Discussion: Name that genre! And…does it matter?

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get genre-burned. I’ll pick up a book, thinking it’s one thing, and then be disappointed when it turns out to be something else. It’s not that the something else isn’t good, or even that I didn’t like the book. It’s that it wasn’t what I was expecting. And while I sometimes welcome the unexpected, like with a juicy plot twist, I find myself wishing sometimes that the book world as a whole — bookstores, bloggers, even authors sometimes — would try to be a tad more accurate with genre labeling.

Also, let me just throw this out there: Young Adult is not a genre. Nor is Middle Grade, Adult, or New Adult. Those are audiences. They encompass the age demographic a book is targeting. But they don’t tell you a thing about what the book is about, other than the relative age of the characters (give or take a few decades, in the case of Adult).

So let’s talk just a minute about genres, what defines them, and which ones tend to have an identity crisis.

These are highlights from the Goodreads definitions. Sometimes it’s just easier than trying to type it all out myself.

FantasyFantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three.

Science FictionScience fiction is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology. Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

DystopianDystopia is a form of literature that explores social and political structures. It is a creation of a nightmare world – unlike its opposite, Utopia, which is an ideal world. Dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions, and a state of constant warfare or violence. Many novels combine both Dystopia and Utopia, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of the two possible futures.

RomanceAccording to the Romance Writers of America, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Historical FictionHistorical fiction presents a story set in the past, often during a significant time period. In historical fiction, the time period is an important part of the setting and often of the story itself. Historical fiction may include fictional characters, well-known historical figures or a mixture of the two.

HorrorHorror fiction is fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of a supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called “horror”.

ContemporaryContemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.

ParanormalParanormal books involve unusual experiences that lack a scientific explanation. Some popular subjects in paranormal books are supernatural creatures, ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, and psychics.

SteampunkSteampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

These are just some of the biggies. There’s tons of genres and subgenres out there, and often authors like to mash them up. For example, romance can be incorporated into nearly all of these genres, which gives you Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, etc. I think one of the reasons that genres get so muddled is that they’re not mutually exclusive at all. Contemporary is anything that takes place after World War II? Well, that could encompass pretty much everything (except Historical), couldn’t it? And obviously there’s tons of crossover between Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Paranormal.

I think the problem happens when we get these main categories confused.  I think the problem is twofold:

1) Certain genres are really popular, and everyone wants their book (or their client’s book, or their friend’s book) to be the next Big Thing. So they say it fits the genre, when in reality, it doesn’t. (I’m looking at you, Dystopian Fiction.)

2) Lots of books are really hard to classify, because the authors have mixed a bunch of genres together in a delicious cocktail of imagination. It’s a bit more understandable how these get confused.

So what’s the trick in figuring out how to classify what you’re reading? Just ask yourself a few questions:

1) What’s the setting? Is it past, present, future, or a made-up world? Is it based in reality, or could it plausibly happen in our reality, or is it in no way related to our reality? Does magic factor into it? Science? Is it based on a historical event that actually happened, or a historical event that might have happened if things were different?

2) If it is the future, what shaped the world? Was it a cataclysmic event? Government conspiracy? Aliens? Magic? Technological advancement? Just because it’s the future doesn’t automatically make it sci-fi or dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Look at why the world is the way it is, and that’s a big clue.

3) What’s the conflict? Is it about whether or not Jim and Sally will get together, or is it about whether or not Jim will save Sally’s a ghost, or is it about whether or not Jim will discover that he’s really a prince and the only one who can free Sally from the dragon? Granted, Jim and Sally may get together in all of these scenarios, but it’s only the main conflict in one of them.

Am I alone in caring about this? I’m not sure. Maybe you don’t care how something’s labeled; a good book is a good book. So what if you were expecting dystopian and got sci-fi instead? Or you wanted steampunk but wound up reading historical fiction? What’s the big deal?

But if you’re like me, it’s kind of like ice cream flavors. If I’m in the mood for chocolate and I get strawberry, I’m going to be disappointed. I like strawberry. Sometimes, all I want in the whole world is strawberry. But if I’m in the mood for chocolate, strawberry won’t cut it.

Here’s some examples of books I’ve seen miscategorized (a lot):

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. I’ve heard this book described as Steampunk and Paranormal, but really it’s just Historical Fiction. The automatons in the story are things that actually existed during that time period (you can ask Sharon. It’s fascinating), and there’s no supernatural elements that defy scientific explanation.

What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang. This one always gets called Dystopian or Sci-Fi. But really, if you look close, it’s neither. It’s a modern alternate reality. So really, it doesn’t fit into any of the above categories. Broadly, it can go under the Speculative Fiction umbrella, but none of the other terms really fit. So there’s really little wonder why bookstores want to label it as something else.

Defiance by C.J. Redwine. This book is a cornucopia of so many genres, it’s easy to see why people can’t seem to label it. I’ve actually had a few discussions with C.J. about what to call this book, and even she is at a bit of a loss. I’ve heard it called Steampunk, Dystopian, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. It’s marketed as Fantasy Adventure, but there’s no magic (although there is a blind wingless subterranean dragon). What it actually is, I believe, is a Post-Apocalyptic Adventure. I think.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I always see this book on the Horror shelf, and it’s just not. It’s not designed to scare or horrify. It’s about magical powers and adventure. It’s Fantasy.

How about you? Do you long to sneak into bookstores and reshelve the books to more accurately reflect what’s in them? Or do you figure, hey, I don’t care why someone picked up the book, as long as they’re reading it? What books do you see commonly misclassified, and do you care? 

Review: Die for Me by Amy Plum (@harperteen)

Die for Me is the first novel in the Revenants trilogy by Amy Plum. I’m going to a book signing for Ms. Plum next week (WHEEE!) and really wanted to have read her book before meeting her in person. Unfortunately, it’s not looking like I’ll be able to squeeze in book 2, Until I Die, before the event, but at least I now know who the characters are and what the basic story is.

The Plot

Die for Me is the story of Kate Mercier, recent orphan and new Paris resident. She and her sister, Georgia, moved to Paris following the death of their parents in a tragic car accident. Kate hasn’t been dealing with the loss well, and spends her days secluded in her bedroom in their grandparents’ house, reading books and wallowing in depression.

Eventually, her sister convinces her to venture out of the house and experience the beauty of the city. Kate begrudgingly takes her up on her advice, and winds up meeting a tall, dark and handsome boy named Vincent. Vincent and Kate begin a tentative courtship, but almost immediately, Kate realizes that there’s more to Vincent than meets the eye.

Shocked, Kate learns that Vincent is in fact a Revenant: an immortal being who feels the irresistible compulsion to sacrifice his life saving humans. He lives with a group of fellow Revenants in a giant Parisian mansion, and the group of them wander the city, looking for people to save. When they trade their own life for a human’s, they take 3 days to mend, then come back to life, good as new.

But no sooner has Kate absorbed the information that her boyfriend is an immortal kinda-zombie, than a darker truth is revealed: Vincent and his kindred are not the only Revenants. There are others. Except that they don’t feel a compulsion to save human lives; they feel the compulsion to end them.

My Thoughts

I have mixed feelings on this one. First, the plot point comparisons to Twilight are abundant and fairly obvious. I’m not going to go into the minutia in detail, because others have already done so (see examples here and here). Personally, I don’t actually mind if one book is really reminiscent of another, as long as it has its own spin on the subject matter.

Yes, this book has many similarities to Twilight, as they are both teen paranormal romances between a human and an immortal. But Revenants ≠ Vampires, Kate ≠ Bella, and Vincent ≠ Edward. So I don’t really mind that the story bears some resemblance to Twilight. I don’t begrudge Ms. Plum her inspiration (if indeed Twilight was her inspiration — I haven’t asked her, so I don’t know), because I honestly think genuine new ideas are a dying breed. If we demanded all books were utterly unique, there wouldn’t be much to read.

That said, while I don’t mind that Die for Me resembled Twilight, I also can’t help but compare the two in terms of what I liked and didn’t like.

Winner: Die for Me

I liked Kate. She seemed a relatively level-headed teen who tried to think through the bizarre situation she was in. Yes, she had her share of caution-to-the-wind “but I’m just so in love” moments, but mostly she tried to actually use her brain and make logical choices. She tried not to let her relationship with Vincent define her (although ultimately, it pretty much did), and didn’t turn into a puddle of goo every time he looked at her.

I also loved the Parisian setting. I’ve got to be honest: I’ve been to Paris, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. But I would love to go to the Paris that’s described in this book. Ms. Plum beautifully paints a picture of Parisian culture and nightlife that’s vivid and lush.

I enjoyed the Revenants mythology. It was a unique and intriguing (not to mention far less gross) take on the traditional zombie/vampire theme. I liked that most of the time, they appeared utterly human and didn’t have any defining [cough*sparkly*cough] characteristics. That made it a lot more believable that they were just walking around in public, mingling with the humans. And the “rules” of their existence made sense within the context of the story, which is always a must for me to enjoy a paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi anything.

And overall, I liked Ms. Plum’s writing style. She chose her words well and her writing style had a nice flow to it.

Oh, and the cover art? Die for Me wins, no contest. So pretty.

Winner: Twilight

I’ve got to admit: while I would never put Twilight up there as the greatest romantic literature ever (Jane Austen would roll over in her grave), Stephenie Meyer had a knack for conveying the belly-fluttery feeling of first infatuation (I’m not going to call it love. I’m not.) She was really good at putting those swoony feelings into words. And Amy Plum also does a good job, just not as good.

Stephenie Meyer also had an advantage with “the hook.” The thing that kept you needing to go to the next chapter, because you couldn’t just stop there. It’s why I tore through all 4 books of the Twilight saga in just a couple days, the same amount of time it took me to read Die for Me. I was interested, but the sense of urgency just wasn’t there.

Too Close to Call

I know that people keep saying that Kate and Vincent have a healthier relationship than Edward and Bella…but I’m just not seeing it. Both girls are kind of consumed. Both relationships go from just-met to can’t-live-without-you in a freakishly short period of time.  Both guys are just a wee bit stalkerish. And if the title of the book is any indication, I’m kind of guessing that at some point, both girls are ultimately going to sacrifice their lives so they can stay with their stud.

Yeah, Kate is less dramatic than Bella. I don’t see cliff jumping in her immediate future. And if Vincent left her, she’d probably be okay. Eventually. But it doesn’t change the fact that Kate basically clings to Vincent as the most/only important thing in her life.

A couple other thoughts:

Insta-Love

It’s out in full force in Die for Me. I have to admit, I’m one of those people that’s bothered by it, but also accepts it as a necessary evil in YA. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Kate and Vincent’s relationship is realistic — I know that instant attraction takes place in real life, but the can’t-live-without-you super-devotion that develops in an extremely short period of time…I’m not convinced that it’s entirely realistic (although author Amy Plum thinks it is, which explains why it’s there).

Final Conflict

First of all, I saw the bad guy coming from a mile away. It seemed like the reveal of the bad guy was supposed to be somewhat shocking, but there was some extremely heavy foreshadowing that made it…not.

Then when it came down to the final showdown, everything felt a little too convenient. Of course things are possible with Kate and Vincent that haven’t ever been possible for anyone, ever. Because they’re just so deeply bonded after knowing each other a couple months, more than people who have been in love for decades. Of course. *sigh*

On the one hand, I get that it’s probably not as much fun to write/read about a “normal” relationship where they have to deal with the situations they’re in with whatever skills they already possessed (or didn’t possess). But on the other hand, why is this relationship so much stronger than other human-revenant relationships? They don’t know each other all that well, haven’t known each other all that long, and I don’t buy that their instant chemistry trumps another couple’s decades of intimacy.

I still found the end of the book exciting and mostly satisfying. I just kind of wish the way it got there didn’t feel a bit contrived.

Final Verdict:

I liked Die for Me. I just didn’t love it. And since it is bound to be directly compared to Twilight (it’s even being marketed as “the next Twilight” and fans are told “if you liked Twilight, you’ll love Die for Me”), I can’t help but try to think about which one I enjoyed reading more.

And honestly, even though I will be the first to admit that Die for Me is technically superior and has far fewer frustrating elements…I have to give the edge to Twilight. It had that pull, that sense of urgency that kept me reading late into the night even though I had a newborn baby who I just knew was going to wake up at 4 a.m. I didn’t feel that with Die for Me. It was just…good.

I still am interested in reading the sequel, Until I Die. Just because book 1 resembled Twilight doesn’t mean the entire series will, and I think I would probably enjoy it more if my mind wasn’t constantly drawing comparisons between the two. And again, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Die for Me. It just didn’t sweep me up and enthrall me like I wanted it to.

Content Guide: Contains violence, death, wartime images, mild sexual content.