Books: Handbook for Mortals Controversy

Cross posted from PepperWords.

I won't go into the details—there are plenty of articles all over the 'net that will give you the blow by blow if you want it—but the basic story is this: a new YA novel titled Handbook for Mortals suddenly turned up in the #1 spot of the NYT Bestsellers List. That's not so outrageous, one supposes. Nothing can stay at #1 forever, and The Hate U Give had been there a while. But this was a book and author no one had heard of. It hadn't climbed the list, it just sort of appeared. Like magic.

Some curious parties went sleuthing and discerned that someone—the author, her publisher, maybe the would-be producer of the film version of this book—had gamed the system by calling NYT-reporting bookstores and placing bulk orders for HFM. Never mind that physical copies of the book are not available (or weren't at the time). Apparently whoever was ordering all these books "for an event" wasn't concerned about, you know, not having them. ??? Seems weird. Especially since every order came in at just under the number of books that would have flagged the order as a corporate sale.

The nail in the coffin seems to have come from associates at the bookstores who mentioned being asked whether they were NYT-reporting stores before the mysterious caller(s) placed the order. Way to be subtle, yo.

The author, Lani Sarem, denies any knowledge of such antics. She says they had encouraged stores to order in bulk in advance of upcoming events and conventions. She also says the marketing for the book has been targeted at said conventions, which is why the book wasn't well-known in wider YA circles. In other words, just because no one has heard of her in one circle doesn't mean she can't sell a bunch of books. Because there's more than one circle.

Though, usually, if something is getting traction at conventions and such, I feel like the publishing world keeps track of that too. The publishing community is seldom sideswiped by something or someone in its blind spot.

That said, I got curious. I wondered if maybe HFM was just a really good book, an underground hit rising to the top. So I went and read the free sample on Amazon.

Um . . .


It's really not very good. (That being my personal opinion, of course.) Boy does she love the word "basically." And the author seems keen to hawk her ties to the entertainment industry and all her famous friends. Much of the criticism lodged at Sarem and her book is based on the idea the "marketing" (aka, the buying of a top spot on the NYT list) was designed to launch investor interest in the movie version rather than sell the book at all. Per IMDb, the main character will be played by Sarem herself. Which is probably why the book reads like a bad Mary Sue story.

But here's the truth: publishing isn't a meritocracy. Good books aren't always what sell. Great writers are often buried by popular trash. Someone who takes the time to lovingly craft a story is going to get run over by the writer churning out half-baked manuscripts because these days it's quantity over quality if you want to make any kind of money.

This isn't to say you shouldn't take the time to write a good book, get it edited, etc. I'm just pointing out that readers aren't always as picky as the writing community. All writers should be readers, but not all readers are writers, and the readers who aren't writers aren't looking at all the details writers do. Anyone can admire a beautiful house, but a builder is going to look for the nuts and bolts. Or whatever houses have.

I will say, the cover of HFM leaves one to wonder whether artist Gill Del-Mace gave permission to have his work adapted? Per the copyright page, they did at least get permission for some song lyrics.

Do I think HFM tried to game the system? Evidence points that way, but who knows? Maybe there are people really buying and reading the book. It hardly matters now since the NYT revised their list and restored The Hate U Give to the #1 spot. Handbook for Mortals is MIA.


Movies: Logan Lucky

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Rebecca Blunt (?)
Bleeker Street, 2017
PG-13; 119 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


An cinema employee called this, "a hick Italian Job," and that about sums it up, I suppose. It lacks the slickness or sophistication of something like Ocean's Eleven, but it's fun in its own way.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck West Virginian whose brother Clyde (Adam Driver) believes their family is cursed. Clyde is himself a one-handed bartender, having lost his left hand and forearm during two tours in Iraq.

When Jimmy's ex-wife tells him she and her new husband are moving—and taking Jimmy's daughter Sadie with them—Jimmy's determination to be able to stay close prompts him to hatch a plan to rob the motor speedway. With the help of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig doing a fair, if somewhat uneven, job of a Southern accent), Joe's brothers, and their own sister Mellie, Jimmy and Clyde set the heist in motion.

I expected this to be funnier, but it certainly has its moments. The pacing is a little weird, and there are some half-baked subplots that either needed more cooking time or should have been left out of the ingredients list entirely. But on the whole, the movie is enjoyable and serves up more or less exactly what is stated on the menu.

Best scene: Game of Thrones argument. Runner up: Joe Bang explains science.

This isn't one that needs to be seen on the big screen, but it is a fun little film. Too bad it opened opposite The Hitman's Bodyguard because, while I think the two movies are very different, they'd likely have some audience overlap. And THB is certainly the glossier, shinier bit of celluloid. (No, not literally. I know it's all digital now.) So I think more people went for that one than this. Not having seen THB yet, I can't compare, but Logan Lucky is worth consideration.


The Great American Eclipse 2017

Just in case some of you are idiots—and I hope not, I mean, I don't want to believe that, but better to err on the side of caution—let's be clear:


No, not even when it's being eclipsed.

No, not even if you peer through your fingers or a slotted spoon or something.

No, not even if you use a mirror. In fact, that's probably worse.

No, not through a telescope; that's definitely worse. (Unless you have a solar telescope specifically designed for looking at the sun, and no, you don't.)

If you don't have eclipse glasses (and if you do, please verify they're not bogus), there are some ways to make your own viewers. Find a reputable site and follow the instructions. Try here if you're too lazy to look it up yourself.

Please don't be an idiot. Enjoy the eclipse safely.


Are you f'ing kidding me? What did I just say???


I'm going to pause here for something rather serious. There's a lot of news flying around about racism, white supremacists, etc. Let me just say . . . I grew up in the American South. Privileged if not by sex then at least by skin color. If the homosexual kids I went to school with feared for their lives, I never thought about it. If the black kids I went to school with had a more difficult time, I never thought about that either. Same for any Jewish kids, Muslim kids . . . I couldn't even say whether I knew any Jewish or Muslim kids.


Not having to think about things like that. Being blind to the difficulties others may face for whatever reason—skin color, religion, sexual orientation.

I'm not proud of it. I'm sorry that it's taken all this to fully open my understanding. I never wished any of my black, homosexual, or differently religious friends any harm. But my lack of interest—my indifference—may have been harmful in the same way neglect can be.

I can't change who I was, but I can change who I am.

And while I'll never fully comprehend what others live with day to day, I can be here for them.

We must think about it.

About them.

About our friends and neighbors of every color, orientation and creed.

We can't hope for things to just get better somehow. We can't shrug and say, "Well, it's nothing to me."

You feel like your privilege is being threatened? Good. It should be. It's time to really, truly be united. Against hate and ignorance and fear.


Television: Doctor Who, "Thin Ice"

It's going to take forever for me to get through all the episodes stockpiled on my DVR. Doctor Who just isn't must-watch television for me any more, which kind of makes me sad. It's like I'm trying desperately to care but it's a struggle. There are so many other shows, or even other things to do, that are more appealing.

This episode is a case in point. The Doctor and Bill go to a Frost Fair in London, 1814. (I think it was 1814 anyway. Could be remembering wrong.) There is something large that lives in the Thames and must be fed. There are aristocrats eager to feed it, and the "food" is mainly people of lower classes who are expendable. So . . . social commentary, which is par for the course, but not even very interesting social commentary because it's nothing we haven't heard or seen, nor is it all that original a take. The episode therefore felt very generic.

Meh. This is only the third episode for this season, and while the show is not as bad as it used to be, it's also not as good as it could be. I feel indifferent, which is better than when I felt angry and annoyed, I guess. Then again, when a show can make you feel something, that means you still care. When you cease to feel anything, it means you've stopped caring. Hrm.


Books (Kind Of): The Adventures of Sel & Am

So I had been doing an exclusive serial story in my author newsletter. But now I'm shuttering that newsletter because I just don't have the time to keep up with it, and of all the social media I do, it really had the lowest ROI. But I don't want to leave readers hanging! So I will be posting The Adventures of Sel & Am on Wattpad. The first part is up nowhttps://www.wattpad.com/story/119342727-the-adventures-of-sel-am (if you are/were a newsletter recipient, you've already read it). More to come.


Books: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I first became aware of this book during my writing retreat and workshop in France; the agent running the workshop used samples from the book, and those samples were so beautifully written I felt the need to read the whole thing.

The book in its entirety does live up to that first promise. Dual tales are spun: Sarah Grimké, daughter of a wealthy Charleston jurist and plantation owner, and a slave in the Grimké household named Hetty (basket name: Handful). Sarah Grimké was a real person, and Kidd did loads of research then embroidered the story with her lovely prose.

As beautiful as the book is, as well-written as it is, I will admit feeling fatigued toward the end. I sort of wanted it to wrap up already. It's like a movie that goes on just a few minutes too long, you know? Some of that embroidery, some of the lingering on thoughts and moments, was perhaps not all that necessary.

But on the whole I enjoyed it, even if I did skim the last 30 pages. ("Yes, yes, okay, but what happens? Let's just get to that bit.") The bad luck that these two women suffer, both together and singly, at times feels like too much to bear. Still, it's all wrapped in a gorgeous package of beautiful writing, smooth as a hull cutting through calm waters. I admire the craft put into this book, and the research and effort. If a story is a box, this one is artfully carved and gilded. Maybe it didn't need quite so much gold leaf, but it's lovely.


Movies: The Dark Tower

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Directed By: Nikolaj Arcel
Written By: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel (screenplay), based on the books by Stephen King
Sony Pictures, 2017
PG-13; 95 minutes
3 stars (out of 5)


There's a common trope in YA novels these days—fantasy YA novels, that is—where the main character has a dream, or several dreams, that gives him or her important information. That's where The Dark Tower starts, too. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been seeing a psychiatrist because he keeps having nightmares about a man in black and a, er, dark tower. Everyone assumes the dreams are trauma from having lost his father in a fire a year before, but of course like every good YA story the child is right all along and is the true hero.

While watching The Dark Tower, I was reminded of things like the Percy Jackson books. This really is a young adult story, and I wonder if that is why the critics have taken it so badly. They expected (or wanted) something else?

I read The Gunslinger a very, very long time ago and have little memory of it. Never read any of the other books in the series. So I was able to approach the movie as a mostly clean slate and with little to no expectations. My only thought was: Idris Elba is the coolest guy who ever guy'd, and I like Matty McConaughey, so why not?

It's a short movie, and somewhat perfunctory, by which I mean the parts that should have had the most emotional impact failed to fully land their punches. And the "funny" parts could have been played for more laughs. But for what it is, The Dark Tower is . . . ::shrug:: It's fine. McConaughey hams it up a bit, and his jacket has weird sleeves that I found distracting, but eh. Whatever.

My 11-year-old son, though? He came out of the movie really liking it. Which only reinforced my feeling that it was definitely more a YA story than an adult one.

Lots of fun easter eggs for King fans (and I'm sure I didn't even catch all of them). I can at least say I liked it more than Valerian; I did not at any point get bored as Tower moves along at a brisk clip. Part of me wants to say Elba is wasted here, but at the same time he's so perfect as Roland that, even if he is wasted, we benefit from it. And so does the film.

In short, not as bad as everyone seems to think. Or else I just think differently. Wouldn't be the first time.


IWSG: August 2017

Cross posted from PepperWords.

It's time again for the Insecure Writer's Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Question of the Month: What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

Well, I used to work in publishing as an editor (and sometimes still do freelance work), so I have a healthy list of peeves. I think the thing to keep in mind is: there's a difference between things that are correct and incorrect versus preferences. Certainly, anything incorrect is annoying, and when an author seems unschooled in basic grammar, that's a problem for the reader. "Bad writing" can therefore be listed as a peeve. But many writers can at least put a sentence together. Some just have "tics"—little writing quirks. You see it in even the most established authors.

I know one writer who is what I call "comma happy." I mean, I use commas pretty freely myself, and this guy outstrips me by a lot. Most of the commas are unnecessary, though not "wrong" per se, though I find reading his work halting because of all the pauses the commas create.

Tense problems are something that bother me, and they're a common problem. Even I make those mistakes. Every peeve I have is one I've committed, probably more than once, at that's what bothers me most.

As for peeves when I'm reading or writing or editing: noise and interruptions, of course!