Archive for JD Robb

When the story doesn’t end

Posted in Books, Comics, TV with tags , , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Cara Marie

The article Better Bite-sized appeared on Stuff today, inspired by the author David Haglund’s recent viewing of the TV mini-series The Top of the Lake. Noting that the series was imported, he asks ‘Why aren’t there more great American mini-series?’ (This confused me momentarily, until I remembered reading a New Zealand news site is no assurance of reading local content.)

I can understand his frustration with series that go on to long, or end up padded so that they can reach the requisite 22 episodes. I am all for series being allowed to reach their natural conclusions. I don’t agree that ‘the mini-series is probably the ideal form for creating great television art.’

It’s the ‘ideal form’ part that I take issue with. Just because longer series often outstay their welcome doesn’t mean that they have less potential for greatness. Haglund compares TV series to novels:

[Cable shows like The Sopranos] are often called novelistic, but even the serial novels of the Victorian era generally traced one central story from beginning to end in a way that The Sopranos and Mad Men don’t quite do.

He forgets that not all novels stand alone – he’d get a better equivalency with series than with serialised novels. Consider JD Robb’s In Death series, which is basically a procedural in novel form. Each book is its own arc and, with only a few exceptions, you could happily read them all as stand-alones. If you’re going to read them all though, it’s more satisfying to do it in order, just like it’s more satisfying to watch a TV show like Castle in order. The relationships and characters develop over the course of the series (Robb lets her characters get together more quickly though), but the basic structure is episodic.

This is not an uncommon structure for a novel series, especially in genres like crime and urban fantasy. But then, maybe Haglund would argue that genre series are never ‘great art’ …

Novels wouldn’t be my go-to comparison for TV narrative structures though. I’d go for another medium which is primarily delivered serially, and which is happy to embrace that. I’d go for comics.

You can have a fantastic, single-volume-narrative comic book. You can bundle that up as a ‘graphic novel’ and then the literati may even accept that a comic can be ‘great art’, because the structure is more like something they recognise, a novel or a mini-series.

You can just as easily have a fantastic comic book that runs past twenty volumes. Those twenty volumes may tell a complete, self-contained story. Or they may not!

Haglund seems to think this is a problem.

Characters interesting enough to serve as engaging companions week after week for years are wonderful creations, but their stories lack the meaningful shape found in the best novels and movies and plays. We may get glorious moments, and terrific episodes, and occasionally excellent multi-episode arcs. But the need to leave the door open, to keep the story going a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, is an artistic impediment.

Sure, it’s frustrating when something that has a natural ending gets stretched out and padded and maybe never gets to end at all. But that’s when people are forcing their story into a different shape. It’s not because the shape of a long-form serial is less ‘meaningful’. It’s different, sure; it’s not less valuable.

Incidentally, this relates to why I don’t like ‘graphic novel’ as a synonym for ‘comic’ (asides from the cultural cringe). I don’t like the implication that a comic should be structured like a novel. It can be, but it’s not the only option, just like the novel isn’t the only option for telling a story in prose.

Call Blankets a graphic novel, fine. But something like Sandman doesn’t resemble a graphic novel just because it has an overall arc and an ending. It’s not trying to; it uses all the opportunities for side-stories, for multiple self-contained arcs that initially seem unconnected, that being a serial gives you (and that something like Blankets doesn’t.

(Which isn’t to say novels can’t use those things too. They just generally don’t. Or if you want to read the side-stories, you have to hunt down a bunch of random anthologies – you don’t get them as part of the core experience.)

And am I forbidden from calling Hellblazer a great comic, just because it doesn’t have an overriding arc? (I say, assuming Milligan didn’t pull one out his hat at the last minute.) Even though I’ve been attached to it for the last ten years? Even though it has great ‘mini-series’ arcs, and great single issue-length arcs, and great runs where several self-contained arcs build upon each other to a conclusion that is thrilling and inevitable? And then keeps on going?

Am I allowed to even though parts of it aren’t great, because hey, it’s a series, Azzarello’s arc doesn’t negate the brilliance of Delano’s? Am I allowed to even though it doesn’t stick with a single genre, and some parts are horror while others are only dark fantasy?

Is the serial aspect an ‘artistic impediment’? Or is it an opportunity for hundreds of issues of storytelling, by a variety of storytellers, that never would have happened if John Constantine had never been let out the pages of Swamp Thing?

Up till very recently, the Hellblazer door had been left open. That’s not an impediment, that’s opportunity.

John Ney Rieber ended his run on The Books of Magic after 50 issues. Because he’d reached the end of the stories he could tell there. And that’s valid. And maybe more TV series would be better if their show-runners could say, right, that’s it, we’ve reached the end of this story and that’s it.

But they don’t have to. Maybe one story isn’t all the stories they want to tell. Or maybe they can pass the batton on to someone else, like Rieber did – someone who does still have stories to tell.

A sequel isn’t always a cash-grab. Nor is an open-ended serial. And great art doesn’t have to be short and self-contained.

End-of-year book meme

Posted in Books, Crime, Fantasy, Science fiction, Young adult with tags , , , , , , on January 3, 2013 by Cara Marie

How many books read in 2012?

76 books. This includes novellas, so they were not all very long books. It doesn’t include comic books.

Fiction/non-fiction ratio?

I read eight non-fiction books … that’s one for every 8.5 fiction books.

In other genre distinctions, 60% of the books I read were sci-fi/fantasy (not including JD Robb, as they’re primarily crime and the SF element is usually just the setting). I read four adult fiction books that weren’t SFF or crime stories! Which is … the same number I read every year.

Male/female authors?

I read 18 books by male authors (including half-marks for cowritten books or anthologies) and 58 by female authors.

I always find it weird when people challenge themselves to read more books by female authors, because my bias is so far the other way! Clearly it is my inner misandry showing through.

Favourite book read?

Michelle Sagara wins this year, because I would be hard-pressed to choose between her YA standalone novel, Silence, and the eighth book in ‘The Chronicles of Elantra’, Cast in Peril.

Silence is a book that, when described, sounds like your typical paranormal YA, complete with antagonistic love interest. But it’s not typical at all.

I really loved that the teenaged characters in it were so sensible and kind to one another. That no-one made stupid decisions to generate tension. There’s a lot of YA that goes the other way, and it always annoys me, because that’s not what my experience of being a teenager was like. I don’t mean to say that there’s no conflict between the characters – but it’s not showy, and it rings true.

This isn’t a complete summary of why I liked the book; just one of the things that made it for me.

Cast in Peril I wrote about at the time, in contrast to one of the books covered in the next question. I went through a period of avoiding series fiction; this book serves as an example of how well fantasy series can work. How you can really dig into the world-building, and discover new things. How a book can be the opposite of standalone and still be completely satisfying.

The part of me that still wants to avoid series fiction is freaking out a little – how on earth did I end up reading an 8+ book series? There weren’t that many when I started!

Cast in Peril was also the book that made me realise me and this e-books thing was going to work out, and that I didn’t need everything I loved in hardcopy.

Least favourite?

Not sure whether to go with Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken (as discussed in ‘Where (not) to end a book‘) or Tanith Lee’s Piratica III: The Family Sea. The former I probably enjoyed more for the first two-thirds, so it was a greater disappointment when I turned out to hate it. But I might say Piratica III anyway – I think I’m quite glad I didn’t read it when it first came out, when I was more invested in the characters, because I would have been hugely disappointed. (skip) I think I can see what Tanith Lee was trying to do, having Art’s marriage fail, and her ending up alone and free. But I didn’t feel that freedom in the end – it just felt bleak to me.

Oldest book read?

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Also the first book I read last year. I was quite bewildered afterwards – not about the stories, but about the Sherlock interpretation of Holmes being kind of an asshole. (I’ve never actually watched Sherlock; this is just the impression I’ve received.) Book!Holmes is not an asshole at all! He might not be that interested in people, but he’s still considerate to them.

Also, I was proud of myself because there were a couple of mysteries I figured out before they were revealed. I like to pretend that’s an achievement.

Newest?

The Silvered, by Tanya Huff. Came out in November and I read it in December. I wrote a not-very-deep review at the time.

Longest book title?

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress. Long title, short book. This is such a pointless question I feel like I have to talk about the book, now. The three parts of the title refer to the three POVs the book switches between. ‘The fall’ refers to an apocalypse. I enjoyed this quite a bit at the start, but I think overall the pay-off wasn’t there. It had the sort of conclusion that could work for me in a short story, but doesn’t work for me in a longer work.

Shortest title?

Silence or Mastiff. I’ve talked about Silence already, so … Mastiff was the third and final book in Tamora Pierce’s Provost’s Dog series. It was also the least memorable of the three. Enough so that I don’t know if I really have anything to say about it. The first book was my favourite, because it was the one that was most a ‘school story’, with a supporting cast I really enjoyed. And that doesn’t really get carried through into the later books. Which make sense re: the ‘school story’ aspect, but I miss Rosto and Kora and Aniki. (You will note I remember their names, but not the names of the supporting cast in Mastiff.)

I guess Pierce was more interested in the crime novel aspect for this series, but that’s not what I read her for, and it was at the expense of the elements I really love.

How many re-reads?

Only three, which seems low. But then, I guess this is the first year I’ve had a full-time job the whole time, so I’m more inclined to read new things.

Most books read by one author this year?

I read ten JD Robb books – I guess I used these as my comfort fiction, rather than re-reading things. Her ‘In Death’ books are basically a procedural in book form. Except the main couple got together in the first couple of books so there’s no ridiculous ‘will they, won’t they?’ (This shouldn’t necessarily be a procedural trope, but it seems to be.) Also, they’re set in the future! My favourite mysteries are probably the ones that have the most to do with technology – although I think Witness in Death has been my favourite overall, and that one does not, so.

They’re standalone books, and I’ve read them completely out of order. They do benefit from being read chronologically, because of the way the characters and relationships develop over the long-term. On the other hand, there’s more than forty of them. So I think picking the ones with the most interesting-sounding mysteries is probably the best route to reading them.

Any in translation?

Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake was the only translated book I read this year.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?

About six. For which I accrued some ridiculous fines, so I’m avoiding the library at the moment.