Kay: I Blame Jennifer Crusie

For the last couple of decades, I’ve traveled during the holidays, enduring the long lines at the airport, the crowds, and the bad tempers that the season seems to bring out in revelers. This year I stayed home. I went to a small dinner party, I had a couple of people over, and on New Year’s Eve, I stayed home and watched most of Good Omens with David Tennent. I thought I’d probably get the new year off to a good start if I had good omens.

Alas for my other activity, reading. I spend two weeks reading. A lot.

No good omens there.

Pretty much everything I started was a DNF for me. I didn’t finish it. Couldn’t. Every book was boring, too long, too pointless. Meh, if not downright yuck.

I blame Jenny.

When we poor, unsuspecting students enrolled in the McDaniel class on writing romance some years ago, I had no idea that my reading life would be forever altered, just because Jennifer Crusie was teaching us how to write a better novel.

“Story is your protagonist in conflict with other characters,” she’d say. “What does your protagonist do to pursue her dream? What does her antagonist do to stop her? Whatever it is, it’s a life-and-death struggle!”

Or this: “What does your character want? What is her goal? Her motivation?”

Or this: “Escalate your turning points! Raise the stakes!”

Or this: “When the conflict stops, the story stops!”

There was a lot more like that.

By the end of the year, we pretty much got it. We might not always be able to see a problem right away, we might have trouble executing our story to our satisfaction, but when we wondered why something wasn’t working well and someone pointed out our error, we pretty much got it.

Which brings me back to my holiday of reading.

With great anticipation, I started with an ebook I’d bought on sale. It was a best seller, and I could see why. It had a clever opening. The protagonist was a worry-wort. Two secondary characters were hilarious. The setup was intriguing. The danger was palpable. I was hooked until about 15 percent in. Then the protagonist thought for a while. At the end of the chapter, he was still thinking. Into the next chapter, still thinking. At the end of that chapter, still thinking.

I was bored and impatient. When was that guy going to do something? Try something? Fail at something?

What would Jenny say? I could hear it in my head: No action = no conflict = no story. I closed the book and set it aside.

I started another. This one was also promising, and there was action galore! The protagonist had strengths and foibles I could relate to. The antagonist fought our heroine at every step. The battles! The intrigue! Every chapter was a tour de force of derring-do!

At about 50 percent in, I thought, this is fun, but what does she want? What is her goal? All this fighting is nice, but there’s no conflict.

I closed the book and set it aside.

There were more books, but not any greater success.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy I attended the McDaniel class on romance writing. I got a lot out of it, and I’m a better writer because of it. Thank you, Jenny.

But my reading? That seems to have taken a deep dive into the Land of No Return. I’m not enjoying books the way I used to, uncritically and enthusiastically. I spot flaws. I lose patience, I get bored, and I quit reading. I blame you, Jenny. (But thank you just the same.)

Folks, help a person out here. What books would you recommend whole-heartedly, so I can start the new year off right? I’d be grateful for any suggestions.




12 thoughts on “Kay: I Blame Jennifer Crusie

  1. LOL! Oh, boy, this is my new reading life, too. Getting older has had an effect as well — I am not going to live forever, and I’m sure there are PLENTY of books that don’t waste three (five, eight) chapters spinning their wheels.

    I will say, you had a great reading year last year — I think I got two books you recommended, and enjoyed them very much. *Less* (Elizabeth also liked that one) and *In The Pond*. Excellent books!

    I had good luck with romance at the end of 2019. I read a couple of Jackie Lau’s romances (*The Ice Cream Lover* and *Man vs. Durian*) and found them good, light fun with a nice dash of sexiness. Lots of things going on, although not much in the way of swords or explosions.

    Courtney Milan is also a good bet. I read her Victorian lesbian novel, *Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure* which is about a con by a good woman driven to desperate measures — and everyone wins in the end except the bad guy.

    And then there’s KJ Charles. I read two of her books last fall. One was an m/m romance called *Any OId Diamonds* and the other was in the same world and an m/f romance called *The Gilded Cage*. Lovely tropes, rollicking action, satisfying endings! Really satisfying to read one after the other — both play with the nobleman’s son and the underworld ruffian who puts on a good face, but they are played in completely different ways. I love the late Victorian world, too. 1890s or so, if I remember right, and in London. Mostly.

    On my list: *The Bride Test* and *Get a Life, Chloe Brown*. I just finished Jilly Wood’s *The Seeds of Power* (excellent fantasy with a nice agrarian base!), and looking forward to new books by our Eight Ladies in 2020!

  2. Thanks for these great suggestions, Michaeline! You reminded me that I also read The Seeds of Power in the last two weeks, and it was the only book I finished among all those I started. I really enjoyed it.

    I’m going to try your recs. I’ve heard of several of these titles, and now I have a good incentive to give them a try. And Courtney Milan—-I’ve read her before and enjoyed her work, and now would probably be a good time to buy a couple of her books and also a couple of books by authors of marginalized groups.

    It sounds like you did a lot of reading lately, too. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed something I recommended!

  3. Thank you for the kind words for The Seeds of Power, ladies! I’m very glad to hear it was the only book to escape your DNF run, Kay.

    I’ll be interested to hear what you make of The Bride Test, Michaeline. I really liked The Kiss Quotient, but I had Thoughts about The Bride Test. I’m not sure whether maybe it was because I read the two books in quick succession.

    I have a recommendation–in fact I’ve been thinking about reviewing it here. The Girl With All the Gifts by MR Carey. It was originally published in 2014, based on an Edgar award nominated short story by the same author. There’s also a 2017 movie, so I’m very late to the party here, but then post-apocalyptic zombie sci-fi is not my usual read. I was given the book by a friend who knew I’d be dubious but told me he was pretty sure I’d enjoy it. He was right. For me, at least, it passed all the Crusie tests, starting with *make me care*. I kept reading, really enjoying it and at the same time really hoping the author wasn’t going to derail the story before I got to the end. No spoilers, but he didn’t. It was so good.

    • I read Michaeline’s post before yours, Jilly. I am in total agreement with you on The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient. Maybe The Bride Test was a sophomore slump sort of thing. I think TKQ was her first and TBT was her second.

    • Post-apocalyptic zombie sci-fi! Just my catnip! 🙂

      Actually, it does sound intriguing. I’ve been known to indulge in the occasional zombie entertainment—I watched iZombie off and on, and although it devolved over time into something more violent than I was willing to watch, I found the first year or two very enjoyable. The opening sequence invariably showed the young zombie, who works at the morgue, cooking up a meal using brain of the latest morgue inhabitant. Always made me hungry, go figure!

      In any event, “The Girl with All the Gifts.” Getting it now. Thank you!

    • OK; I kind of wish I’d started with The Kiss Quotient, now, LOL.

      You know, I hate Zombie Apocalypse — except when it breaks my expectations and is quite good. There was one I liked about Zombies who lost the war, and wound up enslaved, and a girl fell in love with a boy zombie; the movie name is different in Japanese than it is in English — The Great Zombini? Maybe?

      I liked the zombie Pride & Prejudice, too, but mostly because the basic P&P story is just so freaking good that it can carry almost anything — including zombies. (But the testicle jokes got old fast on that one.)

      Oh, the other zombie story I liked was Feed, by Mira Grant. I wasn’t as fond of the sequel to that one, but Feed was fantastic, I thought. Very trendy, as far as how the news works, and is going to work in the future. I might need to re-read that one and see how it survived the new decade.

  4. I’m so with you, Kay. I’m reading a book right now that I’ve had the exact same thoughts about. What do you WANT, honey? I’m not all that interested in what you DON’T want. Plus, I realize that books with millennials as the main characters don’t speak to me. I can’t relate to almost running off the road because I’m car dancing to *NSYNC’s bye bye bye. Or it could be the outlook or approach to life and problems of a millennial author that I can’t related to.

    I have Jilly’s The Seeds of Power in my to-be-read section on my Kindle. I’m saving it for the hellacious 14-hour plane trip in my near future. I also have Nancy’s One Kiss from Ruin, and Jeanne’s the Demon’s in the Details. I KNOW those authors won’t disappoint so I’m saving them for when I really need a good read.

    Other than those, I got nothin’ for you. Except maybe The Thing About Love by Julie James (2017). It’s been a while since I read it, but I recall not wanting to throw it against the wall. I can’t recall the goal of the two main characters but I do remember thinking that there wasn’t a time that I wanted to scream “just have a f#*&ing conversation” at the characters (which I’ve been doing a lot with the books I’ve read recently).

    If you get any good recommendations that pan out, I’d love to know what they are.

    • “Not wanting to throw it against the wall” because the characters can actually speak to each other is a very promising recommendation! I hear you about many books’ protagonists. I sometimes worry that my twenty- and thirty-year-old characters sound like they’re 50. Nobody I know would drive off the road because they were car dancing, not if it were NSYNC or The Black-Eyed Peas or the Rolling Stones or Frank Sinatra.

      Thanks for the rec for “The Thing About Love”! Getting it now.

  5. Heh. I’ve not taken Jenny’s class but I’ve been having that problem a bit where I quickly get bored with a book b/c the pacing’s off or something. I’ve embraced the DNF approach, unlike when I used to read everything to the end, b/c life is short. I would highly recommend anything by Tanya Huff [her Vicki Nelson, & it’s trilogy spinoff, Urban Fantasy series is great. The Valor series is well recommended altho I’ve not gotten to it yet] & Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. The latter I rec’d to a friend who doesn’t read romance & she’s hooked [fist bump]. God luck finding something that grabs you!

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