Study Session: Hall, Klune, & McKenna

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This week, my productivity has mostly focused on studying. Studying is a very important part of learning anything, as I’m sure you’ll agree. It is the absorption of new knowledge, usually provided by experts in the field, and reinforcing the lessons thereby imparted.

Yes, very vital business, studying.

The *cough* scholarly resources *cough* I’ve been focusing on for the last few days are:

Hey. If you’re learning to become a writer, you can’t very well neglect opportunities to explore what makes other authors successful.

Up front, I will tell you, I greatly enjoyed each one of these novels. It took me less than twelve hours to get through each one, and I’m vaguely sleep-deprived right now because of it. All fall within different sub-genres of romance, and all are somewhat unique even within those sub-genres. More than to just gush over my love of them, I wanted to explore what especially I liked about them, and also what I thought the author might have done better.

Let’s start with Looking for Group, by Alexis Hall. This is an m/m contemporary romance that received a 4.5 star rating on Amazon (albeit from a somewhat small rater pool). When I read those reviews when considering to purchase it, nearly all of the reviews that were less than five stars focused on one specific complaint. This book is extremely niche. I mean, it comes with it’s own 10-page glossary, niche. This book was basically written for gamers. Specially, WoW nerds. (That’s World of Warcraft for you noobs).

It follows two university students, one of whom has happily built his primary social life around the WoW-esque game and the friends within it, and the other who clings to his real-life social activities because he fears being stigmatized for loving the game too much. See where this is going?

It just so happens that I fall on the edge of this nerdy niche. Many a day of my college years were spent at a computer desk, hacking away at diseased bears or capturing virtual flags, usually while screaming across the apartment for my roommate to get her elfin ass out of the auction house so we could GO already. My interest in computer games has waned over the years, but Bunny is a more hardcore gamer than I could ever hope to be, so for the most part, I didn’t even need the glossary. Which was good, because not all the acronyms or terms were even in it.

I’m not sure this makes me a fair rater, because oh, the nostalgia! But I’ll try.

It’s probably no big surprise, after saying all that, that the thing I liked most about this book was the game universe Hall created, unique but so familiar to me as a former WoW gamer. His descriptions of the setting and the in-world battles were vivid without being rendered unto death. This is something I’ve been wanting to work on myself, which you might recall from previous post Loquaciously Inclined Vs. Wordy. Concise but clear. It was all the more impressive because there were no real-world landmarks or actions readers would already be familiar with to rely on, since it was in a fantasy world and the game mechanics and techniques made up the fighting.

The other thing I really enjoyed was all the in-game chat. I’m a sucker for good dialogue, and entire scenes pass in this book purely made up of dialogue. A lot of it LOL-worthy. A few times it did get a little confusing though, recalling which usernames went with which RL character, and having to back track to see if that comment before was said to the entire group or just “whispered” to one person.

My biggest complaint with this book was that it was completely predictable. You know what the final conflict is going to be just by reading the synopsis, and you know how it’s going to be resolved within the first quarter of the book. The smaller conflicts are equally transparent. Hall is a good writer, and clever, which still made it a fun read. But the predictability made it also somewhat forgettable and easy to move on from at the end of the book.

Wolfsong, by T.J. Klune, is an m/m shifter romance with a straight 5-star rating by a ton of readers. I had this one on my Wish List for a long time because it’s reviews were so good, but put off actually buying it because I am really not a big fan of shifter romances. At least not m/m ones. And really, not m/f ones in the self-publishing world. It’s the alpha/omega thing. Admittedly, I enjoy a good BDSM, dom/sub story. But there’s something about the alpha/omega relationship that is too finite. If someone’s going to be submissive in my romance, I want it to be a choice, not a trait that’s been bred into them. Any attempt to show that the omega has his/her own power and strength just seems like a patronizing pat on the head. This is, admittedly, my own perception of just a few in this genre that I’ve read.

That said, I LOVE the idea of shifters and paranormal creatures. In mainstream romance, this is primarily what I read. And after reading a few reviews that described Wolfsong as being unlike most traditional shifter romances, I decided to check it out. Holy cow, I’m glad I did. And not just because the story was good and had none of that weak-omega nonsense.

Ox and Joe are the main characters, and they meet when they are just kids. I don’t like insta-love, and this is not really that. Not really. I mean, one is 10 and the other is 16, so that would be super ick. But it was kinda insta-connection. If that’s a thing. Let’s say that’s a thing. The story follows them and their families for ten years, and everything they go through. The personal relationships are what this book is built on, even though the primary conflicts are mostly action-oriented and physical.

What I liked . . . T.J. Klune is a beautiful writer in a very unique way. I caught myself rereading whole paragraphs multiple times just because they were so darn pretty. And also because he was able to pack so much meaning and impact into so few words. Words that didn’t really describe what he was talking about directly, and yet left me with such a clear image of what he was trying to convey. It’s hard to give an example, because it was all in context. But one thing he did was manage to write the voice of a wolf-mind in a way that was clearly other but understandable by the reader. It was powerful and kind of mesmerizing. Enough that I seriously did not stop reading until just about passing out at 4:30 AM. And then the second I woke up, I rolled over to grab my tablet and keep reading.

What I liked less . . . okay, I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I will try to keep this as vague as possible. The pacing of this book is . . . odd. The start is great, with wonderful development of the world and characters. But it’s a long book, and that first third almost felt like it was its own story with its own arc. Especially when the first plot point hits. I felt a little like I was taking a beating for what had to have been the next hundred pages. It was so huge a catastrophe, it could have been the climax of the book. Even as I read it, I kept thinking, what is he going to do for the climax after this, if the climax is supposed to be even more devastating/powerful? And sure enough, the climax wasn’t able to reach the same peak.

Just to reiterate, I LOVED this book. It still followed a progression that made logical sense, and I was never bored, but that one point in the book felt like a sprint thrown into the middle of a marathon. It almost exhausted me before I was even halfway to the finish line. But, wow, that finish line was worth it.

After Hours, by Cara McKenna, is a m/f contemporary romance. If you have ever read Cara McKenna before, I don’t expect anything I say will surprise you. She is known for making REAL characters and putting them in situations that most would not probably consider traditionally romantic, or giving them problems that are painfully down-to-earth, almost uncomfortably so. I’m a huge fan of the two books of hers I’ve read so far, including this one, and I plan to buy another as soon as I finish this post and start reading.

After Hours is about Erin and Kelly, both of whom work in a mental institution. Can’t you just see the candlelight and smell the roses? They’re both control freaks and the book is about them learning how their freakiness fits with each other’s. More or less.

This book is sort of hinted in various reviews and synopses as a dom/sub relationship, but it’s not really. My finickiness is no doubt shining through right now, but I’m not a huge fan of stories about female subs. I should really probably just do a post to explain what and why my preferences around any dom/sub characters are so incredibly picky. Suffice it to say, like Wolfsong, this is another book that was on my Wish List forever. And coincidentally, another one I finally read and loved.

As I mentioned above, McKenna is a genius at creating believable characters. So much so that often you’ll see in reviews very strong negative reactions toward one. Most likely because the character’s negative traits are hitting too close to home. And they do have negative traits. Not fake ones either, like, oh, he’s too protective. No, Kelly is a straight-up chauvinist asshole. Like, my absolute least favorite type of male hero. And yet, by the end of the book, I freaking adored him. Because he is a real person. He is not just that one trait. There is a rationale, and dimensions, and exceptions. And most importantly, it is because of that trait that he is so right for Erin (who, BTW, can also be kind of a bossy bitch).

I probably related more to Erin than almost any other character I’ve ever read. It felt a little like McKenna was eavesdropping on my brain a few times. Not because we had similar backgrounds at all, but Erin saw the world how I see the world in a lot of ways. And the whole story is told from Erin’s POV.

“I’d rather be Rizzo than Sandy, no question. Rizzo found love without changing a thing about herself. Sandy had to dress like a skank and get that horrible perm and take up smoking.”

– Erin, After Hours by Cara McKenna

In the two books I’ve read from her, though, I’ve noticed a trend with McKenna. I feel a little like she ends her books too soon. Or maybe just leaves the obvious Epilogue unwritten, when I crave those last few pages to give me happy closure. In both the books I’ve read, the ideal dreams of the characters were clearly expressed, and the path was shown for how they could get there, but then the book ends with them saying/thinking, “Well, I might do that . . .” And I want to scream, “No! Do that, damn it!”

Besides that one quirk, I have no complaints about her writing in general or this book specifically. And I’m looking forward to reading Hard Time next.

I’m joking about calling this studying, but really, I do find it extraordinarily helpful to read books from the genre I want to write in, and see what works and doesn’t work. I read the reviews to see what other people liked or didn’t like, then try to figure out how the author might have done it differently to address some of those complaints. I highlight examples of good scene descriptions or moments of character development.

Most of all, I get new ideas of my own from reading other books. So, yeah, I might not have done any real writing today, but I did plot out an entire new story. See? Productive.

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