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aawoods

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  1. The author didn't shy away, and it paid off! This book created quite a bit of buzz when it came out back in 2018. A story about the body parts of magical creatures being sold on the internet? Gross! Weird! It was an immediate sensation. Some people thought it pushed the boundaries of YA too far, edging into "creep-out" category. However, with almost 2 thousand Amazon reviews, clearly the audience wasn't creeped out enough to avoid it. Having finally spent the time to read it, I can see why this novel took the YA horror scene by storm. Not only is it a hooky idea, the author isn't afraid to go there. It's bloody, gory, and honest to the concept. After all, you can't really have a black market for magical body parts without the grotesque realities of body parts, some of them being removed from living victims. Trust me, it's just as chilling as it sounds. I'll be honest: horror isn't exactly a genre I spend a lot of time in (can you tell?). But it seems to me that there is an ineffable allure to books that aren't afraid to get as dark and spooky as the real world can sometimes be. It's refreshing to read an author whose characters are just as complicated and vile as real people, whose story reflects the atrocities that humans can and often are responsible for. A lot of fiction, especially in the YA field, pulls its proverbial punches. The bad guys are never that bad. The danger is never dangerous. The stakes never truly reach life or death, and if they do they're often resolved with an easy plot twist or chosen one deus ex machina. So I can see why this novel stood out in a crowded YA market. The characters in this book don't break down easily into hero and villain. Yes, there are some good antiheroes in here, and you're forced to root for people who are sort of evil in their own right. But the thing that I most respect about Not Even Bones is that it wasn't afraid to depict what this concept would truly look like. There's no sugarcoating here, just as there's no sugarcoating in life. And clearly the audience appreciated it. What about you? Do you read horror? What do you love about the horror genre? Tell us in the comments!
  2. Learn visuals from the masters! As you might have noticed, I've been on a graphic novel kick lately. It started with On a Sunbeam, but has since expanded to several series, some of which I might discuss here later on. But one that deserves to be brought to your attention is the creative, beautiful, and eerie masterwork, Monstress. Monstress takes place in a world where there are magical subspecies of half-human creatures whose bodies can be harvested for Illium, which is used by the human world for power and weaponry. In this beautifully-illustrated, violent setting a young woman named Maika Halfwolf is infected with a dangerous demon who both keeps her safe and makes her into a villain. A monstress, if you will. The story is steampunk and weird and sprawling. But the thing I think writers can learn from this and other graphic novels is the value of imagery. Reading these is, in some ways, more like watching a movie than reading a book. You can see exactly the image the artist/author are trying to convey, and there's very little lost in the translation of telling the story. Their fantasy world is immersive and real, the characters vivid, and the experience all-consuming. Because of this, the plot is able to get away with certain... softness. There's a lot of rambling, many parts of the story that feel like filler, and often a feeling of aimlessness in the character's progression toward her (ever-shifting) goal. This isn't necessarily the comic's fault; most long-running series suffer from similar problems. But because of the gorgeous art and imagery, I (a picky reader, as I'm sure you've noticed by now) don't mind those foibles. I'm so happy just being submerged in this world that I don't care if the story takes more time than it needs to reach where it's going. The lesson, then, is the value of well-executed description. As authors, it can be easy to get lost in the drama, the characters, or the plot and forget to build the world around them. What do things look like, smell like, feel like, taste like? While graphic novels have a clear advantage in the visual department, novels can go even deeper, tapping into all five senses. Don't info-dump, of course, but there's a real art to leading your reader into a world of your making and letting them breathe it in. This is not to say to suddenly inject your narrative with only visuals and abandon the idea of plot or story. It's still critically important to value concept, arc, character growth, and plot points. But even a mediocre or slow-moving story can be elevated by the subtle use of human senses. Build excellent visuals and readers will stay for them. Are you creating a world? How are you creating an immersive experience for your reader? Tell us in the comments!
  3. Different medium? New storytelling lessons! I've never been an enormous reader of graphic novels. Sure, I read Watchmen, Dark Knight, and V For Vendetta, but I was hardly a comic book nerd. Comics always seemed overwhelming to me, this behemoth industry with no clear inroads. Where does one start? Which ones are accessible to the uninitiated, like me? Better to stick with novels. However, a few weekends ago a friend pressed this book into my hands and told me to just give it a try. And, because I can't resist a heartfelt recommendation, I did. To my surprise, I very much enjoyed the beautifully illustrated, surprisingly heartfelt, and well-developed graphic novel, On A Sunbeam. Blending elements of Studio Ghibli, Firefly, and boarding school tropes, this mystical and whimsical story takes place in a universe that is clearly not our own. Its main character, Mia, begins the novel joining a crew who travels around in a giant fish-like ship, restoring ancient floating ruins. Through dual timelines, the reader will come to realize that Mia's tragic past tangles with her current present, pulling her and her newfound "family" across their strange universe to find the love she lost years ago. On A Sunbeam isn't your average science fiction novel, and not just because it's illustrated. It's very light on the science, almost more of a fantasy set in space, and depends more on characters than concepts to draw you into the narrative. Mia, the troublemaking misfit, and the crew she falls in with are warm, welcoming, well-rounded people. The experience of reading her story is slow, cozy, colorful, and safe, despite the high stakes and tense moments that culminate in the climax. The whole novel felt dreamlike and atmospheric and left me with a lovely, uplifted kind of energy that I appreciated, especially in this day and age. On A Sunbeam wasn't perfect, of course. There were a few preachy moments that threw me out of the story, and the author's choice to make the entire cast women without ever acknowledging or explaining the lack of men was distracting. But overall, I think that the lesson an author can take from this story is the value of imagery and meticulous attention to the kind of experience you want to provide. In various interviews, Tillie Walden makes it very clear how inspired she is by Studio Ghibli films and how she wants to recreate that experience in her own work. She executes that intention beautifully here, careful to make every element in the story reflect that sort of whimsical, otherworldly charm. Everything from the art to the dialogue has that soft, friendly openness that pulls you into her world and makes you want to stay a while. So think about what kind of experience you're promising with your novel. Do you want it to be soft and cozy? Hard and thrilling? Epic and raw? Tight and claustrophobic? Contemplate what the reader should expect when coming into your story and then do your best to hit that note on every page. And maybe read a few graphic novels. Because no one does style quite like comic artists. What do you think? Do you read graphic novels? Let us know what you think in the comments!
  4. Horror is more than just jump-scares and gore! It might sound strange, and I've had more than a few weird looks because of it, but whenever I'm asked for my #1 book recommendation, my perennial go-to is the zombie classic, World War Z. That's right, this book reviewer's favorite comfort read is a post-apocalyptic thriller about reanimated corpses. But if you haven't read it I do urge you to give it a chance because it is frankly awesome. Maybe I'll write a book review of that one soon... But because I'm such a Max Brooks fangirl, I couldn't resist listening to the audiobook for Devolution, his latest fictional-documentary approach to another classic horror trope: Bigfoot. Again, it sounds beyond weird to enjoy a book about Bigfoot, but let me tell you that I couldn't put this one down (or stop listening, in this case). I was riveted by the story of a bunch of pampered Seattleites trapped in their small, isolated, eco-friendly commune by the eruption of Rainer. There's this wonderful sense of slow, building tension in the story, knowing what's coming, knowing what happened, and then seeing it all play out through the surviving journal of the protagonist, an anxious millennial-type named Kate who goes from not being able to stand up to her own husband to (SPOILER ALERT) bashing in a primate's skull with a rock (END SPOILER). And therein lies the brilliance of Devolution: how well the horror elements link in with the characters. At its core, the book is about how far from the feral brutality of nature we are in our sheltered modern lives. Each of the characters embodies this contemporary naivete, through their blind faith in the government, idealistic veganism, the savior complex of foreign adoption, or sheer gluttonous laziness. At the start of the novel, the group of people who become stranded together in Greenloop are soft and safe and accustomed to the luxuries of their lives. Needless to say, the story forces them to change. Beyond the wonderful way the book challenges the characters to grow by facing something none of us can even imagine (except Brooks, I suppose), the horror is also deep and, if you'll pardon the pun, primal. I'd never put much thought into why the Bigfoot mythology is so pervasive and fascinating. To me, it had always been this weird thing some people believe in, like anal probes in alien abductions. But reading Devolution you realize that Bigfoot is, in fact, terrifying. The idea of a larger, stronger primate species who might have once overpowered us, who might see us only as troublesomely intelligent food, is spooky to say the least. Because primates are pack hunters. They're smart, use tools, and can be maliciously vicious. If you know anything about chimpanzees, you'll know how horrifically they treat the monkeys they hunt down and slaughter. Setting the stage where a group of abandoned humans have to face their most ancestral enemy was a brilliant storytelling tool, because it allowed Brooks to not only push the character development to its limit, but also help the story worm its way into your mind. Reading Devolution, I couldn't help but wonder how I'd react. What I'd do in a situation like this. How it would feel to suddenly be at the bottom of the food chain again. In short, Devolution was more than just a book to scare you. It was a damn good story! What do you think? Have you read anything by Max Brooks? Do you believe in Bigfoot? Let us know in the comments below!
  5. Respect the craft and you can get away with anything! That's right, I'm mixing it up a bit today to talk about Netflix's latest hit show, a 9-episode animated series created by League of Legends to promote their new game. Even writing that, I can imagine the eye-rolls. A video game adaptation? Really? How good could it possibly be? Reader, let me tell you: really f-ing good. Arcane's story centers around the tragic tale of two sisters from the rough, poor Undercity split up and then reunited years later as adults. The sisters are the (apparently) iconic League characters, Vi and Jinx. There are multiple other plots about magic, technology, politics, and rival gangs, but the double-helix spine of the story is the relationship between these two important characters and the trauma they share. And here is where Arcane stands out from other video game adaptations, because I, coming into the show with next to no knowledge about the game its based on, was completely absorbed. There was no feeling of having to know backstory or that the show was leaning on pre-existing lore that only game fans would know about. Vi and Jinx/Powder were fully fleshed out characters with their own motivations, characteristics, and unique, sympathetic backstories. I fell in love with both of them (and many of the minor characters) because of the strength of the writing, not because of whatever cool powers they have or game references the writers made. They were people first and game characters second, allowing the uninitiated (like me) into this dense, complex world through the strength of the show's plot. In short, the show writers respected the craft of storytelling and took no shortcuts, even though they absolutely could have. They were working with a huge and rabid fanbase who was guaranteed to watch the show. They could have phoned it in. But they didn't, and their work has gone viral because of that choice. What can we, who don't have massive, hungry fanbases, learn from Arcane? Well first of all, I'd recommend watching it as a storyteller, because the show has so much going for it in that department. There are evocative character arcs, incredible relationship complexity, cool fight scenes with actual weight and drama, and heartbreaking choices. The show pulls you in from the first beautifully animated panorama and doesn't ever loosen its grip, including its final cliffhanger moment. However, there's a lesson to be learned here even if you choose not to binge-watch this latest phenomenon of nerd culture. It is, as always, the value of good craft. You can have the best (or worst!) idea in the world and so much of its success boils down to proper execution. It's obviously better to have a killer high concept idea to work with. But even if you don't, even if you're wading into some muddy mess of lore or backstory (as most video game adaptations are), Arcane shows that almost any story can be excellently told with the proper balance of skill and training. Hone your writing muscles and, from what I've seen, you can do just about anything with them. Have you watched Arcane? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!
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  7. Any book with this much buzz deserves your attention! Love her or hate her, Sally Rooney is one of the most famous authors of our time. Hailing from Ireland, she came out of nowhere in 2017 with her surprise hit, Conversations With Friends. Blending elements of literary and women's fiction, the book was well-received and widely read, leading a splashy deal for her next book. Which was Normal People. You'd have to be living under a boulder in Croatia to have missed the massive media storm that was Normal People. It spawned a BBC adaptation, sold literally millions of copies, won tons of awards, and probably showed up in your mom's book group. Everyone was reading it. Everyone was talking about it. Which is exactly why we should here. On its surface, Normal People is a pretty straightforward story. It's the painful and frustrating tale of two people who seem well-suited for each other but, for a variety of reasons, keep crossing signals romantically. Marianne and Connell are from different economic strata, which creates tension in their ongoing relationship/friendship. But really, they're both flawed and selfish and tragically bad at communication. But also deeply, deeply compelling. When I first started Normal People I didn't think I was going to finish. The writing was simple to the point of boring, the formatting odd, and the dialogue cringe-worthy (I still go back and forth on whether or not Rooney intended it that way). However, the more I read the more I realized that these two fully-realized characters were getting under my skin. I found myself caring about the self-hating Marianne and the socially awkward Connell. They were almost too real, devoid of the shiny polish that most modern entertainment gives its characters. They were people you might meet at parties, friends you might complain about because they were so stupid. But that was what made them addictive. It was the romance trope of miscommunication done in a hyper-realist way that slipped under my skin and stayed with me, even a year after reading it. I'm not sure I'll read Rooney's next book, but I think the appeal of her writing is the raw humanity that she never shies away from, no matter how uncomfortable. She's unflinching in her portrayal of people as disastrous messes, ever wounding each other because of the issues they can't escape. It might not exactly be pleasant to read about, but it's real and believable and you find yourself praying the whole time that these two unlikable, compelling people can find happiness that, in the real world, they likely wouldn't. So think about your story. How can you bring more authentic honesty into your characters? How can you make them feel so real that the reader can't look away? It doesn't matter what genre you're writing in; every story must have a person at its heart, and the more real you can make them, the more real their story (and the drama by extension) will feel. If you can make them as evocative as the main duo of Normal People, then even the most mundane story can become a page-turner.
  8. Sometimes even death can be boring. I was drawn to They Both Die at the End when I saw it listed alongside my previous read, How To Stop Time. After watching the multi-year buzz for this book, not to mention seeing the raving reviews, I wondered if it might be worth finally giving it a try. Maybe it wasn't as melancholy and naval-gazing as I worried it would be. And the concept of a near future in which a faceless organization called Death-Cast calls people to let them know when they're going to die was intriguing. I checked it out almost two weeks ago. Reader, I still have not finished this book. The concept is indeed very cool, and handled reasonably well at the start. There's an interesting moral question of whether or not you would want to know if you're going to die, and of course the tension of whether or not Rufus and Mateo actually will die at the end. It's dramatic to see them try to put their lives in order, despite only being 17. And Mateo, at least, is sympathetic enough to have me rooting for him. But around the halfway point, the story loses momentum. Because, like in How To Stop Time, there really isn't a story. What started out as a propulsive plot with a clear deadline turns into a meandering, chatty, mawkish meditation on death and life and the things we leave behind. I can see why some readers might enjoy it, especially young readers who haven't been forced to face their own mortality yet. And to an extent I respect what the book is trying to do. But good intentions do not make a good read. Like How To Stop Time, this novel needed more plot meat. It leaned too heavily on the concept and the larger story-question to get people to the finish instead of leading them through something. Maybe a clearer goal from one of the protagonists would have helped. Or a deeper understanding of Death-Cast and either its destruction or redemption. Or a glimmer of hope that could be left behind, like money won or forgiveness earned or mistakes set right. If I'm repeating myself, it's only because this is such an important lesson for writers to learn. Concept is not enough. Yes, it's important. Yes, it's critical to getting sold and talked-about and launched on a career path. But even the highest of concepts will only get you so far. You still have to craft a story. All the way through. Even if the reader already knows the end. How are you keeping your concept from stagnating in plotless meandering? How will you keep your shiny idea sparkling when the novelty has worn off? Let us know in the comments!
  9. Elevate the mundane with an expertly-crafted plot device! I suppose it's no secret how much I enjoy a good romcom. If an author can make me laugh while also providing some of the romantic warm and fuzzies, then here, take my money! But the problem is that romance is heavily trodden ground. It's incredibly hard to find something that hasn't been done a thousand times, and better. In the game of publishing statistics, the odds of writing a novel romance (pun intended) are against you. Enter: plot devices. Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales has a lot of tropey elements. The story revolves around sassy and smart Darcy Phillips who is blackmailed into helping sexy Australian Brougham get his ex-girlfriend back. What follows is a sort of love-square, where Darcy is in love with her best friend and Brougham is in love with his ex-girlfriend and shenanigans ensue that keep both of them from who they want, only to have them fall in love with each other instead. It's got LGBT representation and the intriguing backdrop of an expensive private school for spice. But what really makes this teen romcom stand out is Darcy's side-business of answering anonymous letters from her fellow classmates and helping them solve their problems. As a plot device, this works exceedingly well to elevate what would have been a ho-hum story of missed timing into a tense and interesting drama. Not only do Darcy's misadventures in giving advice add complexity to the tale, they also provide opportunities for characterization, heightened stakes as you wonder whether or not she'll get caught, a compelling backstory that could come between her and her love interest, and a reason for the whole story to kick off (Brougham discovering Darcy's secret and threatening to expose her unless she helps him). It might sound like a simple fix, and it is! But so many writers would stop at the first level, building a handful of engaging protagonists in loving detail without considering what will make them stand out in a crowded market. Your writing can be gorgeous, your heroes sympathetic and funny, your setting amazing. But sometimes (often) that's not enough. So give your novel that extra something. Who knows? Maybe it's all you need to go from querying trenches to bestseller success! Have you considered a plot device? What are you using to elevate your story? Let us know in the comments!
  10. If your book is all concept, it's all boring! First of all, I will admit to having enjoyed this book when said and done. Even though I'm about to use it as an example of what not to do, it was still a heartwarming read about love and loss and how trust can conquer fear if we let it. But... This novel is a classic case of the concept getting way, way ahead of the plot. So first, the concept: How to Stop Time revolves around a man named Tom Hazard who ages slower than normal people. He's not immortal exactly, but his body takes so long to grow old that he might as well be. Born in the days of witch-burning and religious fanaticism, Tom has learned the hard way how hostile society can be to his condition. Nowadays, as part of The Albatross Society, he follows the command of an ancient man named Hendrich who does everything possible to keep their existence a secret. Including kill people. Now, the plot of the story is fairly straightforward. Tom meets a woman and breaks the most important rule of The Albatross Society: he falls in love. On the surface, this should lead to an exciting tale of him struggling to keep his love interest safe as the Society closes in on her. But it doesn't. That's because the majority of this book focuses on Tom's various jaunts through history, meeting Shakespeare and surviving the suspicious streets of London. We end up learning more about the mother of his only child, who died over two hundred years ago, than we do about the actual present-day person he's supposed to be interested in. There's a bit of danger and excitement toward the climax of the book, but it doesn't make up for the 330 pages of jarring flashbacks and nicely-written but ultimately pointless tangents. And the character of Tom doesn't help matters, spending most of the story aimless, goal-less, and feeling sorry for himself (one might even say that his lack of a goal is the reason the story has no plot to begin with). In short, Haig fell in love with his concept and didn't build a strong enough plot framework to support it. We at Algonkian teach the importance of a high concept. It is arguably the single biggest factor in a book's success. This novel, if anything, proves our rule! Despite its slow pace, plodding and uneven storytelling, and morose protagonist, How to Stop Time is an international bestseller, soon to be a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch. So clearly the hook is working. However, this book could have been much better if Haig had given his protagonist a proper goal or made him more active. If Tom had been driving the plot forward, acting with direction and purpose instead of letting others dictate his life, then the story could have been energetic, propulsive, and impossible to put down. Who knows if it would have made the novel more successful, but I sure think it certainly would have made it more fun. Look at your own novel and ask: have I lost my plot in favor of my concept? Is my main character interesting outside their circumstances? Or am I relying on the flash of cool ideas and settings to hook readers in rather than telling a proper, human story? Let us know in the comments!
  11. Ever wanted to read a story about a lesbian from the 70's trapped on a modern-day subway train? This novel has been getting all the buzz, hitting every bestseller list known to man, flush with 5-star reviews, and positively exploding the internet with fanart, fanfiction, and legions of excited—you guessed it!—fans. McQuiston has acheived with two books the level of star-power that most authors never reach in their lifetime. Which, to any aspiring novelist, begs the question of: how? Flush from the success of her first book, Red, White & Royal Blue, McQuiston's sophomore novel branches into supernatural territory. When protagonist 23-year-old August stumbles upon a charming stranger on the subway and falls in love, she'll soon find out that Jane has actually been stuck on that same subway train for nearly 40 years. Together they'll have to conquer the space-time continuum to set Jane free and maybe reach their happily ever after. On the surface, this is a fairly straightforward high-concept romance. It's Kate & Leopold redone in the era of LGBT acceptance and angsty millenials. Written by an author with a pre-existing fanbase, it was destined to be a success. But after reading it, I realize there's a thing this book does that elevates it from simple entertainment into something that digs beneath the surface and really makes the reader stop and consider more than just the story. Historical contrast. In this novel, McQuiston shows with thoughtful clarity how much the world has changed since the 1970's. The reality Jane left behind is painfully different and bleaker than the one August lives in today. Where August has the freedom to question her sexuality, explore her identity, and be free and safe in her self-expression, Jane grew up in a world where such things were socially unthinkable, maybe even deadly. This disparity serves as the foundation of a story that centers around queer characters and social misfits, crafting an atmosphere of celebration and enthusiaasm. How glorious, this book seems to shout, that we now allow people to be themselves! The effect is an uplifting and personal read that resonates well beyond the romance in its pages. If you're writing a novel with any kind of historial element, then perhaps consider what kind of contrast you can create with the reality your readers live in (e.g. the modern world). How can you illuminate the difference, in ways both good and bad. This is not only a way to give your story more theme and depth, but also craft a narrative that echoes in the reader's own mind. Make them picture themselves in the time and place you're describing. Make the story personal, and that'll make it last and linger. And maybe hit some bestseller lists as well.
  12. Look past the prose, because that's not what some readers are there for. I'll admit it, I'm a bit of a book snob. After spending most of my conscious life as a reader and nearly all of my adult life as a writer, I have strong opinions about story, prose, characters, etc. And sure, I know that opinion is subjective and no book works for everyone. But I thought I had a good handle on quality. I thought I understood, for the most part, what makes some books successful and other books flop. And then came From Blood and Ash. I picked this one up because it's been a runaway bestseller the likes of which publishing rarely sees. With 25K reviews on Amazon, endless scrolls of fan art, legions of diehard fans, and the kind of hype that usually doesn't happen until there's a movie adaptation, it felt like this book was everywhere. Must read, people said. So during one of my weekend trips to a friend's wedding, I checked it out from the library to read on the plane. First of all, I don't recommend reading this book in public if you blush easily. But more importantly for these purposes, I found myself fascinated by this 600 page fantasy-romance hybrid. See, the thing about From Blood and Ash is that, at the prose level it... well to put it politely, it leaves something to be desired. There are grammar errors, run-on sentences, misused words, cringe-worthy dialogue, and more ellipses than you've ever seen in your life. It's supposed to be a traditional sword-and-sorcerer fantasy, but the heroine uses modern slang all over the place and the world-building is confusing at best, non-existent at worst (I never actually learned what a Maiden is supposed to be or do or accomplish). Yet the book succeeds. Why? Well, because it delivers with raunchy flourish exactly what the readers are there for. People aren't coming to this book for the epic fantasy or the intricate world-building or the beautiful writing. They're coming for the relationship. Anyone who's picking up this book is doing so because they're looking for a fun romance to get lost in. They want a spunky protagonist (check), a sexy, brooding, protective hero (check), and just enough background setting for the story to feel immersive (check...mostly). In short, From Blood and Ash delivers on what it promises, and that has the readers coming in droves. It might seem like I'm being hard on this book, but the truth is that I read the whole thing. I'm quite good at abandoning stories that aren't working for me, so the fact that I finished this one meant that it did. I cared about Poppy and Hawke and wanted to see their story through to the end. I'm tempted to pick up the sequel and maybe read more of the author's extensive backlist. Which means the author did her job. Please don't get me wrong, grammar is still important. Quality still helps sell high-concept stories. That's just the point though: quality helps. Great prose and snappy dialogue and excellent world-building help put your book on the map, but it's not the meat and potatoes of storytelling. The thing that inspires 25K readers on Amazon to leave 5-star reviews is the story. The plot. The spine the whole novel is built around. Get that right and the rest doesn't matter all that much.
  13. It's amazing what a great cast can do. Having already read some of Taylor Jenkins Reid's writing, I went into this audiobook with high expectations. I loved Evelyn Hugo and was excited by the prospect of a novelized documentary about a fictional band from the 70's. I've always been a fan of non-traditional novel formats, so this book was right up my alley. What I wasn't expecting was how much Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne got under my skin. Daisy Jones & The Six is more than just the story of a made-up band. On the surface, the plot itself if fairly mundane. It's built around a pretty straightforward romance between the married lead musician of The Six (Billy Dunne) and Daisy Jones herself. The story revolves around these two characters, dipping in and out of some minor drama in the rest of the band. It's light on plot and heavy on character, leaning hard on its two leads (much like the band's success) to carry the story. And the reason it works so phenomenally well is that those two leads are fantastic. The thing that propels this novel from mundane into bestseller category is that Jenkins Reid managed to capture the essence and charisma of rock stars. There's a reason we're drawn to certain people, a magnetism that some have more than others, and this book brings to the page that nameless, alluring something that keeps our eyes glued to the Brad Pitts and Scarlett Johanssons of the world. It's in Daisy's uncaring vulnerability, in Billy's restless and addictive personality, even in the quirky-but-lovable members of the band who stand in the shadow of their two superstars. The Six's story is a complex, addictive mess and I found myself unable to look away. Plot is important, don't get me wrong, and I think this novel could have done with a bit more of it. But the lesson to be gleaned from Daisy Jones & The Six is to think about what people are drawn to. What makes a Hollywood star or a successful movie or a big-hit reality TV show? What do people find themselves glued to, sometimes in spite of their better taste or interest? What do audiences find magnetic? Then try to replicate that in your stories. After all, fiction is a funhouse mirror meant to reflect the best and worst of life. So take the most alluring, addictive things you can find and make them as shiny and supersized as possible. If you're lucky, you too might have a blockbuster on your hands.
  14. Like the author herself, my romance-genre reviews have now graduated from the sweet YA variety to the, let's say, spicier brand of fantasy. Let's plunge right in, shall we? Most people know Sarah J. Maas as the breakout author of the bestselling Throne of Glass series, a Cinderella retelling which fell solidly into the teen-fiction category. She rose to prominence in the boom of YA retellings and has since become a staple of ComicCons and book festivals, especially those targeted at adolescent readers. But Maas surprised everyone with her adult debut, A Court of Thorns and Roses, continuing on her theme of fantasy retellings (Beauty and the Beast this time), but transitioning over into solidly adult territory. The plot itself is relatively straightforward. When a mortal woman kills a wolf in the woods, she's shocked to learn that he was actually a Fae lord from beyond the wall that separates his world and hers. Soon, a terrifying beast shows up demanding retribution. She offers herself to save her family and is subsequently dragged back to his enchanted castle to live amongst the terrifying creatures she'd only ever heard about in myth and legend. Of course there are larger pieces at play, a secret plot and eerie magic that she learns about over the course of the story. And there's some surprisingly intense action at the end of the novel that makes up for the somewhat slow lead-up to it. But all that doesn't matter very much. Maas knows what her readers are there for. The romance. Fantasy romance can be a lot of things, but it is almost always a relationship between a human and some kind of supernatural creature. This book is no exception. Stuck on the gorgeous grounds of a magical estate, the heroine finds herself drawn to and fascinated by the resident "beast," who is obviously sexy, charming, and good at heart. He does his best to protect her from malevolent forces, forces that (eventually)move forward and make the plot more interesting. And, in the end, the protagonist will have to fight for the love she initially thought impossible. A Court of Thorns and Roses isn't the best thing I've ever read. It's somewhat poorly paced, flowery in language, and inconsistent in its delivery. But there's a reason that it's amaassed (see what I did there?) more than 20K reviews on Amazon. Like Twilight, Maas understands what her readers want: a lethal but soft-hearted love interest for a vulnerable human woman against a familiar-but-different backdrop. It's escapism, pure and simple. Female readers can immerse themselves in the dream of being swept off their feet by a gorgeous but cursed Fae lord who will do anything to keep them safe. They can imagine themselves as the clever heroine, besting magical obstacles and evil creatures. With the combination of the Fae mythology and the Beauty and the Beast retelling, the readers also have a gratifying sense of familiarity, which gives them even more to hold onto. Maas can still surprise in the framework she's created, of course. But her fans don't have to work so hard to get invested. Oh, and the sex scenes help too. If you're tempted to write fantasy romance, be sure to keep in mind what your audience is looking for. They don't want complex morality or artistic language or even clever plot-twists (although those never hurt). They want fantasy. They want romance. And they want it familiar enough that they can focus more on the experience than on trying to figure it all out. Are you a reader or writer of this genre? Have you checked out A Court of Thorns and Roses? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
  15. If you were to make a list of every classic science fiction trope you can think of, you'd be hard pressed to find one NOT included in this trilogy. Homicidal AI? Check. Space zombies? Check. Predatory aliens in tight, dripping corridors? Creepy check. Corporate warfare, wormhole collapse, pew-pew space battles, child hacker geniuses, corny nicknames, hand-wavy science, and so much snark? You see where I'm going with this. But you know what? It absolutely freakin' works. The Illuminae Files is one of the most ridiculously fun series I've read in a long time, maybe ever. Formatted as a "dossier of hacked documents," it tells the story of a bunch of teenagers standing up to a predatory corporation intent on erasing one colossal mistake. It takes place in the distant future where humanity has spanned the stars using wormhole technology and interstellar vessels run by massive (and apparently unstable) AI computers. Like most YA fiction, the adolescent protagonists are all smarter, stronger, and funnier than most real-world teenagers would be. This might bother some, but with Kaufman and Kristoff's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to storytelling, I hardly even noticed how implausible it is for a 17-year-old to beat down a trained assassin while a 15-year-old outsmarts top-notch computer programmers. How can anyone focus on that when there's just so much going on? While you can read this series just to have a darn good time, there are also ample lessons to be learned from The Illuminae Files about how to entertain your reader. The pacing of these books is fast, relentless, and consistently either funny or dramatic. Every "document" has something amusing or interesting about it, from the clever banter to the ass-kicking fights to the AI slowly sliding into madness. And while the story is complex enough to make your head spin, the morals are shockingly straightforward. The protagonists are all Good and the villains are all Bad and the writers manage to create a crystal clear dichotomy without ever leaning too heavily on cardboard cutout villain tropes. They keep things engaging, with every character fleshed out enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief, even while the ridiculous shenanigans continue to escalate. Perhaps most importantly, these writers never lose sight of the emotion. These books were obviously written to please and not much else. Like Marvel movies, they're designed for fun. But that doesn't mean they never deal with the dark side of life or grapple with the significance of what their characters are going through. These teens have to sacrifice, hurt themselves, even murder to survive. They've all lost loved ones and are dealing with the kind of pressure most people would collapse under. The stakes are as high as they get, and the writers don't belittle it. Kaufman and Kristoff strike a pitch-perfect balance between rollicking enjoyment and emotional heft, giving the story a depth that launches it from pulp fiction into the realms of true art. And sure, they won't be winning a Pulitzer anytime soon. But for the gift of a delightful diversion, the fans will keep coming back. Including me. (Oh, and pro tip: give the audiobooks a listen. Trust me, they did not skimp on the production for those bad boys.) Have you read this series? Were you as entertained as I was? Let us know in the comments!
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