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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Aunt Sarah (Lady and the Tramp)

Origin: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

This is a hard one. This is a romance story -- there's no real villain. Lady encounters a few different obstacles, but no stand out antagonist. Jim Dear and Darling neglect her for a while, but then that stops. The Siamese cats are only present for one scene. Tramp acts as her villain when his selfish side comes out. A rat shows up for the climactic battle, but plays no role in the plot. And a dogcatcher presents himself as the last obstacle. The conflict comes from the two different worlds. Like Saturday Night Fever or Silver Linings Playbook.

Motivation: She seems like one of those Dolores Umbridge types -- snooty, harsh, insensitive, overbearing, and above all, British. That means she's going to run the house the way she wants, despite the established rules. Because those young people just don't know any better.

Character Strengths: If you can say anything, she's decisive. She believes she's acting in the best interest for the baby. Which is noble, I guess, unless you're the dog. Despite her unlikability (who's sister is she anyway? She looks pretty old.) she's trustworthy enough not to burn the house down.

Evilness: Does it count if the evil traits aren't intentional? Clearly, she believes dogs do not belong near a baby (probably due to growing up around high infant mortality rates). But cats are okay despite the many old wives tales about them (racist cats, double). And the cat food doesn't fall far from the tree. Her poor, sweet babies make mischief, shift the blame to lady, and get coddled. The end result is that Lady is forced to wear a muzzle, which too closely resembles a Hellraiser torture device. How's a girl supposed to eat?

Tools: Aunt Sarah isn't really trying to do anything, so I hardly can call Si and Am tools (unless you count their earworm song). All she needs to do is make sure the little yuppie larva is still breathing.

Complement to the Hero: I'm not sure what to say. Lady's a dog. Sarah's a human, but not Lady's owner. I can say that characteristics of Lady are missing in Aunt Sarah. Lady is sweet and romantic and ladylike (hence the name). Aunt Sarah is a cow. But they have no real relationship to each other.

Fatal Flaw: Nice kid. Baaaaaaaaad judge of character. A rat sneaks into the nursery while Lady is chained up. And Aunt Sarah ignores the distressed barking, meaning Tramp has to sneak in. Don't tell Mom the babysitter's stupid. (BTW, what evidence do we have the rat was going to hurt the baby? All it was doing was looking in. Talk about circumstantial evidence.)

Method of Defeat/Death: Nothing really happens to Aunt Sarah. Jim Dear and Darling come home, discover the dead rat, and Aunt Sarah realizes her mistake. At the end, she's even sent a Christmas gift to the dogs. I love a good redemption story. Just not this one.

Final Rating: One star

Yzma (The Emperor's New Groove)
Percival C. McLeach (The Rescuers Down Under)
Ichabod Crane (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
Lady Tremaine (Cinderella)
Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas)
Pinocchio's Villains (Pinocchio)
Sykes (Oliver and Company)
Alameda Slim (Home on the Range)
Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mermaid Thoughts After Dark

Okay, I don't mean to be gross here, but did when Ariel turned into a human, did her carpet match her drapes?

What's that, Ariel?  Got nothing to say on the topic?

I don't expect Ursula has done a lot of research on humans.  Books on physiology are hard to come by under the sea.  So I'm not sure how she would know that human hair is all the same color.  For that matter, Ursula might have overlooked that whole business and given Ariel an unfurnished basement.  These days, trimming the hedges might be commonplace, but it must have freaked Prince Eric out -- finding out that his bride doesn't have secondary sex characteristics.

For that matter, does Ariel even have a vagina?  Ursula's no xenophobe, but it doesn't look like she's spent much time in the human world, if any.  How does she know what humans look like down below without out their pants on?  Has anyone done a study of humans, maybe by dissecting the corpses in the sunken ships?  I don't know how long the sea kingdom's been anti-human but it looks like it stretches farther than mere monarchical law.

"Just keep looking up, keep looking up..."

So does that mean Ariel's got the anatomic structure of a Barbie doll?  (She's got the proportions, but...)  All Ursula would have done is make two legs and no extra parts.  How would she know there's more to put down there?  What a surprise for the honeymoon night.  We all know about the mermaid problem.  Poor Prince Eric thought that would have been solved by her transformation.  It explains why there's no scene of Ariel trying to figure out what's that new opening between her legs.

What would have happened if Ariel was male?

And no, I haven't forgotten that Triton actually changes her permanently in the end.  Considering that, it's even worse.  He's even more anti-human than anyone under the sea.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Worst Books I Read In 2015

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

You know, you read about how agents are hungry for new ideas, new writers, for diverse voices, for innovative styles. And then something like this comes along and gets popular and you wonder how much bullshit that is. Hey, I understand. I want to write something that sells. But not like this.

I can think of very few redeeming things about this book, and they are mere sprinkles. My hate is nowhere near the Jackie Morse Kessler type, but everything about this book feels like a step backwards. The characters are uninteresting and fall into the same tropes as Twilight - girl hates nice guy, then likes him. The guy is blond, good-looking, foreign (but not too foreign, like one of those brown-skinned countries) and falls in love with her, even when she treats him like shit and shares nothing with him. He has to make every move, instigate every decision, take every action that drives the plot.

Meanwhile the girl whimpers like a wilting flower. She is weak, weak, weak. So weak I was expecting someone to say "Your princess is in another castle." She makes half-hearted attempts at feminism and then melts into quivering Jell-o when he touches her face. Like the way to "fix her" (from the damage which is called "just living life") is to fall in love. And of course, there's the bully, the queen bee bitch, a "kidnapping" that goes nowhere and no one tells anyone about, the magical negro (really a Santeria-practicing Hispanic, but same diff), heavy-handed teenage rape, meaningful dreams, undiscovered powers, and worst of all, no conclusion. No one learns anything, and no part of the story reaches a culmination. Gotta sell those next two books!

And the pull-in, the fact that she can somehow telepathically kill people and he can heal, goes NOWHERE. Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing has better direction than this book. It's not that the characters or story is boring. It's that they're filled with incompetence. The author isn't, but she picked a wrong story to tell.

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

What do you get when you give a kid a magic dollhouse that can reach into the past and make dolls into real people? No, you don't learn to see things from a different point of view or gain a better understanding of foreign cultures. You kidnap your nanny and keep her in the dollhouse so she never leaves you.

The concept is sound. The characters are not. He's a boy gymnast who gets a toy castle that's like The Indian in the Cupboard. So instead of using it to discover more about history, he uses it as a prison. Kid's like a little Ariel Castro.

Okay, I exaggerate. The second half of the book, he's trying to fix his mess, so he gets small, and transports to the medieval world the castle came from. He has to find the "evil king" and undo his magic. So after a King Arthurian quest, he gets there, and applies for a job as the court jester, thanks to his gymnastics. Stuff happens, and the bad guy dies in a not terribly noteworthy climax. I guess this book had a bunch of sequels, but I don't know how. I hope the author changed characters.

Armada by Ernie Cline

I don't know if I can call this book bad so much as disappointing. But it's my blog, I'll say what I want.

This book has the opposite problem of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. The characters are good enough, but the plot is dull. The main guy experiences no obstacles, and it's as linear as the shoot-em-ups it's based on. The second big problem is that the plot is a rehash of "The Last Starfighter" and "Ender's Game", just with modern technology. MMO's instead of arcades. There are empty plot threads - character aspects that mean nothing and have no impact. 80's references do not make a story. Not even comparing it to Ready Player One, it's still a story with a lack of originality and absent of joy.


Confessions of a Chalet Girl by Lorraine Wilson

I barely count this as a nominee, because it was free and a novella. I felt the need to mention it because it got one star, and I couldn't leave it out when Armada got two. But unlike the others, I didn't feel hurt by this book. It's romance, erotica, and such books are indulgences. The story doesn't make sense -- they do things even lust-minded zombies wouldn't rationalize. But this book wasn't traditionally published. It didn't go through the filters. It's meant for direct audience consumption.  Anyone who wants to pick this up is not going to worry about any reviews.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Best Books I Read In 2015

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

It takes a lot for me to seriously consider reading a book a second time, and this is one of them. This book is written for people like me. The girl knows how to write comedy. It's hard to express that in a book form, without the benefits of timing, but she does it. Everytime I remember the book, I get warm fuzzies. It's like a hero's journey -- humble origins, a call to adventure, rejection of that call, supernatural aid (the internet), transformation, an abyss, atonement, and return. And like Wil Wheaton, she's not afraid to open a vein, because she knows talking about it helps others.

It's not a celebrity memoir and it's not a confessional and it's not a ego-feeder. It's an account of what it takes to be someone like her. You might think Felcia Day's too young for a memoir -- and I agree, her career's barely started. But that just means we're going to get more from her! I wish Felicia Day was my cool older sister.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I didn't expect to like this book, but I also didn't know what I was getting into going in. Seems like it splits people just as polarly too -- they either hate it or think it's gold. I'm one of the gold diggers (wait, that came out wrong). I think the key was the powerful emotions involved. Somehow the writing style wrings every drop out of the dramatic tension. And the mystery keeps you wanting to read more. It's a perfect POV character, someone who wants to solve the mystery too, someone sick of the status quo. The arrangement keeps your attention span, like a finely arranged concerto, and the setting and characters make a great recipe -- one that's a great mix of all flavors. Satisfied and wanting dessert at the same time.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Survival, resilience, and redemption don't even begin to cut it. This guy's story is so incredible it could only exist in real life. It's like Forest Gump, covering an entire era, but not as funny. You know, cause he ends up in a Japanese prisoner of war torture camp...


Anyway, it's pretty rare for any non-fiction to make top marks in my book, so take that for what it's worth. This is the sort of book that makes you feel a multitude of emotions, because there is a multitude of stuff here. It's long, but it's all good, all interesting, and all important. It's a story of our history, seen through eyes of one man who experienced more than a few lifetimes of triumph and heartache. This author managed an overwhelming undertaking that needs more than what she's due for her effort.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Year in Reading

Another reason I feel like a loser in my writing life is that I'm just not reading anything good.  Either I'm bad at picking books or my reading eye is past its prime.  It's not that I'm jealous of the people who write crappy books and get published.  It's that nothing is giving me that spark to create, that joy that reminds me of what a wonderful thing books are, and how I want to be a part of that community.  Last year I only had two five-star books.  One was a comic series (Y: The Last Man, for those who care).

This year I definitely had more five star books.  But there were more disappointments.  Like The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer was supposed to be a Best of 2014 book and it was horrible/offensive to my senses.  The Maze Runner was all shock value and no substance.

Books I was looking forward to disappointed.  Like Armada, the follow-up to Ready Player One.  It was less than a sophomore effort.  I called it "dull and disappointing" with implausible characters and no tension.  My first non-Tiffany Aching Terry Pratchett novel, "Guards!  Guards!" I had to force myself to read.  It was so long and meandering and too opaque when it came to what was going on.  Others were rereads from my youth that weren't as fantastic as I remembered.  I had to lower the ratings of "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "Matilda" because I couldn't honestly stand by my judgement.

But I did have some surprises.  We Were Liars, what I thought was going to be a Gossip Girl kind of novel was my biggest page turner.  I finally figured out the big deal behind Holes, and Felicia Day knocked my world around.

I read more non-fiction.  Eleven this year compared to eight in 2014.  Fewer classics too -- just "The Great Gatsby".  I wonder if this is an indicator of my overall reading feelings this year.  Maybe I have a better chance of getting that "feeling" if I read more fiction.

Anyway, next post, you'll get my best and worst of the year.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Books I Read: November - December 2015

My Little Brony: An Unofficial Novel about Finding the Magic of Friendship by K. M. Hayes

I found this book at the library and only grabbed it on a whim. I used to be into My Little Pony:FiM (until Lauren Faust left, but that's another entry). I didn't expect much of it. The idea reeked of self-publication and the fan art cover didn't help. I was expecting sappy, amateur Dawson's Creek drama with a cheap gimmick to draw in readers.

But it turned out to be a great little novel. The teens speak realistically. They have plausible problems, not bulimia/my gay mother/sexually confused/vegetarian/alcoholism/pregnancy scare stuff you see in other teen drama books. Adults play a part -- they're not absent like Saved by the Bell. They don't fall to the cliche tropes of plot movement like not telling people what the real problem is when a few words could solve everything. There's no love triangles. The main character doesn't realize he's gay with MLP as the vehicle.  And most of all, there's no "bully", which this material was ripe for.

This is a book about acceptance. Trying to find your place in high school and searching for like-minded people to be around while wanting to make your parents proud. I can really get behind that, since I had a similar experience. There's no cop-out resolution like he realizes he doesn't need friends or moves somewhere. There are consequences and not everything wraps up tidy. It reminded me a lot of Barry Lyga's YA, who I'm a big fan of. I even looked for other things by K.M. Hayes and was disappointed to find this the premiere work. Hopefully this isn't the only story in the author's arsenal.

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

I was promised Indian in the Cupboard, but with medieval knights. But what I got was a dull story. Most of the story is about his nanny leaving to return to England. He wants to keep her, so he uses the maguffin to trap her in his toy castle. There isn't any impressive research shown or memorable characters or "oh no!" moments. In fact, the kid is psycho. I don't know how mature he's supposed to be, but he literally kidnaps someone and puts her in his toy castle.

She doesn't even react very strongly to it either. She just sits in the tower and mopes. There's supposed to be some kind of prophecy, and the boy shrinks down to fulfill it. This involves him confronting the evil king who created the magic, fooling him by his gymnastics. (Yes, he's in gymnastics. For a book written in 1985, I give points for being progressive. But that's it.)  The characters aren't competent and because of that, the plot is boring, because the characters aren't sympathetic.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (unfinished)

Ah, it's always a gamble when you try and read a classic. You never know if it's going to be unreadable, popular because it was promoted by English Ph.D.s who can A) fully comprehend the material B) have no other job than selecting which books will be "classics". The professor part of me was saying "Mm, yes, mm, quite good, enjoyable prose, mm, yes, harumph". The emotional part of me was like "this sucks. It's not funny. Everyone in here is a douche or an idiot. It's like Birdman, more in love with its technique than the plot."

This book is like experimental theater. Comedy, but no humor. It's called a "picaresque", like Don Quixote. Wikipedia explicitly says this means, by definition, it has no plot (which is already a big-ass stop sign for me), but the characters just go walking around, do silly things, and then it just ends. 

Stories where characters don't want anything or don't have a goal don't sit well with me. Plus it's in a Southern style, which reading Faulkner in eleventh grade turned me off from. (I want to punch someone everytime I think of "My mother is a fish." Hey, I can write incomprehensible narration that is so abstract any meaning can be ascribed to it too.) If you want a comedy book, read Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

This is the first non-Tiffany Aching Terry Pratchett novel I've read. Also, the highest rated Pratchett book (at least according to Goodreads). But for some reason I could not get into it. I think maybe because it's too long. Comedy's at its best when short and witty. It's here, in Monty Python-esque glory, but it goes on too long.  The situation wears out its welcome.

It's a character focused, which is good. The characters are the best part -- a human teen who was raised by dwarfs (his name is Carrot because he has wide shoulders and skinny legs from working in the mines), an alcoholic captain of the guards (imagine Aragorn mixed with Sam Spade), and "the others". My favorite is Sybil Ramkin, a woman who breeds small dragons. She's kind-hearted, but doesn't take guff, and has a wonderful way of asking for what she wants without seeming like she asked for anything. Though she's a lady, she's an outdoorsy woman, like Katharine Hepburn. And there's a librarian who's an orangutan.

This is where I come to my problems. They say you can jump into any Discworld novel without reading the others, but I didn't feel that was the case here. Either I got lost because there was too much that seemed to imply I should have prior knowledge (the mechanics and government of a big fantasy city are not explicit) or because the characters are treated like background characters. This is the nature of the story -- the city watch is the guys who come running after something's happened. They're inept, but they do their best.

The plot feels like it was made up as it went along. The lack of chapters bothered me (apparently all Discworld except Tiffany Aching does this) because that meant there were no signals for when a big event occurs. No stopping points. Like each scene was a day of writing. "Okay, something needs to happen here, so... um, okay, let's put in a dragon."

Of course, this doesn't mean I'll give up on Pratchett. This is his eighth novel and written in 1989, so there are plenty of others to sample.

Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams

A non-fiction account of a woman in the army. It is a raw and honest diatribe of what it was like, and has no compunctions about lifting the scabs. Most female memoir authors tend towards a "it was all their fault, I was an angel". But there's not much of that here. She's a fascinating character full of contradictions.

And due to that, this book did a good job of making me angry at the army. This is around 2003, when there was the "we don't have body armor" issue and Halliburton fiascoes. This book reveals this was the tip of the iceberg. This war gave soldiers no lack of purpose. They ignore dietary requirements, leaving it up to the soldiers to scrounge like rogues in D & D. They get poor training. They shift everyone around so there's no sense of camaraderie. And so many dumbasses in leadership positions. I know I'm only getting one side of these stories here, but even half of them are true, it's like the blind leading the blinder. After reading this, I feel like the government utilizes the air force, navy, and marines, for their specialization.  But the army is just fresh bodies to do jobs robots can't do yet.

And that eighteen is too young to be in the military. These boys are not mature. They do not know the basics of how to talk to humans or how to treat women without sexually harassing them.  Every woman is categorized as a slut or a bitch, and you can't be neither.  It's like high school, but with guns.  There needs to be more HR type training, because there are more women in the military than ever.

This book is mostly anecdotes. I enjoy that personally, but not everyone will. You won't find "Saving Private Ryan" here -- the narrator didn't see a lot of combat due to her status as a translator. But the book delivers what it advertises -- an account of a woman soldier in the modern army.

Side note: I'd love to see this girl kick Cheryl Strayed from Wild's ass.

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

I am probably the wrong person for this book. I was pulled in by the robots, not the genre. I've never read Raymond Chandler, and if I'm going to read detective fiction, I'll select current stuff, not classics. Therefore, I can only assume the super-detailed writing is part of his oeuvre. The novel is described as Raymond Chandler meets science fiction and it is. But it's science fiction of his era. Mind control and mad scientists and "Commies From the Planet X".

Oddly, the detail isn't boring, but it does get in the way of the story progress. Certain character aspects are left undeveloped, like the robot's side job as a hitman or the backstory of his creator. I don't know if this is an aspect of the style or the fact that it's part of a trilogy, but neither work in its favor. I believe, even if it's going to be a series, the first book has to wrap up conclusively, like Star Wars, and not leave any threads hanging.

Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

Now this is the kind of short story anthology I can get behind. Three authors with novellas, each separate but all taking place in the same setting and same circumstances (in this case, a giant snowstorm) and all in the same genre (romance). This is a much better format to introduce readers to new writers -- draw them in with well-knowns and add a guest, like an opening band.

 I know John Green well, love his work. Maureen Johnson I've heard of, but not familiar with. But I loved her contribution. Lauren Myracle I've never heard of, and I wasn't a big fan of her story -- too much navel-gazing, not enough plot moving along. The main character stood in one place and introspected most of the time.

But overall, the book is solid. It's light-hearted and heavy on the adorbz. The kind of stuff fangirls squee for -- quirky characters hugging and such. It's a good book to read around Christmas, which I did. It's a little underwhelming but has a tone like a warm blanket. A pleasant palate-cleanser if you've read too many gritty books about robots and army women.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Year in Writing

This has not been a great year for writing.  I finished Defender and started sending out the queries.  Only two agents bit.  The rest never responded or sent rejections.  This is my third novel I've written with intent for publication and again, no one was interested.  I know most novelists don't get their first novel published.  A lot don't get their second.  But three novels with ~93 rejections a piece?  I am doing something seriously wrong.

Art is one of those things where no one can tell you what you're doing wrong.  When you put together a bunch of ingredients that don't work together, no one can tell you how to fix it, just that it doesn't taste good.  I am very frustrated.  Like toeing the line of whether to give up or not.  I feel like an alcoholic wondering if it's worth it to stay sober.

Not a single acceptance for any of my short stories this year either.  I only completed one new one this year, but still, my backlog should still garner attention.  But again, no, it's not to be.  I'm paying $50 for my subscription to my online submission tracker, and didn't make a dime.  When no one says "yes" to you all year, it can be very disheartening.  Like, what am I doing this for if no one wants to read it?  I should be improving with experience, not getting worse.  At one point, I had a 17% acceptance rate.  Now?  It's 0%.

I spent most of my year writing Disney Princess fan fiction.  After concentrating so hard on writing to be published, I needed something that wasn't so pressurizing.  For Defender, I spent a lot of time agonizing over what scenes to cut, which characters to axe, whether the plot followed, whether people liked the characters.  Lots of critique analysis and contemplating what the right move is.  Now I don't worry about that.  But the story got out of hand and ended up being 195,000 words.  Which I expected -- it's a fan fiction serial like Gatecrash -- but I didn't need this much time taken up with it.

Yet, I must finish it.  Writers finish things.  And I wouldn't want to have a whole year of my life wasted on something no one would see.  Not even for free online.  The problem is I had promised myself to write more publishable stuff, and I didn't.  I'd rather finish it than write a next novel, because I know I'll get immediate feedback.

It's not like I avoided the short stories.  But like I said, I only finished one, although a handful of others are still in process.  However, I keep running into the same problem.  Critiquers keep saying the same thing -- "I don't get what it's about".  One story's supposed to be humorous metafiction.  Another's supposed to be light-hearted fantasy.  Another's a horror story about psychotic kids.  This is supposed to be evolving as an author, but I can't seem to get characters, plot, and setting into the same bowl in the right proportions.

I don't even know what I want to write next.  I could write my ski romance that I've been pre-writing for more than four years.  I've finished my "research" into other skiing romance books.  And most of all, I want to write it to make my wife happy.  But I don't know how to write a romance.  And I still don't have a... I don't know what to call it.  A hook?  A catch?  An angle?  The thing that makes the book special.  That distinguishes it from other books and makes it a book I'd want to write.

Unlike my second choice, which is a quest story about a naga going to pursue the boy she met as a kid, who she thinks is in trouble.  I don't know much about snakes, but the scrappy girl on a hero's journey in a fantasy setting -- I'm more in love with that idea than a ski romance, which is not my usual forte (as you can probably guess).

So there it is.  An empty past, a dawdling present, and a shaky future.  Just about any other job, there's someone who every once in a while pats you on the back and says "good job".  Not in writing though.  A whole year without a fragment of praise or acknowledgement or progress for my hard work?  Makes me wonder if it's worth it.  Part of the reason I started writing was because A) it was something I was halfway good at and B) I wanted to feel productive with my life.  I wanted to make something that would last, that could affect a wide number of people.  But if no one's interested in opening the door, if I'm moving backwards or de-evolving, am I just wasting time?