Book Courtship Tag

I was tagged once again by MageChild – this is the Book Courtship Tag! This one required some thinking on my part, as I wanted to limit my responses to books I’ve read in the past two years.

courtshiptag

1.) Initial Attraction: A book that you bought because of the cover?

tbs-aussie-coverThese Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner – I bought this a couple years ago, and have finally started reading it this month. It’s REALLY good, ya’ll. The writing is superb, especially for YA (not saying anything against YA, but those books are harder for me to get into). It’s just a really engaging, beautifully done book with good characters – which matches the stunning cover perfectly. For those who don’t know, the premise is basically “Titanic in space,” and leads to a sci-fi romance between an underdog soldier and the richest girl in the galaxy.


2.) First Impressions: A  book that you got because of the summary?

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– When I discovered the niche of postmodernism, House of Leaves was title that kept cropping up. The premise – a house that’s bigger on the inside and the family that it torments, all written in a topsy-turvy experiment of typography – intrigued me incredibly. Thank goodness it did not disappoint. House of Leaves was about everything I expected it to be and everything I wanted.


3.) Sweet Talk: A book with great writing?

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov – This book is so complex and confusing that I can barely tell what’s going on in it. But I don’t care, because Nabokov’s beautiful, unusual, synesthetic prose is so lovely to read. He describes people in a particularly interesting way, always focusing on the most obscure and sometimes unflattering aspects of their physical appearance, while still making them charming. I have a few works of Nabokov on my shelf, not because I really care about the Russian chronicles he writes about, but because maybe immersing myself in his talent will rub off on me. Whenever I feel like my style is suffering, I open one of his  anthologies and work through a few short stories. It’s just a nice reminder of this is how it’s done.


4.) First Date: A first book of a series which made you want to pick up the rest of the series?

Divergent by Veronica Roth – I haven’t actually read Insurgent or Allegiant yet, but I think Divergent did a good job of introducing an interesting world with enough questions to keep the reader moving through the series. Honestly though, I found out that some of the questions were just there as bait and ended up with rather unsatisfying answers, so that’s put me off finishing the series. I….tend not to support books that do this to their readers. There are better ways to build suspense.


63345.) Late Night Phone Calls: A book that kept you up all night?

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – This book had a lot of intrigue. Once I started reading, I just couldn’t stop. Unfortunately, the ending was a bit of a let down after all that build-up.


6.) Always on my mind: A book you could not stop thinking about?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn– Rarely does a book hit me in the face with some real-life observations and cause me to reevaluate my life, but man. Gone Girl called me out on so many problematic things I did on a daily basis, from trying to please everyone to judging other women for being “bitchy”. Amy pulled me in with her first 100 pages with that likeable persona of hers, and when she proceeded to call me out for going along with it…man. Gillian Flynn is brilliant. That is all.


7.) Getting Physical: A book which you lolovecraftleatherve the way it feels/looks?

H.P LoveCraft – The Complete Fiction– Any of these Barnes and Noble collectors editions are beautiful, with their gold-leafed pages and leather bound covers. The H.P Lovecraft one is especially pretty, as the nebula on the front is foiled and sparkly. The pages have a nice weight to them too. These anthologies are the best looking things I have on my shelf.


8.) Meeting the parents: A book which you would recommend to your family and friends?

Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin – I had to think hard about a book that is “for everyone”, and really, there’s no such thing. But I think this book has a message that everyone ought to hear, and does a good job of offering multiple perspectives on a very sensitive issue. Plus, if I’m asked to recommend something, I like offering indie/small-press books over mainstream novels, as word of mouth is so much more important to those without a PR team and NYT bestseller buzz.


9.) Thinking about the future: A book or series you know you will re-read many times in the future?

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – This series was my first fandom, sparked my first fanfic, and I am still stoked about the (potential) movie that’s stuck in perpetual pre-production. Colfer is an amazing writer and the entire cast of characters in Artemis Fowl will stick with me forever. Especially Holly – one of the best female characters ever put to page.


10.) Share the love:

Any takers can leave their responses in the comments or do it on their own blog ;) Read any of the books on this list? Agree or disagree?

The Fatal Flaw of High Concept Stories

This past weekend, I read Divergent. It was at the recommendation of a friend, because I wasn’t impressed with the movie. Upon reading, I was pleasantly surprised by Veronica Roth’s writing style and I found the world-building smoother than in the movie. But something bothered me about it, as has bothered me about the last few books I’ve read – a high concept that never delivers on its potential.

High concept fiction is all the rage right now and I blame Lost. People older than me could blame Twin Peaks, but I believe Lost is what brought deep mythology and perpetual puzzles to a mainstream audience. Everyone is still clamoring to copy that formula. Much like the abstract era or the postmodern era or the neoclassical era, mainstream art is now in the M. Night Shamalyan Plot Twist era. Everyone wants to read or watch stories which promise original starting concepts, twist endings, huge cliffhangers, and sudden deaths.

Often, such shocking revelations and bizarre world-building relies on mystery. Mystery isn’t new – Agatha Christie and other writers clamped onto human curiosity long ago. But instead of mystery being its own niche, mystery has now infected all genres to outrageous degrees. Who is the killer? Is it all a dream? Is he a clone? What is the monster? Why did the world end? Does this book actually take place in the past?

I like intrigue, but not the way most writers handle it. Lost itself failed on its own formula. For many series-long questions, there was no payout. There rarely can be. If you open up huge questions that have everyone speculating for YEARS, then the actual canonical answer will probably disappoint. People will say “I wish it ended like that guy on that forum said it would” or “*my* answer makes way more sense!” And that’s if you get an answer at all – half the time, high concept only works with smoke and mirrors, where they omit answers “on purpose” in order to cover up plot holes.

I’m not saying all threads must be tightened. Ambiguity can be good. But Cobb’s top spinning at the end of Inception is only fine because “Is this all a dream?” wasn’t a question you asked yourself for the entire movie. Instead, the damning question bad high concept stories pose is “What does it all mean?” That is a tremendous question that summarizes a whole novel – it should not come down to one twist.

What does this have to do with Divergent? Well, the characters are fine and there are no particularly burning questions propelling the reader through the novel. It’s not The Maze Runner, which works entirely off the manipulation of “What the heck is going on? I have to keep reading to find out!” So for that, Divergent is barely guilty of the high concept sins I’ve spoken about. But it still leaves its world so thinly sketched that the reader is left asking many questions about the origins and the villain’s motivation. And of course, those answers are promised in the sequels.

I…don’t like this. Basically, the only reason I’m reading the sequel is to get some more clarity. I want to find out if Veronica Roth has new ideas to bring to the universe she’s written. I don’t really care enough about Tris and her friends. I don’t really care about the message of the book. Divergent, like so many others, is nothing more than a carrot hanging at the end of a treadmill. From a marketing point of view, I guess it works. I’m still reading her book. But if I get my answers in book 2, who knows if I’ll bother reading book 3? And I certainly won’t bother recommending this series to friends as it currently stands.

And this wouldn’t be so bad if such stories truly used mind-blowing revelations that change how you see the world. Gone Girl is a rare and fantastic example of one that does because the twist was just the beginning. The twist was used as an artistic tool to cleverly manipulate the reader into making fun of themselves, or to manipulate the reader into realizing their own prejudices. Yes, I plowed through the first 100 pages looking for an answer. And once I got there, I kept reading because the answer was so interesting.

Don’t use mystery to bait and switch your readers, my friends. It will leave a bad taste in their mouths. You can be ambiguous and you can plant seeds for future installments, but neither of these things should be the biggest, most crucial thread of the entire book. Unless you’re doing postmodernism, ambiguity should not be the point of your book. There is nothing more unsatisfying to me than huge questions that are answered with a handwave – or never answered at all.

Especially when that question is “Why is this happening?”

What do you think, folks? Have you ever been let down when a story failed to work on concept alone? Or do you think overwhelming ambiguity and/or unexpected plot twists are usually a good thing?