so everything I read had to be inexpensive or else accessible through my library. It’s not that I didn’t want to read what has new and much-hyped, it’s that an older book selling for 80% off was much more attractive than a new one selling for 20%, and a book I could borrow right now was better than one for which I had to wait weeks or even months.

Even though reviewing backlist books can make a review memorable––when everyone is off chatting about one thing, it’s really difficult to stand out!––it can also mean that I’m often shouting into the void. People may or may not have read the book in question (or even recognize it), or they’re just not in the mood to read a review for a book that’s five years old.

So that’s where frontlist books come in!

Haven’t read a particular book yet? It doesn’t matter! You’ve probably seen it talked about so much online that you understand the story enough to appreciate the review. Or multiple people in your corner of the internet have all read a new title and so it’s easy to get multiple takes on the same story. Being a part of NetGalley and Edelweiss makes it much easier to get copies of books before they’re published––upping the chance that I’ll actually get to read a title while the hype is strong––but reading ARCs often stresses me out. Having to read a particular book by a particular date just makes me want to do anything but.

I’m not really sure that ever I’ll come up with or come across a strong argument for either side. I quite enjoy discovering older titles, reading them at my leisure and then scouring the internet for reviews. It means that I’m less likely to have expectations––either positive or negative. But there’s also nothing quite like reading a story along with basically your entire Twitter feed and collectively freaking out at the same time. (This is one of the reasons why I live-tweet Game of Thrones!) I think I’m happiest when I can balance frontlist titles with a couple of backlist ones, mood-reading to my heart’s content; the variety keeps me sane! After the next four weeks of ARC reviews, it will be nice to get back into some sort of happy rhythm.

Tell me friends!

  • Do you have a first-class ticket on the Hype Train or do you let a book stew for months (or even years!) before you read it?
  • As a blogger, how do you balance backlist titles with frontlist titles?
  • As a reader, do you prefer reading multiple takes on the same book or do you like finding an outlier?

Thoughts On: Reviewing Books

“Thoughts On” is a feature where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to review more books, but I’m still having trouble defining exactly what a “good” review means. Is it written immediately after I finish, full of typos and gifs because I can’t even? Is it long and beautifully formatted with fantastic tags? (Hey, Shealea!) Or maybe just something in between? I don’t dislike reading short reviews, nor do I particularly avoid writing them, but I seem to subconsciously aim for something longer than the book’s summary. (Perhaps to avoid the post looking lopsided? Idk.) But then the longer word count means I have to write more, which means I feel like what I do write has to be “good.”

I read about 40 books a year while posting about 36 reviews–so every book I do read has to “count.” But I also like to vary the format I review (featuring a nonfiction book in between two fiction) and also avoid reviewing sequels (what if they haven’t read the previous books??). So this further narrows the potential books I can review, and if I take longer than a week to finish something, I don’t have anything to post. So then I comb through Goodreads for something I haven’t featured here… but if I only added a review to GR, that probably means I thought it was too short to be considered as a “blog review,” so then I spend more time beefing up the review so that it feels long enough. (But why did I make these rules? 🤷‍♀️)

I constantly feel overwhelmed trying to read enough “appropriate” books to garner enough content, but I also feel like if I don’t post, I’ve somehow failed. I used to switch up the books I read, alternating between a fiction book and a nonfiction one in the hopes that the change in format would give me more time to write out a review, but it’s really hard to do that now when all I want to read is fiction. (Y’all, new books are so enticing.) I then tried to wait myself out, not starting a new book until I wrote a coherent review of the one I’d just finished, but I would continually drag my feet on writing and lose precious reading time in the interim. I scribble down notes now, comprised of keywords I hope will spark a memory later on, but these aren’t always helpful because it’s easy for them to lose context… or I just don’t find anything in the text on which to comment. (But somehow I still lag on writing reviews??? UGH.)

Then, on top of everything, I’m also, like, super negative sometimes and hate shitting all over a book–but what if I really didn’t like it? A negative review still counts as a review (and thus a post), but, as a consumer, I don’t like reading something that amounts to “this sucked” without a why attached. So I try to articulate the reason so that someone else can make their own informed decision about whether they want to read the book. (I mean, my annoyance may be their go-to.) But all of that work takes time, and what if in the end I’m still just being mean?

So… what? Is a review good because I wrote it? Because I think it’s good? Because someone else does? I honestly don’t know. Every thumbs-up on Goodreads or like or comment here reassures me that I’m doing something right, but I also have to remind myself that this blog is a hobby and if deadlines and word counts don’t help, it’s okay to ditch them.

So tell me…

  • Do you struggle against your own preconceived notions on what to post and when? What makes a review “good” over “good enough”?
  • Do you prefer to write a lot of little reviews or an info dump? Does this change when you’re the one reading reviews?
  • Is there a difference between a “blog review” and one on Goodreads? What about Twitter or Instagram?

Thoughts On: Revisiting a Book Ten Years Later

“Thoughts On” is a feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

thepenaltybox

When I was a sophomore in high school, I discovered romance novels. (As you do.) Most of them came from a tiny corner of my town’s library, tucked into the paperback section and surrounded by mysteries and Harlequin-esque mass market paperbacks. I was a cover snob even at fifteen, and I was either so appalled by the aesthetics of about 80% of the collection or just couldn’t yet admit that I actually might like romance as a genre that I gravitated to only a couple of authors by the time I’d made it to senior year: Carly Phillips, author of the Hot Zone series (which was then not even a trilogy); Rachel Gibson and her Chinooks Hockey Team series (which was then only a trilogy); and Deirdre Martin, who’s novel The Penalty Box was the latest in her New York Blades series. (I know… I feel old thinking about the good old days of the early aughts.) What drew me to these books remains a mystery. The cover font? The minimal graphics? The tantalizing hint of grown-up relationships? And why this one specific book that I still remember reading more than a decade later?

The Penalty Box revolves around 28-year-old Katie, back in her small town to a) attend her ten-year high school reunion and b) help take care of her nephew while her sister’s in rehab. The conflict (and a memorable first scene with a little black dress) arises because Katie’s lost a lot of weight and wants to show up the girls who picked on her in high school – but also show off to her high school crush, who has had one too many concussions from playing hockey and now runs the townie bar called – you guessed it – The Penalty Box. Hijinks ensue.

What kills me about this book – and why I’m so focused on it now, in 2016 – is that I’m 28 and my ten-year high school reunion is just around the corner (like, literally this month). In high school, I was fat, a nerd, and had a serious crush on someone starting in the middle of my junior year. (Katie and I could be twins, y’all.) I always (ALWAYS) assumed that, if I didn’t attend my five-year reunion, I would at least show up at my tenth – thin and confident and ready to flirt with Crush and somehow, I don’t know, do something about my ten years of pining (#ugh)… but then two things happened in quick succession:

  1. I received Facebook notifications from my graduating class about our impending ten-year reunion (OMG I’M ALMOST THIRTY STAPH)
  2. I did a little bit of digging and found Crush’s Facebook profile and it is very clear that he’s dating someone and also very clear that staring into his digital face does nothing for me anymore (when did that happen??)

Somewhere along the way, I realized that thin does not always mean confident – nor does confident have to mean thin – but sitting in the back of my brain was The Penalty Box, one of the first novels I read that I felt might actually happen to me – the perfect end to a “what if?” a decade in the making. Expect that, in less than four weeks, it will no longer be my future. I don’t want to go to my high school reunion, nor, really, do I want to spend any more time thinking about what could have been – at fifteen or at 28.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to re-read The Penalty Box. Not yet, anyway. I’m not ready to revisit something that might not hold up to my own expectations. Nor, though, am I willing to say goodbye to that fifteen-year-old who saw her own future as something very, very bright.

Have your own thoughts on revisiting a book after a long absence? Let me know!

Thoughts On: Book Adaptations

“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

Done right, book adaptations are one of my favorite things to read. What’s not to love about revisiting favorite characters in a different setting, or with different life experiences, or even just at different ages? Although breathing life into original characters is hard work, tweaking well-loved fictional characters so that the source material’s fandom doesn’t come at you with torches and pitchforks is just as difficult. An author has to expand the established canon without destroying it, upsetting fans, or pushing the story that much outside of what’s expected that it’s no longer really an adaptation. (Hi, Fifty Shades of Grey.) Sherlock is one of my favorite shows and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is one of my favorite films – which is why I was actually quite excited about reading both A Study in Charlotte and Eligible.

Until I stopped reading Brittany Cavallaro’s YA novel 28% of the way through and reluctantly finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling and was like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. For both novels, there were too many annoyances that took me out of the story and straight into some variation of “why????” For instance, in only a couple of chapters of A Study in Charlotte, I already had a list of questions: Why does Jamie Watson suddenly have Hulk level anger fifteen pages into the story? (Because that anger needs to move the plot forward??) Why do Jamie and Charlotte call each other Watson and Sherlock at sixteen years old? (Because we need our main characters to??) Why did Cavallaro set her novel in a boarding school? Why sixteen and not eighteen? Why high school and not college??

And Eligible… #groan. Why did Sittenfeld change Charles to Chip but keep Fitzwilliam? Why does everyone call Bingley Chip but call Darcy Darcy? Why does William Collins still kiss Lizzy and propose marriage even though they’re step-cousins? (It’s still weird, okay, even if they’re technically not related.) Why does Charlotte move to California to live with Collins when they’re practically strangers? (Because Lizzy has to visit someone in order to meet-cute Darcy at Pemberley??) Why is Mrs. Bennet such a homophobic racist and Mr. Bennet such a stick in the mud about single parenthood? Why is Lydia’s marriage such a horrible awful thing???[1]

I don’t consider myself a capital-F fan of Sherlock Holmes, but I am one toward Pride and Prejudice. The push and pull relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is akin to a sacred text. Get it right (I’m looking at you, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and I’m in a fangirl puddle over what’s going to happen and are Lizzy and Darcy going to get together and how is everything going to work out??? But get that dance wrong? Change just enough details in the wrong way? Suddenly it’s an affront to all things good and pure.

I understand that both Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice are in the public domain and so authors can do with it what they will, but, to me, neither A Study in Charlotte nor Eligible succeeded as a “modern retelling” of nineteenth- and eighteenth-century novels, respectively. In some instances, Cavallaro and Sittenfeld took the overarching themes of Conan Doyle’s and Austen’s novels and reworked them to make sense in the twenty-teens… and then, in other instances, they simply rehashed plot points to fit within the narratives even when they didn’t make sense. (For example, why make Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson direct ancestors of Holmes and Watson? Why not just make these new iterations the only Holmes and Watson? We already know they’re supposed to be facsimiles. Why not have plot points come naturally to the characters instead of forcing the characters to work around pre-determined plot points?)

I gave up on A Study in Charlotte, but I did power through Eligible. With every Pride and Prejudice retelling, a familiar reader will basically know in what situation the Bennet sisters will find themselves by the end of the story. But I was wholly underwhelmed with Sittenfeld’s specifics, and my takeaway was: would I have kept giving her novel unlimited chances to get better if it wasn’t a Pride and Prejudice retelling? The answer, unfortunately, turned out to be no, no I wouldn’t have.

[1] SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Sittenfeld turns Wickham into Jasper Wick and makes him a total cad toward Lizzy only. The big blowup that spurs Darcy into white-knighting Lydia’s hush-hush marriage deals with her boyfriend Ham’s transgender status. My annoyance came not with Ham being transgender but with how many times Sittenfeld used the word in the span of two pages. After this “big reveal,” I just wanted the story to move forward. Like, I understand that Ham is trans… but, so what? He loves Lydia and she loves him. They are adults. They can legally get married. Why are you making such a big deal out of this????

Have your own thoughts on book adaptations? Let me know!

Thoughts On: Book Covers

“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is so widespread that it’s often used more as metaphor than literal advice. And yet… sometimes you just have to talk about when to (and when not to) judge a literal book by its literal cover. Sometimes the cover art (or lack thereof) makes or breaks your decision about whether a). you’re going to even pick up a book to b). decide if you want to read it. People can say what they will, but there is always going to be a part of us that uses a cover to quickly judge a book and then use that assumption to weed out stuff we don’t really have time to investigate.*

TheSecretHistoryOfWonderWomanFor example, I love the cover for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. The dust jacket is comprised primarily of red, yellow, and blue (primary colors, yo) with just a touch of white and black. The yellow background of the title makes it pop, and the red background surrounding Wonder Woman (framed by black) makes her pop as well. Then there’s the fact that 75% of the cover is simply just freaking Wonder Woman. As a result, the book gives off this super positive vibe of “I’m a well-crafted pop psychology book all about a female superhero. That that, patriarchy!” But then I started reading and couldn’t get past page 50. (#annoying) It doesn’t happen often, but I think that I was more disappointed in Lepore’s work because I was so into the cover. It felt like such a letdown to realize that I the text did not live up to the graphics.

BeforeAndAfterhc

BeforeAndAfterpbOn the flip side, however, is the hardcover version of Before and After by Rosellen Brown. When swap.com was still a book-swaping website, I chose to receive a copy of the novel because I liked the paperback cover (left). The grayscale color scheme makes the black title the first thing at which you look – meaning, it was the first, crucial step in getting me to hover over the image and read the book’s summary. But then I got the book in the mail, and my copy was a hardcover – horribly dated and hideous (right). The font not only shows the book’s age – 23! – but there’s also that purpley matte painting of a hunched-over figure at the rear of a boxy car at the side of the road. The image makes sense once you read the book – and again, I actually enjoyed the story – but I would have never picked up the book to even skim the summary – let alone cracked open the spine and sat down to read it – had the hardcover been my only option.

I understand that I’m partial to bright covers and sans-serif fonts and cringe at human faces over drawn artwork – and I’m working on it. (I swear.) But then sometimes I’ll catch myself relying solely on covers, like when I scroll through the First Reads page every Sunday or when I browse book reviews online; I even find myself doing it while reading book review journals (I order non-fiction for my library) because if I think a cover is ugly and I’m aware of that bias, what are people who aren’t aware of their bias going to think when they see it? (They’re probably not going to want to read it, that’s what).

Maybe I’m just a visual person, and I’ll always be that way so I should just try to accept it and move on. (And pretend all covers consist of a white background with Times New Roman font.) Or maybe I can admire good covers, shudder at bad covers, and then still read the damn summary if the reviews are good, or if I like the book’s read-alikes, or if someone whose opinion I trust recommends it. (Because, if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that sometimes covers lie.)

Anyway, because I like pictures, here are some more examples.

Good cover, good book

TheBookOfLostThingsTheMarriagePlotNotThatKindOfGirl

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly: This book is so pretty. I like how the vines are creeping into everything, and how the font moves with them, and how the yellow (-ish) vines are complementary to the blue background. (I also like the white; I like the white a lot.)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: Text, text, more text. (Can you sense a theme????) I am superbly partial to this script font (like, really partial) and the graphic (a ring, because marriage) is neither too much or too little.

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham: I love this cover. I love the font. I love the colors. I love the spacing. I love the sizing. (I love everything; give it to me.)

Good cover, bad book

On the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey: The prominent black text on a white background hits all my buttons – and I’m even okay with the overgrown hedge exploding through the words – but this book was whiny and Wilsey came off as shallow and self-absorbed.WhereThingsComeBackOhTheGloryOfItAll

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: I’m pretty sure I bought this book because of it’s cover, but Whaley’s narrator was boring and his story underwhelming. (I reviewed it here.) Which is really terribly sad because the cover is so, so pretty.

Bad cover, good book

ASeparatePeaceStillThinkingOfYouA Separate Peace by John Knowles: This cover looks tired and reminds me of 1950s mass market paperbacks (which – huzzah! – it is). I think I would like a less curly font and no teenaged boy looking depressed at life. (The artistic depiction of a tree is nice, though.)

Still Thinking of You by Adele Parks: These colors are blinding: neon purple with neon blue on top of maraschino cherry red with at least three different fonts. I’m pretty sure I could make something in Paint better than this.

Bad cover, bad book

BeginnersGreekBeginner’s Greek by James Collins: I was intrigued enough to not only pluck this book off the shelf but then to also purchase it – but it really does nothing for me. (And I didn’t like the novel, either.) The lens flare, the cover models who don’t match what I pictured, that stupid line of text running straight down the middle – just no.

*Something totally worth exploring is the publishing world’s bias to create gendered book covers, and how you may be subconsciously affected to avoid books because they’re written by a female. (Maureen Johnson did an awesome call-out of which you should all be aware.)

Have your own thoughts on book covers? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!

Thoughts On: Romance Novels

“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

Romance novels are just one genre among many – making romantic or sexual relationships the primary plot, motivator, or “problem” – but they’re almost universally scorned and used as the butt of jokes. Some arguments include the fact that they lack depth or plot development (really?), they’re “woman’s fiction” and thus sub-par (really?!), or they’re dirty (#ugh #stop). I’m not going to give space to these arguments, nor am I going to refute them, because, to me, “romance novels” are just another genre – a genre I read more a couple years ago but something which I also read now. Is it with the same frequency that I read science fiction or fantasy? Maybe not. Literary or general fiction? No. But they’re still there, popping up on my tbr list every couple of months.

And, like any other genre, romance novels span the spectrum of well-written to pulpy trash, chaste to borderline erotica, and plot-driven to plot-less. I don’t think that romance novels should be looked down on or scorned because they are romance novels: they should be criticized if the plot makes no sense, if they characters are half-formed, or if the author needed a good editor before he or she published – exactly like every other novel or genre out there. But, like I mentioned above, romance novels are a tough sell. They’re almost always put out as either paperbacks or mass-market (no nice hard covers for these babies). They have rather ridiculous cover illustrations advertising their main characters (and those characters’ relationship). The font is most likely scripted (or maybe even “girly” [wtf does that even mean???]). Being embarrassed about reading a romance novel is a hard bias to shake, mostly because people see that cover and just assume so much shit without either reading the book for which they’re making fun or even a romance novel in general (any romance novel).

And I think that’s totally unfair.

I spent the summer after I graduated college almost exclusively reading romance novels (basically anything Rachel Gibson or Deirdre Martin had published up to that point). I had a lot of free time on my hands, and it was nice to immerse myself in quick-reads that were vaguely connected. (I also realized that I really liked romance novels featuring hockey players.) As the summer ended and I ran out of books to read, I moved on. A couple of years later, I went back to these two authors after realizing that they had each published more books, but I couldn’t get into any kind of groove after my absence. I’d already figured out each novel’s plot – girl and guy meet (or re-meet), get together, have terrific sex, have a fight, break-up, get back together – before even getting past the first couple of chapters. It wasn’t that the books had changed; rather, I’d changed.

And maybe that’s the point – I had gorged myself on a genre and then couldn’t ingest any more (like my absolute love for peanut butter and banana sandwiches – which I still, to this day, cannot eat because I ate them everyday for about four months four years ago). Maybe what binds each “romance” novel together under this single genre-umbrella is simply it’s structure – just like all “science-fiction” novels include some sort of magic in the universe that’s explained by STEM fields while “fantasy” implies that magic is inherent or unexplainable. Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel but so are all these books GoodReads users have tagged romance. I think, in the end, we readers have to stop thinking that “romance” really means anything other than an expectation that the story will be predominately about romantic love. Ignore the sneers you get on public transit and indulge in your love of romance. Because, really, you’d have to be pretty cold to not at least enjoy a novel’s two protagonists getting together.

P.S. Jessica Tripler wrote a fantastic op-ed piece for Book Riot about her love of romance novels – “When Your Favorite People Hate Your Favorite Books” – and other Book Riot contributors have written some great articles for romance newbies: “A Romance Novel Virgin’s Guide to (Reading About) Getting It On” and “10 Essential Reads for Romance Newbies.” Book Riot’s #ReadHarder challenge also includes the category “A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure” – which, in my case, was a romance novel – but then they also add “read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over.” Well said.

Have your own thoughts on romance novels? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!