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.

Fantasy: Fantasy 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 Fiction: Science 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).

Dystopian: Dystopia 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.

Romance: According 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 Fiction: Historical 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.

Horror: Horror 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”.

Contemporary: Contemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.

Paranormal: Paranormal 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.

Steampunk: Steampunk 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. Right now one of the biggest genres on the internet is Erotica, and there are hundreds of subgenres under it. Every story you can think of can become an erotica with a little bit of tweaking, and it almost always does. If you don’t believe me, you can see it for yourself on smut websites or XXX Tube 1 or other such places. Then there’s the hybrid genres. 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.

3) Sometimes a story can change genres in translation or adaptation. If you look at Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, for example, the movie adaptation by Alex Garland is classified as a horror film according to websites like Hell Horror (hellhorror.com) and IMDB, but the book itself is considered to be in the weird or speculative fiction genre. So stories could often be quite fragile or fluid when it comes to genre.

So what’s the trick to 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 on 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: The Rise of Nine by Pittacus Lore (@harperteen)

Received an advance digital review copy from Edelweiss

The Rise of Nine is Book #3 in Pittacus Lore’s Lorien Legacies series (the first two are I am Number Four and The Power of Six), about teenage aliens with superpowers destined to save the world. If you have read my blog for more than about five minutes, you know that this concept holds massive appeal for me. Teen aliens with superpowers are awesome (as an aside, if you agree with that statement and haven’t watched Roswell yet, you need to get on that, stat). And while I think the Lorien Legacies are kind of cheesily written and won’t be touted as Great Literature anytime soon (or ever), they’re still a high-energy series of books that completely succeed in keeping me thoroughly entertained. And honestly, in a series about teen aliens with superpowers that’s ghostwritten by an alien, I’m pretty sure entertainment is the sole purpose.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Until the day I met John Smith, Number Four, I’d been on the run alone, hiding and fighting to stay alive.

Together, we are much more powerful. But it could only last so long before we had to separate to find the others. . . .

I went to Spain to find Seven, and I found even more, including a tenth member of the Garde who escaped from Lorien alive. Ella is younger than the rest of us, but just as brave. Now we’re looking for the others–including John.

But so are they.

They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.
They caught me in New York–but I escaped.
I am Number Six.
They want to finish what they started.
But they’ll have to fight us first.

My Thoughts

Although the synopsis is written from the POV of Number Six, The Rise of Nine actually shifts between three POVs: John Smith (Number Four), Number Six, and Marina (Number Seven). I’m wondering if this is going to become a thing with this series. Book #1 had one POV, Book #2 had two, and now Book #3 has three. But because all of the POVs are written in the first-person and the voices really aren’t that different, it can start to get confusing. I kind of hope Book #4 reins it in and doesn’t add yet another POV to the mix.

Speaking of which, I totally thought this was a trilogy until I realized I was at the last chapter and there was no way things were going to resolve by the end of the book. Which is mostly fine, but there’s a couple plot points I can’t believe are still dangling, including the whereabouts of my favorite character. In case anyone wonders, apparently there are going to be six books. Which you probably already knew, but I didn’t.

But anyway, moving away from that, let’s talk about the book. So as I said, there are three POVs. And I’m not entirely sure they were necessary. Marina and Number Six’s voices were kind of interchangeable, until they get split up and you can tell who’s speaking based on the setting. However, that’s a pretty late-stage development, and I don’t think we needed to stick with Marina through it. Probably just John and Six’s voices would have sufficed and been less confusing. It wasn’t really a bad thing, just sometimes hard to figure out who was talking. I had to back up a page on several occasions to double-check the narrator.

As for the plot, it had all the crazy action I’ve come to expect from this series. I loved the addition of Number Nine and Number Eight to the mix. They provided some fun new powers and personalities, and I got excited every time another member of the Garde joined the group. We didn’t really learn much more about Lorien’s history in this book, which was kind of sad (I love learning about Lorien), but the increased action made up for it for the most part. I am a sucker for awesome new superpowers and gadgets and giant explosions, and there are plenty of all of the above. The best thing about this series is the action, and this book really played to its strengths.

Getting to the writing, even on the sliding scale that I use to judge writing (I’m not going to hold an action book about teen aliens to the same standard as high fantasy), I had one major gripe about the writing. Actually, it’s not major. In the grand scheme of things, it’s minor. But it irked the heck out of me. And that is the phrase “with my telekinesis”  and all its variations.

I used my telekinesis to push the plane”

“I’m able to deflect [the sticks] with my telekinesis”

“I use my telekinesis to pull on the tail of one of the helicopters”

And about a thousand other mentions of the Garde using their telekinesis to move, lift, throw, tear, float, and otherwise manipulate their surroundings.

I have absolutely no problem with the fact that all of the members of the Garde have telekinetic powers and that they use them all the time. I would too, if I had telekinesis. But since this is a thing that all of them can do, and they all use it like another extension of their body, constantly reminding us that they’re doing it with their telekinesis is redundant. If you’re ripping a helicopter from the sky, and I know you have telekinesis, I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it with your nose. It’s like saying “I kicked the ball with my foot” or “I picked up the book with my hand.” You don’t need to tell us what part of your body you used to do something. It’s assumed. Stop telling me that you are doing things in the only practical way you could do them.

Okay. Rant about telekinesis over.

Aside from that, the writing flows well, the pacing is good, and the action scenes (which are a good chunk of the book) were exciting. I enjoy this series with the same part of my brain that enjoys Michael Bay movies (admit it. Transformers was super fun). I still don’t really understand the title (we found out in Power of Six that there are actually ten Garde members, three of which died at the beginning of I am Number Four, and we met Number Nine at the end of the last book and he doesn’t do much “rising” in this one. It’s a mystery), but I don’t care too much. This isn’t a big “thinking” series. It’s about superpowers and explosions and adrenaline, and I highly enjoy it.

Content guide: Contains violence and profanity

Review: Whispers in Autumn by Trisha Leigh

I first heard of Whispers in Autumn when indie author Trisha Leigh revealed her cover on Twitter. I saw the pretty cover and read the synopsis, then immediately emailed Trisha to see if I could get a review copy. See, the synopsis was about aliens. And I haven’t read a good alien book in a while, and I figured I was due. She got right back to me with a review copy, and I was excited to get started.

The Plot

Whispers in Autumn follows Althea, a teenage girl who’s not like the others. She has spent most of her life unnoticed, as her parents, classmates and teachers all seem to look through her, not at her. She’s learned to take her perceived invisibility in stride, not letting it get to her when she leaves a place for months at a time and when she returns, no one ever noticed her absence.

For another strange thing about Althea is that she has three families, in three cities, and only ever stays with them for one season. She has no control over when she travels from one family to the next. One minute she’ll be experiencing winter in Iowa; the next, autumn in Connecticut. Spring is spent in Oregon, and it is never summer. This is how it’s been her whole life, and the only explanation she has is from a mysterious being named Ko, telling her she’s different, and to trust no one.

But this time, as she travels to autumn in Danbury, Connecticut, with her autumn family, the Morgans, something is different. The alien Others are searching Danbury, and although no one knows what they’re searching for, their presence fills Althea with foreboding.

The presence of the Others isn’t the only thing that’s different though. For this time in Danbury, Althea meets Lucas, and for the first time, someone seems to really see her. As she struggles to determine what the Others are looking for and whether she can trust Lucas, she also has to control the power building inside her that would alert the world that she is different, and dangerous.

My Thoughts

Whispers in Autumn doesn’t mess around. It jumps in with both feet, and I’ll admit, it took me several chapters to get my bearings. I couldn’t figure out what Althea was talking about when she mentioned traveling, didn’t understand how she spent different seasons in different places, couldn’t wrap my mind around how she had three families that all never seemed to notice when she was gone. I adjusted my expectations to be disappointed by this book, because I wasn’t sure how this could all make sense.

But eventually, it did make sense. Not absolutely everything, but enough that I was able to understand why things were happening and how they came to be. It was never explained outright. The book is from Althea’s perspective, and she just lives her life as she always has, with no need to really lay out what’s going on. So it may be hard for people unaccustomed to the odd twists and turns of sci-fi to ever fully process what’s going on in this book.

I liked Althea. She was guarded and untrusting, which can be very frustrating traits in a main character, but it’s easy to understand why she is the way she is. Even when I immediately liked Lucas and wanted her to open up to him, it took her a lot longer. And at the same time, she had an inherent need to try to find others like her, to not be so alone, and it led her to wanting to trust some characters that I got a bad vibe off of from the beginning. Again, it was frustrating, but easy to understand why she felt that way.

The world building is very interesting, but also subtle. At first, you get the impression that the only weird thing about this world is Althea, but slowly you realize that nothing is the way we’re used to thinking of it. Although the families live in neighborhoods and watch movies and the kids go to school and the pizza parlor, it’s all different. And slowly, the reader begins to realize just how much about this world isn’t what it seems.

Trisha Leigh’s writing and pacing is engaging, and the book held my interest. It wasn’t quite the alien adventure I was expecting; there weren’t ray guns and force fields and spaceships and explosions. It was more character-driven, less alien-technology-centric. The villains are more creepy than scary, and the build towards the climax is gradual and almost quiet. There are several tense and suspenseful scenes, but don’t go in expecting explosions and fights.

My biggest complaint with this book is that sometimes, the laws of physics seem to be ignored. Now before you say, “this is sci-fi; what did you expect?” let me clarify. I’m totally wiling to accept aliens and spaceships and futuristic technology. That’s 100% okay in my book. But if you take a known physical property, like for example, gravity, and then change it, there had better be a good explanation as to why that works. And this book took a couple familiar concepts and altered them without explanation. For example, if the temperature of a room heats up enough to make the water on the stove boil, I’m pretty sure any humans in the room are dead, not just sweaty. Or if someone’s entire body heats up enough to melt glass, I’m pretty sure their clothes are on fire too. If an explanation was given about how the heat worked so that faces weren’t melting and clothes weren’t burning, I would have been okay with that. But either there was no explanation or I missed it, and it took me out of the story a little bit every time something like that popped up.

However, laws of physics aside, I still thought Whispers in Autumn was an enjoyable and creative read. I’m fairly certain Trisha Leigh is planning to make this a trilogy, with the other two books coming out later in 2012 or early 2013. Which is good, because the book ended on what I wouldn’t exactly call a cliffhanger, but more of a game-changer. I’ll be excited to see what happens next in Althea’s story.

Content Guide: Contains violence and profanity

Review: Suffocate by S.R. Johannes (@srjohannes)

I won a digital copy of Suffocate, Book 1 in The Breathless Novelette series by S.R. Johannes, in a giveaway (fancy that, me winning a giveaway)! I read it one lazy Sunday afternoon when I wanted something quick and exciting to occupy my brain. I hadn’t ventured much into the world of novelettes prior to this, but this one sounded like a lot of fun.

Since I’m bad at writing summaries that are short, and since this is a review of a novelette and I don’t want my review to be longer than the book itself, I’m copying the blurb from Goodreads:

The Plot

“For centuries, the world outside the Biome has been unlivable. Today, marks the first time anyone will attempt to leave the suffocating ecosphere. Eria is not worried because her scientist father has successfully tested the new Bio-Suit many times. It’s a celebratory day until something goes horribly wrong. In the midst of tragedy, Eria uncovers a deep conspiracy in her perfect bubble. If those responsible find out what she knows, they won’t stop hunting her until she takes her last breath.”

My Thoughts

If novels are like a television series or mini-series, a novelette is like a single episode. Suffocate didn’t waste any time in getting to the heart of the story: a terrible accident, and Eria’s frantic search to discover what went wrong, accompanied by her father’s intern, Ash. As they search through the mysterious innards of the Biome for the truth, they are pursued by mysterious baddies, and lots of crazy sci-fi discoveries are made amidst nonstop action. There’s even a brief moment of romance squeezed in. And then it winds up with a great twist ending that I kind of suspected (but not really).

This book was fun, fast and furious. I liked reading about the world of the Biome, and even though the book is short, the world-building was decent and the pacing was good. I never felt like I was being rushed or that the story was being crammed into a too-small space; this is just one of those stories that didn’t need 100,000 words to tell it properly.

If you’re looking for a quick, exciting sci-fi read to fill a couple hours by the pool or on a rainy day, I’d recommend picking this one up!

Content Guide: Contains violence, death

Review: Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card

As you are probably well aware by now, I am a huge fan of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, along with its sequels and its spin-off series, Ender’s Shadow. I enjoy Card’s logical and intelligent way of telling a story. I love the intricate sci-fi world, the wonderfully developed characters, the smart twists and turns of the plot. So when I found out about the newest installment of the Shadow series, Shadows in Flight, I eagerly grabbed it from the library.

The Plot

[Warning: There is no way to summarize any of the plot of this book without spoilers from the Shadow series. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll want to skip this review until you’re caught up.]

Shadows in Flight picks up five years after the ending of Shadow of the Giant. Or rather, five years for Bean and the three children he and Petra unwillingly doomed to his fate: extraordinarily enhanced intelligence, but at the cost of an early death by giantism. Knowing the only hope for finding a cure for his children within their lifetimes was a lower gravity environment and the relativistic effects of near-light-speed travel, Bean and the children have been traveling on the spaceship Herodotus, searching for a cure, while back on Earth, hundreds of years have passed.

Life on the Herodotus is getting a bit strained for the 6-year-old super-geniuses: Ender, Carlotta and Cincinnatus. Even after hundreds of years of Earth’s scientists researching their condition, they are no closer to a cure. Plus, they live constantly waiting for Bean, who they refer to as “The Giant,” to die. They’re actually surprised he hasn’t already. The only reason he is alive is that he is completely inert — prone and trapped in the cargo bay, still with access to the ship’s computer system, but unable to get up or exert himself in any way.

But their situation abruptly changes when their course takes them near an interesting new planet. Especially when they see what else is there.

My Thoughts

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. I love Bean. I love the Shadow series. But much as it pains me to say it, this latest installment felt a bit…lacking.

First off, it’s very short, almost closer to a novella than a full-length novel. Although the Enderverse is expanded and explained a bit more, as is the case with every book in the series, not much really happens. There’s barely a hint of the action, suspense and strategic thinking under fire that are peppered nicely throughout the rest of the series.

Then we get to the characters. I still love Bean. His scenes were my favorite of the book, mostly because he is still true to the Bean we have come to know throughout the rest of the series, but as with every book in the Shadow series, he has grown (no pun intended). I am a big fan of every time we learn something new about Bean, and in this book, we get to see him as a disabled father. How he handles it is touching and very true to his character.

However, Bean is not the focus of the book. The majority of the book focuses on the children, Ender, Carlotta and Cincinnatus. And here’s my problem with them: they’re essentially Ender, Valentine and Peter.

I love the dynamic between the siblings of the Wiggin family. Always have, and came to love it even more as we got to know them all throughout both the Ender and Shadow series. But I’ve already read about that family dynamic. And this is basically the same one. Yes, they’re smarter than even the Wiggin siblings because of their genetic altering, but their personalities are basically the same. Cincinnatus is basically Peter (the more mellow, adult version of Peter). Carlotta = Valentine. And Ender = Ender.

And when you take that group of personalities and genders and explore the sibling relationship between them for 8 books, and then introduce basically the same thing but with different, new characters and explore it for only one book…it’s bound to come up short. And it did.

It’s not that it wasn’t well-written. It’s not that the characters weren’t interesting, and it’s not that the story wasn’t good. It’s that it felt like a lesser version of its prequels. Maybe if we had learned something monumentally new (there is new information given in this book, but it wasn’t earth-shattering like some of the revelations in previous books), or if there had been some heart-stopping action, or if the stakes had been higher, I could have overlooked the obvious similarities to the Wiggins. But alas, it was not meant to be.

I’d still recommend this book for die-hard Enderverse fans. It’s not a bad book, and if you are itching to find out what happens next in Bean’s story, this answers your questions. But for me, I think I’ll be content with Shadow of the Giant as the last Ender book on my shelf.

Content guide: Contains brief mild violence, brief murderous plotting