Book Review #3: Uncrowned by Will Wight

Uncrowned is the 7th book in the Cradle series. I read the first few for free, paid for the next couple, and then eagerly awaited this one but had quit my job and was broke by the time this came out. So, once I finished Lindsay Ellis’ new book, I knew exactly what I wanted to read with my Kindle Unlimited free trial.

SPOILERS!!!

The Cradle series follows Lindon, who is born without a magical talent, but who is interfered with by a — sci-fi goddess? — after which, he is able to rank up magically far beyond anything his village could even imagine. It’s an interesting mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and like, manga, except there are no pictures. It’s very martial art-ish and reads like what I assume Pokemon is like (never seen it). Or Magic the Gathering, if it was a book not based on a card game?

What I mean is, it’s pretty formulaic. Lindon levels up, while defying death at pretty much every turn. Most of him avoiding death is done through one-on-one combat wherein he is outmatched, by a lot. Uncrowned, in particular is based around a tournament that he and his friends fight in.

Having read the previous books in the series, but having finished with the 6th book, like, a year ago, it was nice to see Lindon’s pet turtle pay a visit to Lindon’s sister in the Prologue, but since we don’t see them for the rest of the book, I wondered why that scene was in there at all. It would have been nice to break up some of the monotony of the tournament, after a while.

The strength of these books comes from the characters. Every character, even ones we don’t know for very long, are multi-dimensional — often, it’s only two dimensions but that’s enough to create conflict and tension within themselves as well as within their worlds. Also, the dynamics between certain characters are fun to watch. I like to watch Eithan interact with pretty much anyone, and Yerin is such a badass. I also like that the romance between Lindon and Yerin is subtle, with Lindon respecting that Yerin’s ambition is, at the very least, equal to his own.

In this book, we finally get to see Lindon and Yerin fight each other, outside of sparring. In the tournament, anyone who dies is immediately resurrected by the judge, so neither has to hold back. I really love the moment when Dross convinces Lindon to really fight.

“She wants you to see her full power, and she wants you to trust her to handle yours.”

Uncrowned by Will Wight

That’s deep.

The series is framed by a larger, universal battle between chaos and order. Essentially, what Linden, and Yerin, and Eithan are training for is a sci-fi-ish type of godhood. Up until now, only Linden is really aware of this. But at the end of Uncrowned, the happenings on the planet Cradle catch up with the universal battle, and everyone left in the tournament is invited to become a god(ish).

Another strength of the series is the author’s way of sketching interesting, colorful, and diverse settings. We never get to stay in any particular location for longer than a portion of the book, and we don’t really go back to former settings, aside from Linden’s home town, but each setting is given its own sense of dimension and local culture. We get to meet a lot of characters in these settings who travel with us a ways, even as antagonists. The background settings add dimension to these characters that they bring with them. Generally speaking, because I have issues with visualization, I prefer stories that stick to one main character and few settings but Wight has a way of personalizing even characters whose heads we don’t spend much time with that I never feel lost or frustrated.

That said, the frame from the sci-fi god(ish) perspectives are a bit difficult to engage with because they’re told so clinically. The style effectively separates the warmer, flesh-and-blood adventures on Cradle from the cold, mental and technological battles in space but the characters are harder to like and I think I’d appreciate those parts better upon rereading them. Also, now that Linden is being invited into the universal battle, along with his friends, I think the space battles will become more engaging.

In this particular book, although the tournament started out interesting with more psychological challenges (my favorite, too brief, scene in this book is Eithan giving one of the test AIs a hard time), the battles started to get tedious after a while. Just when they did, the author changed things up, so that’s a minor irritation. Also, again, I loved the fight between Linden and Yerin.

I would say, though, that a lot of the tedium would have been broken up if we could have gone back to Linden’s village and his sister, as the Prologue seemed to imply would happen. I will also put it out there the hope that his sister gets to join him, at some point. I think she was the highest rank in Linden’s village in the first book, and she is a root-for-able character. I’m hoping that the fact that she was mentioned in this book means that she’ll be in the later ones more.

Book Review #2: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I did First 500 blog posts for both Axiom’s End and The Vine Witch, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said about how The Vine Witch starts.

SPOILERS!!!

The Vine Witch is about a witch whose specialty in magic is wine. Before she was cursed and transformed into a toad, she helped her mentor run a vineyard. After she breaks the curse, she finds that the vineyard hasn’t made good wine since she’s been gone, and that it has been sold off to the MC’s new love interest. The mentor has been allowed to stay on as the cook. The MC believes that her ex-fiance is behind her curse and is determined to kill him. She also recognizes that the vineyard has been cursed (like, a LOT) and sets about fixing the vineyard.

As mentioned in my First 500, I genuinely enjoyed the way that The Vine Witch started. And I was well into the second chapter, before I started to get romance-novel vibes. Even though we meet the love-interest earlier in the story, we don’t really notice him (which I like) but here, he’s described thusly:

He snuck a glance at her while he polished the lenses, and she couldn’t help but notice the fine features of his face — the proud brow that tightened in thought, the geometric planes of the cheeks, and jawline taut from firm self-confidence.Excerpt of “The Vine Witch” by Luanne G. Smith

As John Mulaney would say, “Hmmm…gross!” And, sure enough, these two magically end up together without any romantic rivals, aside from the ex-fiance that the MC wants to murder. Now, just to clarify, there’s nothing wrong with romance novels, but I didn’t think that that was what I was downloading. Romance novels are great wish-fulfillment vehicles, and some are written better than others, but generally, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, the attraction is generally superficially-based, and the plot is predictable.

Somewhere in Chapter 3, I could predict the rest of the novel: the MC would work with the love interest to bring life back to the vineyard and fall in love. Love would heal the MC’s heart so that she would decide against murder. I will admit that aside from the dynamic between the prospective lovers, the overall book does not follow the predictable plot devices of a paranormal romance novel.

To be honest, I think it would have been more satisfying for focus to be on unravelling the malignant spells set on the vineyard, rather than the direction the rest of the book went in, but I will say that the plot was more interesting than what I imagined — in some good ways, in some that I didn’t like as much. Okay, where to start. First, the MC does get started on unravelling the malignant spells put on the vineyard, and she has to work around the love-interest because he’s too practical to believe in magic.

Before we can get to far with that, though, the MC’s ex-fiance shows up for a visit and offers to buy the vineyard. The MC hides upstairs so that she can avoid him, but runs into him later, in town. She is overheard threatening to ruin him for cursing her, and then he turns up dead, like, the next day. In the meantime, small animals have been found dead and drained of blood ever since the MC has been gone, so she’s arrested for her ex-fiance’s murder and accused of killing the small animals, which is a part of blood-magic and illegal.

The MC is arrested and put into witch-prison with two interesting cellmates. The love-interest used to be a laywer, so he’s determined to defend her even though he’s a) never been a part of a murder trial and b) didn’t believe in magic until, like, five minutes ago. The MC inadvertently helps one of her cellmates escape, who then helps the MC escape with her other cellmate. The cellmate and the MC go hide at the circus, where the cellmate knows some people.

We run into a psychic and are pretty sure that he put the curse on the MC but don’t know why. The MC doesn’t figure this out, but she steals a crystal from him so that she can place protection on the love-interest. For some reason, nobody has figured out that that ex-fiance’s wife is the one who killed him and is responsible for the dead animals, so the love-interest goes to visit her, and she ties him up and tries to feed him to a demon.

The MC shows up, just in time, and she and the cellmate save the love-interest and kill the demon. The love-interest and the cellmate go out to greet the police while the MC gets the bad witch to confess. The police magically overhear this (literally) and arrest the bad witch. She dies because the magical handcuffs cut off her magic and she’s centuries old. And everyone who is alive is probably going to live happily ever after. Oh, except that the MC’s mentor is (accidentally) responsible for the MC being turned into a toad and the mentor, angry at the carnival psychic poisons him and then, I think, herself. She dies, anyway, maybe from guilt. But not before telling the MC that her parents were snake oil salespeople, except that the snake oil was, like, poison and charms.

Okay, so, what I liked. I LOVE the cellmates, although I think that everyone escaped from prison too easily. I also really dug the circus setting and getting to know one of the cellmates better. I imagine that there either are or will be more books set in this world and can see each of the cellmates getting her own story, and possibly the barkeeper and the bakery owner (who is also a witch). I think the world-building overall was fantastic. I wanted to spend more time there and get to know the people better, and that’s all because of how specific everything in the world was. The circus is a run-away destination for people with magic but few options. The bar is also for magical people, and is on the rough side of town. The baker creates pastries that identify with the people buying them, particularly in regard to their romantic destinies.

I also loved that the MC had her own specific skills that are demonstrated to the reader. I really liked the idea of unravelling the spells put on the vineyards, and I also liked the idea of vine witches being a real thing. And beer witches, too. Hilarious. I half-suspect that this is based on a real thing, and I don’t care either way because I don’t believe in witches, but I’d keep reading about these ones.

What I didn’t like. I didn’t like the mentor and the psychic both dying rather than dealing with the consequences of their actions. Also, I would have wanted the mentor around for another book, even though her dying coincidentally meant that the vineyard was free and clear for the lovebirds. I didn’t mind the surprise of the ex-fiance dying, but I didn’t like that the murderer was SO obvious but the MC never picked up on it, even though she was, generally, pretty smart.

Overall, I liked the aspects of the book that had been focused on more because we’ll probably see them in future books, like some of the characters and settings. I don’t like that the characters we’ll never see again were one-dimensional, and I don’t like all the twists that didn’t need to be there. Similarly to Axiom’s End, it felt like the time period was a convenient excuse to allow the MC a certain level of naivety that the reader doesn’t share, which allowed the author to heavily rely on an overused trope. I also found it really frustrating that the vine witch was really knowledgeable about magic but didn’t know that a jinnie could be set free by giving her fire. I would have liked it better if she’d intentionally helped the jinnie escape.

The witch who kills small animals and people in order to stay young forever is not new, and every one of the scenes where the love-interest is being tortured and then rescued could have been deleted, and the word count put to use in other, more interesting areas. For instance, since we end up at the circus with the man who cursed the MC, why not make him fully responsible for her curse, as revenge for some nasty thing the MC’s parents did to him? Then, he’d have his own motivation to curse her rather than sheer laziness and greed, which made him as one-dimensional as the actual villain.

I will say that the villain’s back story was pretty interesting, but it was all exposition, and therefore, rendered boring. I would much rather have seen that character in her own novel in the same world. Maybe she would have had to fight her own demons as well as the one that she made a deal with. That would have been cool.

Something I’m not sure how I feel about is the involvement of the Catholic church in the story. On the one hand, Christianity in general is responsible for a lot of atrocities and has a historically negative view of witchcraft. It also served as a device that separated the MC into the “good” side of witchcraft with the villain as firmly “bad”, which just takes away dimensionality. On the other hand, I did like the priest and I know that a lot of converts were lured away from paganism with the promise that Christianity was basically paganism + Jesus, so maybe that’s the direction the author intends to go in.

Overall, the characters were interesting, but superficially so. I would love to spend more time in this world and see how it develops. I would like to see the author be less clever, plot-wise, because, honestly, every story has been told. You can only surprise us so far with what happens, but the how and the who are unlimited, so I’d like to see more focus on those aspects of storytelling.

Knowing that this was the author’s first novel and seeing how much creativity and detail she displayed in her world-building, I would definitely read another book from her. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this/these review(s), I’ll probably go look her up.

Book Review #1: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

I rarely review things because I have a tendency to change my mind over time, and I hate disagreeing with myself. But I’ve read three books this week, and they’re still floating around in my head, so I thought I’d give brief thoughts on each book. (This was going to be short reviews of each book, but they all ended up too long, so I’m splitting them up.)

SPOILERS!!!

First, yes, I do have copious amounts of free time, but no, I did not spend them reading. I actually listened to Axiom’s End on Audible and then used the text-to-speech function on my Kindle app to listen to the other two. To be honest, I prefer reading text-to-eyeballs, but I won’t refer to that as “real” reading because even though I personally prefer the tactile function of reading, the journey is comparatively the same whether the book is read or listened to. I won’t devalue the experience of people who can’t read for whatever reason due to a sensory snobbery that is based on the fact that my ability to process spoken words isn’t as good as my ability to process written words. Also, if you’re going to judge me by anything in this paragraph, how about the fact that I supported the same corporation that treats its employees unethically and whose standard of quality has declined with its popularity, like most monopolies do — twice?

Second, I’ve always had a thing about listening to books but I was working on a crafting project with a strict deadline, so I signed up for free trials of Audible and Kindle Unlimited so that I could listen while my hands were busy. (I actually purchased Axiom’s End, but couldn’t stop to read it, so I signed up for Audible so that I could listen to it.) Anyway, due to the fact that I don’t like listening to books, I won’t be reviewing the voice actors in Axiom’s End. I preferred the text-to-speech function in the Kindle app because it allowed me to choose my own emphasis. There’s a lot of internal arguing when I don’t like how a voice actor chose to interpret a section of writing, and the text-to-speech function works really well, as long as the book is edited properly with lots of good punctuation. Although, that said, I will say that Ollie of Philosophy Tube did a great job and that he has a remarkably soothing American accent, even when he’s playing a character who is kind of a turd of a human being.

Anyway, disclaimers out of the way, I’ll start with the first book I read this week, which was Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End. I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I found out that Lindsay had a book coming out, which was about 9 months ago, when I watched her X0X0 speech. I’ve been watching her video essays for a couple of years and I always find her videos to be entertaining, insightful, and the most important thing in a good author — empathetic.

My first impression of Axiom’s End wasn’t good. I was genuinely disappointed, which was — disappointing. It occurred to me that even though I’ve been training myself to like audio books more by listening to Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer books that I’ve already bought/read multiple times, that maybe I was missing something due the sensory experience of listening.

So, I cracked open my Kindle version one night — okay, who are we kidding, one morning, before bed. I started from the first chapter and found that, yep, the visual process of reading allowed for a depth and comprehension that listening to the book wasn’t giving me. I was still on a crafting deadline so I went back to listening to the book with more trust in the author, and found myself becoming more engaged. I’ll probably read this book again in a few months and like it a lot better than I remembered.

But, that said, here is a short synopsis: The book follows Cora, whose father is a famous conspiracy theorist. Their relationship is estranged because Cora thinks her dad is crazy, and because he basically abandoned her family when she was younger. Cora lives with her mother, brother and sister (both younger) and their two dogs. Cora dropped out of college about six months before the story starts, doesn’t believe in aliens, and doesn’t particularly like her job as a temp.

In the first chapter, we find that Cora and her family are being followed (probably by the CIA), a meteor flies past the building Cora works in and shatters the windows, and Cora is fired for leaving work without checking out with anyone. Later that night, Cora sees an alien. So, action-wise, we get into it pretty quickly. I will say that, from Lindsay Ellis, I was expecting more of a wise-cracking, uber-jaded main character, but Cora was earnestly confused, scared, and tongue-tied throughout the book.

I liked the choice, as sincerity seems to be making a comeback and it also made Cora’s journey feel more authentic, as opposed to wish-fulfillment. Also, Ellis mentioned that Ender’s Game was a huge influence on this book, and Ender was a very earnest character (even though, as Ellis acknowledges, Orson Scott Card’s politics are toxic and BAD). I could see the influence in the way that Cora was either emotionally or physically isolated from the secondary characters in the book. This means that the reader was as forced to emotionally connect to the robotic alien, Ampersand, as much as the main character was (Almost, haha).

I would say that the secondary characters were pretty cardboard. I think that the best way to handle secondary and tertiary characters that the reader only gets glimpses of is the Georgette Heyer method. Instead of trying to make each character fully dimensional, she gives the character a very strong opinion on a specific thing or a very specific characteristic. This might sound like the recipe for a one-dimensional caricature, which is would be, if the story was based around this character. A main character should have strengths and flaws, and moments of humor mixed with moments of pathos. A tertiary character only needs to be interesting for a moment, so why not catch them in a moment in which they are interesting?

Also, specificity doesn’t need to be silly. Some of my favorite moments in Georgette Heyer novels is when the omniscient narrator jumps into the head of a servant observing his employer’s guests at dinner, or reacting to the first appearance of the heroine in their employer’s house. The fact that Georgette Heyer specializes in Regency romance novels means that pretty much any Regency convention allows the reader a glimpse into an entire world, so what’s conventional to the servant is automatically alien and therefore interesting to the modern reader.

This is not to say that Ellis would have done better with an omniscient POV, just that you can make a character endearing, ridiculous, or detestable with just a few words. One of my favorite interactions in a Georgette Heyer novel is in Sylvester, between the hero of the story and his widowed sister-in-law’s new fiance. The fiance is a vain idiot, but Sylvester is not, and we find him amusing himself during a conversation he’d rather not be having with a person he has no respect for, and he does it without being noticeably rude. So, just a short excerpt, and honestly, this is probably my favorite scene in one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, so if you don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t like her books.

In the scene, Sylvester is referred to as “Duke”, and the sister-in-laws’s new fiance is “Sir Nugent”.

“She did,” asseverated Sir Nugent gravely. “`My sweet life,’ I said – you’ve no objection to that, Duke?”

“Not the least in the world.”

“You haven’t?” exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.

“Why should I?”

“You’ve put your finger on the nub, Duke!” said Sir Nugent. “Why should you? I can’t tell, and I believe I’ve cut my wisdoms. `My love,’ I said (if you’ve no objection) `you’ve got a maggot in your Idea-pot.'”

“And what had she to say to that?” enquired Sylvester, conscious of a wish that Phoebe had not cantered ahead.

“She denied it,” said Sir Nugent. “Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way.”

“Oh?”

“Just what I said myself! `Oh!’ I said.”

“Not `my love’?”

“Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled.”

“Like a duck in a thunderstorm.”

“No,” said Sir Nugent, giving this his consideration. “I fancy, Duke, that if you were to ask all round the ton if Nugent Fotherby had ever looked like any species of fowl in such a situation the answer would be, in a word, No!”

Excerpt from “Sylvester”, by Georgette Heyer

So, if you’re not familiar with Regency-ese, Sir Nugent is someone who likes to think of himself as very fashionable and he wears his shirt collar so high that he can’t turn his neck. He has to turn at the waist in order to look over at Sylvester. The modern-day equivalent might be Lady Gaga choosing to make full shoulder spikes a daily choice rather than saved for special occasions. In the scene, Sir Nugent is surprised to find that Sylvester has no interest in breaking up his engagement to Sylvester’s sister-in-law. Also, Phoebe is the heroine of the story, and Sylvester is starting to like her and is sad that she has ridden on ahead (they’re on horses).

So, in this small portion of this scene, we get a sketch of Sir Nugent’s character, Sylvester’s character, and his vague admission that he’s interested in Phoebe — which, if you read the first chapter, is VERY interesting. Also, similarly to Darcy and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, both Sylvester and Sir Nugent are presented as arrogant, but one is more forgivable. On a side note, I would say that between Sir Nugent and Wickham, Sir Nugent is more likable, but that’s only because he’s amusing. Wickham tries to rape an underage girl and Sir Nugent succeeds in kidnapping a five-year-old, so neither is a great guy.

Anyway, to apply this to Axiom’s End, my emotional investment in Cora’s family is really low because Cora’s mom is a workaholic who thinks about work a lot, her brother is a teenage know-it-all who sneaks into the computer room to download porn in the middle of the night, and Cora’s sister is a sweet six-year-old. Her temper tantrum when she finds out that aliens are real strikes me as one-note and contrived. However, Cora’s sister worships Avril Lavigne and thinks that Ani DiFranco is boring. This was Ellis introducing a secondary character without a lot of screen time in a memorable way. I even remember that her family had to talk her out of wearing ties to school (like Avril) because that is the one unique detail we’re given about her. We assume the ordinary stuff about her but this simple detail hints at depth.

I will say, too, that Cora’s brother is introduced as kind of an ass but as soon as there’s an alien in the house, he acts more his actual age than the full adult every thirteen-year-old thinks they are. He’s happy enough to let his older sister take charge, but is a willing second-in-command. He’s also protective of his younger sister.

Unfortunately, the mother is the most one-dimensional, shrill, selfish, and useless person to have around, particularly in a crisis. This makes me sad because even though my mom was a drunk mess, she was amazing in a crisis and would have killed to protect her children. If Cora’s mother had taken control in that scene, I would have liked her better and she would have come off as more dimensional.

The scene could still have ended with Cora running out to try to find the dog because it wouldn’t have made sense for the mother to do that. So, Cora still would have found the alien and our adventure still would have started here. Overall, I think that the word count spent with Cora’s family should have been utilized more effectively or just cut entirely. If the book started at the beginning of Chapter 9, I would have had a similar level of emotional investment in rescuing her family from the CIA.

Throughout the book, I wished that Luciana was around to answer some questions, but any time she’s in a scene, she’s so tight-lipped and defensive that she might as well not be there. Again, not handled in an unrealistic way, but not particularly engaging either. Also, Cora and Luciana get into a verbal fight near the end of the book and then for a while we’re not sure if Luciana is dead or alive and Cora feels really bad about the fight but, I, as a reader, was not particularly invested. To clarify, I’m never happy to hear that someone died, but I wasn’t sad that Luciana’s essence was no longer a part of our world, because I never really got a sense of her essence. Also, I never believe a character is dead until I see the body, and even then, I’m only 20% sure they won’t come back. I’ve watched too many soap operas and sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, and wrestling shows.

I also feel like the scene where Cora visits Luciana and her crew — all of whom know about the aliens — is wasted. Cora initially describes her close encounter to Luciana in the woods with no one else around. Luciana doesn’t believe her, but she introduces Cora to the group. Then she takes Cora up to find a new outfit and lets her shower. Then she’s taken down to tell the group what happened. This is the direct passage of Cora’s interaction with the group.

Now having had the time to calm down and run through it in her mind, she was better able to explain what happened.

Did the entity make eye contact? She couldn’t be sure; she’d run away. Did it actually touch her? She couldn’t be sure; it felt more like a magnetic force than being touched. Did it show interest in the computer? Yes, it had dismantled the computer. She saw it hiding in the neighbor’s yard when she was at the mailbox? She couldn’t be sure — at the time, she thought she’d imagined it. Did it make any noise? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Did it make any bid to communicate? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure.

With all this ambiguity, she was started to see why Bard and Luciana were skeptical.

She didn’t get a sense of antipathy from the group. It seemed as though what she was saying just didn’t compute. Like they had been expecting an invading Hun army but she was describing a horde of invading spiders. But what was more noteworthy wasn’t the way they treated her but the way they treated Luciana — the way they interrupted her or stepped over her questions and comments made it seem like Luciana was on thin ice.

Luciana sent Cora back outside onto the porch while the grown-ups talks over what she’d just told them.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Bad, but not un-fixable. The first thing I’d do is cut the finding a new outfit scene, a lot. Here’s how I’d handle that. “Cora arrived at the safe house. Her aunt escorted her up to shower and gave her a change of clothes. Then Cora went downstairs and met the group.” Boom! The least interesting part of the chapter whittled down to three sentences. Also, I’d probably go back further than that. The scene between Bard and Cora effectively makes me dislike him the same way that Cora does, but then very similarly dialogue is immediately repeated between Cora and her aunt, so by the time we get to tell the story to the group, we’re all exhausted of this story. Not only did we live it, but we’ve had a phone conversation with Luciana, an in-person conversation with Bard, and in-person conversation with Luciana rehashing it.

If Cora had waited to tell the full story to the group, that scene would have been better and the scenes with Bard and Luciana could have been cut down without any loss at all to the story. I would transport the actual dialogue Cora had with her aunt to the scene with the group. This way, Ellis could show, instead of tell us what the interaction was. The group could interrogate her with dialogue tags and everything.

For me, there are two wasted opportunities with the way the scene is written. First, Ellis named the characters in the group after her friends, a lot of them her fellow YouTubers. So, if Ellis had fleshed out this scene, we would have gotten actual cameos of these people, which would have a) been a great fan moment for me, but also b) would have demonstrated not only Cora’s burgeoning dynamic with the group but her aunt’s “thin ice” dynamic. We would have seen, rather been told, that Luciana was constantly being interrupted and would have been able to infer and internalize that dynamic.

The way it happened, Cora could have been abducted in the park near her house, and we would have gotten to the Google campus several chapters earlier, and not missed anything. The Google campus is Chapter 9, and this is when the story gets interesting. Cora is confronted by the alien in the woods, and then wakes up at Google headquarters. The alien psychically tells her to try to get into the server room, and Cora is apprehended by security. The power in the building goes out, and Cora escapes. She finds Bard’s van magically in the parking lot with the alien inside, and Cora escapes with the alien.

From here (once the alien wakes up) Cora and the alien, nicknamed Ampersand, are able to communicate. Cora needs to rescue her family from the CIA who may or may not be brainwashing them to make them forget about the alien in the living room, and Ampersand needs to rescue his friends. They agree to work together. I can’t critique much about Cora’s and Ampersand’s relationship because it’s layered and confusing to both of them and builds up believably over the rest of the book.

I say “believably”, but again, not in a wish-fulfillment way. In a wish-fulfillment way, we’d find Ampersand to be extremely sweet and super relatable and we would start to root for him. Instead, his voice is mechanical due to the device he uses in order to communicate with Cora, and there’s a lot about himself that he can’t explain because his culture is so different from hers, and he’s been pretty brutal to humans in the past (including Cora). Similarly, there is a lot that he doesn’t understand about Cora. Also, as an interesting point, he has physical vulnerabilities that, despite his size and strength, makes him afraid of her.

I think that my only dispute with the way that their relationship progresses is that she is later shocked by certain revelations about Ampersand’s choices both before and after she met him — like killing humans. Also, that Ampersand was the one brainwashing people who knew about aliens, not the CIA. These revelations, to me, seemed obvious and shouldn’t have been confusing to Cora at all.

I think, in these areas, the device of setting the story in 2007 was supposed to camouflage some of these “surprises”. Because Roswell wasn’t yet a TV show (twice), Cora could be naive about certain things. But the reader is still in 2020, and is very familiar with aliens. Hell, I’ve never watched a single episode of X-Files, but I still know who Mulder and Scully are, which of them is the skeptic and the believer, and whether or not Mulder was ever vindicated (no, but Scully got to meet lots of aliens and she still didn’t believe in them). I also know that there’s a dude with a cigarette in a lot of the episodes, for some reason.

So, the rift between Cora and Ampersand when she finds this out feels poorly contrived and just sad. It’s interesting that Ellis, who is a brilliant video essayist, could have pointed this out as a reader, but missed it as a writer. Also, having gone the traditional, rather than self-published route, I have to wonder where the hell her editor was for this part of the book. It’s also frustrating to know that she had bestselling authors who were direct mentors and who wrote blurbs for the book, who didn’t point any of this stuff out to her. It seems cruel, knowing what a large platform Ellis has and the amount of backlash she’ll get from non-fans, for these bestselling authors not have nudged her in more dimensional directions with her book.

Also, speaking of editors, Ellis uses two to three words where one will do. Okay, here’s another un-requested confession: I still don’t understand the technical difference between an adverb and an adjective. I do know that they both describe stuff, I can use them correctly, and I know that using two or three where one will do is frustrating to my critique partners, so I’ve tried to cure myself of that. This is not something that Ellis’ editor seems to ever have pointed out, so there are a lot of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, or both. I do understand that too many can undermine urgency, authority, and conciseness but other than that bad habit, I found the writing to be clear, organized, and enjoyable.

Overall, I liked the progression of the book, and I will definitely read Ellis’ next book. This is partially, but not entirely, due to being a fan of her video essays. I think that she has a lot of interesting things to say and this book barely skated across the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of the disconnect I felt toward the story and the characters had to do with a combination of my audio comprehension issues and her determination to make her first book “perfect”. This a) isn’t possible, and b) is an attitude that snuffs out creativity at the spark. One of my favorite things about reading Inkitt or Wattpad stories is that the stories are un-apologetically over-the-top, ridiculous, and — fun.

I used to look back at my earlier writing and cringe at some of the more unfeasible aspects of the plot, but I looked at my first real attempt at a fantasy novel a couple of years ago, and actually found it charming. Directionless and silly, but surprising in ways that I hadn’t allowed my writing to be in a long time. I think that this fear of seeming silly while writing a love story between a human and an alien is probably the biggest flaw in Axiom’s Edge. I hope that as Ellis continues to grow as a writer that she’ll feel freer to embrace the absurdity inherent in creating any kind of story.

Blog: Frozen in Ignorance

I was thinking today about how artists will screen capture a work-in-progress, but a writer won’t. I searched YouTube and only found one video in which someone had recorded themselves writing, and that video was from 2016. So, I thought, maybe I’ll do that. I don’t know if it’ll work out. I don’t know if it’s anything I’ll do more than once. I already feel more self-conscious about my writing, knowing that I’m recording it, than I usually do.

But, whatever. We’ll try it out. So, here’s the process of writing a blog for my website.

I don’t really feel like writing today. I haven’t felt like writing for most of my life. I identify as a writer, in my soul, but it’s not much more realistic than identifying as an astronaut — although I’ve definitely written more times than I’ve been to space.

I started on Paxil about 3 weeks ago and it’s going okay. I still hate my job but it’s like the hatred is on mute — just as intense, just quieter. Enough for me to be functional again, but not enough for me to actively want to be there. I hate that tomorrow is Monday.

Side effects so far: harder to concentrate, am much more docile in thoughts and in speech, and am in general, less anxious — which was the point. At work, I find myself less able to express myself clearly but now that I’ve been there for 7 months, it doesn’t really matter because 80% of my interactions are exactly the same.

On Friday, I was demoted and then re-promoted? I think? I was on a project that was just released on May 1st, and then on Friday was told I wouldn’t be on that project anymore but that I’ll be on an upcoming one. Nothing means anything without a raise. One of my coworkers who I trained with was “promoted” to “team leader” or whatever title they call being the point-person for the team, but without a raise. I’m glad I’ve been so flaky this past couple of months or else I might have been “promoted” again, too.

Anyway, I want to blame the medication, but the truth is that I haven’t written in 3 weeks because sometimes I go for three weeks without writing. Sometimes, I go longer. The weird thing is that I don’t know how to be a Writer but I can’t stop thinking of characters and stories. New ones, old ones, new takes on old ones — I get ideas constantly. But when it comes down to actually recording them in words that other people will see, I don’t wanna.

I had a really mean foster sister who used to make me write her, I guess, a weird version of love notes. Just talking about how awful I was and how great she was and how grateful I was that she put up with me. For years, I worried that she’d held on to those notes, and that someday I would out her as the abusive piece of shit she was and she would hold up the notes and be like, “Nuh-uh — see? She’s a liar! I have written proof that she worshiped me!”

And, I guess, since then, I’ve always had a fear that my own words would be held against me. My stories are safe in my head. Not only are they safe from that loss in translation that happens when you bring your inside thoughts, outside. But also, safe from criticism, safe from being accused of inadvertent homophobia, misogyny, or some other sin. Safe from being misunderstood, twisted into meaning something that it doesn’t mean to me, safe from exposing the secret parts of myself — my weaknesses, prejudices, stupidity.

I’m afraid, at my core, that I’m a bad person, and I’m afraid that my writing will reveal that. And, especially now, these are genies that don’t go back into the bottle. I mean, hell, I’m recording this right now. I’m not just writing it and about to publish it onto my website, but I’m also about to save it in a video format and I’m thinking about uploading it onto the internet.

Words on Words #3

I’ve been working lately on not needing to explain myself. There’s a scene in the 10th Kingdom, where Virginia is having a meltdown and she says, “I still have this uncontrollable urge to just go up to people and say “My mother left me when I was seven!” You know, as if that would explain everything.  And I miss her… And I hate her! And…and I miss her… And I feel like I was on a train and it crashed or something and no one came and rescued me.”

I feel like this is what I’ve been doing my entire life. Just walking around with a dead brother storyline and a foster care storyline and a mentally ill mother storyline and a dead mother storyline and just waiting for someone to a) recognize that these stories are what make me broken and b) give a shit. And I feel like, with stand-up, I was able to share these stories, imperfectly, but enough that I don’t have that urge anymore.

I Ally Sheedy’d, just dumped all of my baggage out on everyone I spoke to and for the first time in my life, I found people who didn’t look away. Instead, they listened, and they had their own bags to dump out. I don’t know what it is about the stand-up community that is different from any other set of people I’ve ever been around, but that is the only community I’ve been a part of that let me be sad and angry and whatever the fuck else I was.

But now, I have this weird normal job around normal people and if I say something dark, instead of people laughing, they get concerned. And that makes me miss stand-up but instead of feeling like I have to explain the joke or explain my existence, I just let them think I’m weird. And I don’t care anymore. The urge to explain myself in real life has almost entirely faded.

This is not to say that I don’t have anything to say. If anything, I have more to say than I ever did and I have a much better handle on how to express myself. But the need to be understood by every person I meet, in every interaction I have, is gone.

This is not to say that sitting down to write is less terrifying than it ever was. But I was watching a YouTube video with “tough love” writing advice for writers tonight, and it was the same old shit until she said, “find a way to make it fun”. And I was like, holy shit, I make writing a chore. No wonder I don’t want to do it.

So I searched YouTube for “how to make writing fun” and there was really only one video, and it was “how to make writing fun for kids”. And I thought, if it’d work on kids, it might work on me. So, basically, the way to make writing fun for kids was a story generator set up by Scholastic. And it’s cute, so I wanted to try it out.

I realized that the other thing that stops me from writing is that I want it to be good. It takes so much energy to talk myself into writing that I don’t want that to feel like wasted time. And there are all these rules about writing. The very first piece of writing I ever showed to a professional in the publishing industry was responded to with a suggestion that I check out the Turkey City Lexicon. The Turkey City Lexicon is a list of tendencies new writers have. It’s essentially a list of what not to do.

So, I’ve spend the last decade-plus figuring out how to write well so that showing my writing to other people won’t be humiliating. But not wanting to be humiliated is just another thing that stops me from writing. So, I decided to take the writing prompt from Scholastic and pair it with the first rule in the Turkey City Lexicon — Brenda Starr dialogue. Essentially, you don’t want to write blocks of dialogue that aren’t anchored in a setting, with defined characters.

So I wrote a short story (see last post) that was a bunch of blocks of dialogue with as little setting, characterization, and narration as possible. And, damn, was that fun. And, damn, did I like the story. Is it well-written? Naw. But did I want to keep going and find out what happened next? Yes. So, maybe this is a writing exercise that will get me out of my head and and make writing fun.

In the movies, a character will go through a tumultuous experience and then sit down at a typewriter and their story will just pour out of them. I spent a lot of my life expecting that I would become a writer someday. I’d have that movie moment and it would be all I could do to keep up with the waterfall of words. But that isn’t what writing is for me.

Writing is something that I want to do, all of the time when I can’t, and none of the time when I can. My first day back at work after my mom died, one of my managers who knew that I had a complicated relationship with my mom and had her own complicated relationship with her parents, said to me that I was “free”. She wasn’t wrong. But in that moment, I hoped that she would never know how terrifying and lonely true freedom actually is.

When I have the time to write, and I sit down to do it, all of the potential for greatness and ineptness — and worse than either of those, mediocrity — come crashing down on me. I don’t know how to make writing less important to me. I don’t know if I should. But I would like to make it fun and I would like to thumb my nose at people who make rules that seem to restrict creativity more than encourage it.

What the hell is the point of the Turkey City Lexicon? Why isn’t there an equivalent list of specific things TO do in order to write a good story? Why are we, as human beings, so much more responsive to being torn down than being built up? It seems antithetical to me, to create a list of what NOT to do in order to encourage people to create more powerfully.

So, fuck the Turkey City Lexicon and fuck any rule about what not to do.

Words on Words #2

I have work tomorrow and I’m not dreading it any less than I usually do, despite having had the last two days off. Saturday and Sunday are usually pretty chill, but, still. It’s just the beginning of another shitty week, every moment of which leaves me aching for my next day off.

I had lunch with my former boss today. He doesn’t understand why, if I love stand-up the way that I do, I decided to leave the business. I tried to explain, but he doesn’t get it and I’m barely eloquent enough to explain it to myself. But it was nice to see him.

I never really understood the concept of missing people. My mom used to tell me that she missed me when I went to work. I thought that her saying that was manipulative because I saw her nearly every single day for 30+ years. She’d seen me the day before, would see me the next day. She knew 80% of my thoughts. I’d be back in 9.5 hours.
What was there to miss?

Then she died, and I missed her. I’d just seen her. I’d seen her nearly ever day for the past 30+ years. But here I was, seconds into her being dead, her empty body three feet away, and I already missed her.

I see and talk to the people I love in my head, all of the time. The only time I “miss” them is if I get the idea stuck in my head that I won’t see them ever again, that I won’t make new memories with them, that I’ll never get the chance to know them better than I already do.

But I’m a weird, solitary person, and I always have been. I used to be agoraphobic, and I use the phrase “used to be” very loosely. I used to be ashamed of this period of my life, judging myself for hiding, for giving up before trying. But I’ve spent the past 13 years out there, jobbing, schooling, interacting. And my dream is as it ever was; a house in the middle of nowhere, with no easy means of communication to the outside world.

There are always people in these fantasies, either me visiting “home” or them visiting me, but just with long periods of no human interaction. The older I get, the less guilty I feel for this fantasy. I need people but, like, in small doses. I’m trying to figure out how to save up enough money to bring this fantasy to reality, and how I’m going to manage leaving everybody behind without feeling too guilty.

Anyway, the writing has been okay since my last Words on Words. I don’t love a couple of the stories but they all have something in there that I like. I never would have thought to write about a rodeo clown and his ghost brother, that’s for sure.

I joined a critique forum, where The Brave Princess has been critiqued by 5 people. 3 of them picked up what I was putting down and had some really good suggestions on where to add and how to tighten it up. The other 2 had good suggestions too, although the really didn’t get what I was going for in that story. That’s okay, I think I had a good ratio of people who got it, and that’s always the risk with satire. I may spend the next week implementing some of those suggestions. If I do, I think I’ll improve the number of people who can at least read it as a coherent story, even without recognizing it as a satire, which was the goal.

Okay, off to bed. I hope tomorrow doesn’t suck as much as I think it will.

Words on Words

Today is Tuesday. On Sunday, I got home from work, angry. My job right now isn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. There are definitely perks that I’ve never experienced before, like affordable healthcare and an almost livable wage. But when it comes down to it, I wake up at 6AM and get home a little before 6PM. Essentially, 12 hours out of my day is centered around being at a place I don’t actively want to be, and doing things that I don’t actively want to do.

And this is life. I get that. I’m an adult. But I’m also a person, and society doesn’t always recognize that these are two different things. An adult is an archetype; responsible, hardworking, conscientious. A person is a lot more dimensional. We don’t always do, say, and think the correct things. So, even though I accept that I should accept that my life should be drudgery, there’s a person in my head, screaming, “FUCK THAT!”

And that voice has gotten a lot louder over the past few years. Say what I will about the entertainment industry (and most of it is bad), being immersed in artists for almost 5 years taught me how indomitable a spirit really is. Like, it’s not a joke or a stereotype that a lot of comedians struggle with depression. The natural oversensitiveness that artists are subject to is exacerbated by an industry that is designed to overwork and undervalue them.

That spark that artists have within them can’t be blown out by the strongest wind, or quenched by the heaviest rain, or smothered by a mountain of sand — at least, not without that level of monumental effort. And the whole world feels it when that spark is finally destroyed, whether that artist ever “made it” or not. Because we ARE more than our khakis.

All of that to say that I came home from work on Sunday and realized that so much of my day, so much of my energy is stolen by a corporation that could and would replace me without a blink if I were to quit or get fired or die — right now. So, how is that I can always find the energy to make it there on time and put as much of myself into every call or email as I can manage that day but at the end of the day, I can’t be bothered pursuing the thing that I really want to do?

I want to be a writer. I want to make a living at it. I want to change the world with my words. I have a thousand creative hobbies and a soul-sucking job and those are all things that I use to distract or excuse myself from writing. Because writing may be the scariest thing that I’ve ever done, and it never gets less scary, no matter how many times I’ve done it.

If I make a necklace that comes out shitty, I take it apart and put the pieces of it away, knowing that I’ll make something better with those pieces when I come back to them. When I doodle a shitty sketch, I throw it away. I forget it ever existed. When I crochet something that I hate, I unravel it, re-ball the yarn, and toss it back in its basket. But just the idea that I’ll write poorly will stop me from writing, for months.

Don’t get me wrong; there are SOME stakes with other artforms. Of course, I want something that I spend all of that time and energy on to turn out well. But I don’t expect anything I make out of beads or yarn, or both, to change the world. I don’t need anything that I make out of beads or yarn to change the world. But words — words are what shaped me — not my body or my career or my khakis — but my personhood.

I’ve never been moved to tears by a purse or a bracelet. But I was recently purging some old papers that my mother had written on (it’s only been 9 years since she died, give me a break). These weren’t important papers. They were old receipts that she’d organized into envelopes. On the front of each envelope, she’d written the name of the month in bold, decorative letters in a myriad of colors. Green for March, pink for February, etc. with little doodles of shamrocks and hearts for those respective months.

October 2009 was written with a copper sharpie and highlighted with pink squiggles and underlines. In smaller letters, she’d written “Happy Birthday Crystal!” I peeked into each envelope to make sure there weren’t any hidden gems; poems or songs or letters to strangers, encouraging them to be the amazing people she already knew they were.

There wasn’t anything filed in the envelopes that didn’t belong there. But damned if the idea of throwing away all of that work didn’t hurl me into a hurricane of grief. So, I did the adult thing and deposited my snot and tears into a quick succession of tissues, and then threw the envelopes away. But I did the person thing first and took a photo of every single envelope in that old shoebox. Just like my mother did the adult thing and kept all of her receipts neatly organized, but did the person thing and made it pretty.

We can pretend like we are this civilization that goes to work and pays its rent and erects another skyscraper that nobody wants to work in. And we are. But we’re also this other thing that can’t help but make that skyscraper sparkly or blue or round or shaped like a crescent moon or built to support the world’s largest and most ridiculous swimming pool.

So, I got home from work on Sunday, furious that 12 out of my 16 waking hours is centered around having the same three conversations, over and over, all day, forever. And I said to myself, I have to be able to write for a living. It’s the only thing I can think of that I want to do with my life. So, I have to write. I have to be able to write on demand. I can’t let my creative energy be quenched by fear, before I’m ever asked to write anything.

I started this blog with the intention to explore every story prompt I could find. On Sunday, I wrote 3 stories. Yesterday, I wrote 1. Today, I realized that my rage from Sunday was all gone. All I wanted to do was settle back into my complacency, watching YouTube videos where people criticize other people who make art wrong.

So I thought, do I still want to be a writer? And I vaguely registered that I still did. And then I realized that I really liked the stories that I wrote Sunday and yesterday. And I wasn’t sure if I could keep up the momentum of writing well. And I realized that I have to give myself permission to suck. These are all determinations that I have made before. To write every day, to dedicate my time to pursuing what I really want to be doing, to let myself suck.

And maybe it’s not bad that I end up fighting the same battle every time I sit down to write. It means the stakes are still there. I still give a shit. I still need to change the world. It doesn’t matter how many times or how many ways I try to take the pressure off. The pressure is on, baby. We’re changing lives, here. Or, at least one. My life counts, too. So, it’s 9:43PM on Tuesday night. Bed time is 10:30. Let’s see what pile of crap I can come up with in the next 45 minutes. And maybe tomorrow, I won’t have to give myself an hour-long, 1300-word pep talk.