Sidecast Fascination

Personally, I have got a fascination with sidecast, sometimes even more than the main characters. This is true whether I’m reading/writing a book or watching a TV series. But I will focus on books for this post since I exclusively watch Chinese TV (used to be Hong Kong TV cos that’s where I came from, now mainland Chinese because HK TV had become so crap, rant for another day) even though I live in Australia. 

Now, in terms of my sidecast fascination, I’ve realised that it seems to be predominantly with particular characters archetypes as opposed to specific characters (well, occasionally I like a few that doesn’t fall into the pattern below due to the writer’s skills, I presume). They are, in order of preference:

  1. grumpy female mentor figures (what I come to call auntly): Examples include Aunt Pol (Polgara) from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malleorean and Rosethorn from the Circle Universe setting of Tamora Pierce. For my own work, I had an aunt/mentor figure that I was particularly fond of for that Genghis Khan novel that I abandoned. 
  2. The charming rogue trope: to be honest, I don’t like to read stories where the charming rogue is the protagonist. I don’t think I had ever really bonded to any rogue protagonist ever. But I definitely remember liking a couple of this well-used trope in fantasy, most notably Jimmy the Hand from the Riftwar and Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist and Silk from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malleorean. For my own writing, I haven’t yet written a story featuring such a sidecast yet. 
  3. The quirky character: I like them as protagonists as well as sidecasts. I might be remiss but the only example I could remember is Nakor from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar, Serpentwar etc. 

Now, what about everyone else? Who are the most fascinating sidecasts you’ve read to date? Let me know in comments. 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2020

I’ve been slacking off in reading published books due partially to the ease of phone reading on the train but also due to some weird conflict between fantasy reading and writing that’s unique to me. Besides the completed reads, I also tried to read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu but decided I would have a second try this year. I also did not finish the Dragonbone Chair and the associated trilogy as I had intended. I don’t yet have plans to have another go at it in the immediate term. But I do think it’s worth returning to eventually. 

Anyway, below is what I’ve read between July 2019 to now:

Death at the Wychebourne Follies by Amy Myers

I didn’t guess the culprit so that’s good. Otherwise, a little on the cozy side which is not really my thing but overall, solid work.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

This is my 2nd Battle and I still like it a fair bit, not as well as I like my first but it’s still got an interesting lead and I didn’t guess the ending which is always what I’m looking for.

Dreamers’ Pool by Juliet Marrilier 

I almost thought I picked up the wrong genre (romantic fantasy or fantasy romance) again. But actually, while it is a fantasy where romance figures heavily into the main plot, I am relieved and pleasantly surprised that it went beyond that. In fact, this is the ‘perfect’ book of light reading for me featuring magic and mystery and a strong female main character that I can relate to.

Moonlake’s Fascination with the Fantasy Genre

Fantasy is my main staple in terms of reading and I only write fantasy. Why this fascination with fantasy, you ask? And what’s so fascinating about fantasy? 

My answer for the why is simple: this is just the genre that I’m most drawn to. Now, if I drill down to the underlying causes (as I am wont to do, I have a philosophical streak in me as you can probably tell if you’ve read about my personal reflection spell), there are two types of attraction for me. The first is a form of escapism from mundane reality. I’m a routine person and excitement doesn’t happen that often in my life and when it does, I don’t always like it. So in a way, reading fantasy is the best of both worlds for me, allowing me to experience excitement and adventure from a safe distance. The second is that I like stories with deep themes, that help me reflect on life, on one should view things, on how one should behave or react to particular situations, on what to believe in etc. So fantasy, or I should say epic fantasy really since I predominantly read epic and occasionally mix it up with sword&sorcery, just happens to be one genre abounding in stories with deep themes. 

Besides deep themes, I also often find the fantasy setting, or more specifically the lore, fascinating. In this way, Lord of the Rings remains my firm all-time favourite and I’ve stuck with Raymond E. Feist for too long than I should. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s an outstanding writer for his earlier Midkemian series. But… I’ll rant about it another day. I’m fascinated with lore because this is how the child in me who believes in magic and adventure lives still. Actually, I have never believed in magic as a child but I definitely believed in adventures. My fascination with lore, though, seems to be inexplicably tangled up with magic for reasons not quite clear to me. Perhaps without magic, I don’t feel like the setting is actually a fantasy setting and it doesn’t provide as good an escape from reality? I cannot say for sure. 

And that’s it, why and what I find fascinating about fantasy. What about you? Let me know in comments. 

The Oriental Fantasy Reading Year- Infinitely Extended

So last year I said it was to be my Oriental Reading Year. But plans change. I don’t know why that is but fantasy reading and writing seems to be conflicting enterprises for me. Like, reading fantasy would have adverse influences on my writing. I didn’t notice that before but perhaps that is because before I’ve never invested so much time into a single writing project. 

Therefore, given this, I am going to draw out my Oriential Fantasy reading year to, well, infinity as the title indicates. I also think I would cut back on my Goodreads goals every year from 20 to 10 and reserve 4 spots for fantasy every year and 2 spots for the broadening horizon reads. The other half of the quotas would probably go towards mystery which I read faster.  

Things might change but tentative on my reading list for this year are:

  • A few Agatha Christie/James Patterson for light reading
  • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: I actually attempted to read this last year but didn’t finish it because I was pulled out by the characters having non-Chinese names despite being clearly inspired by Chinese history but I wanted to give it another go because I was just interested to see how the story mirrors the actual history
  • The Twilight of Gods by Scott Oden: This is book 2 of a standalone series starring an “orc” protagonist Griminir, I reviewed book 1 as part of my book discoveries last year and after reading the sneak peek chapters on the author’s blog, I’m ready to follow Griminir’s further adventures. 
  • Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier- I didn’t like her prose when I read her short story collection but I figured that might be the difference between short story and novel (I don’t like short stories as a rule, well, compared to novels that is). I also found the blurb interesting and it’s fantasy/mystery (I think I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve always liked cross-genre books that mix two or more of my 3 main reading genres: fantasy, mystery and historical fiction (strictly in that order). 
  • Operation: Jaguar by Lyman Rate- this is to be one of my planned broadening horizon reads for 2020, it’s military fiction, a genre I had never read before. 
  • Desecration by J.F. Penn- this is my other planned broadening horizon for this year. It’s a religious thriller, which is a sub-genre within the mystery/thriller genre that I had never known before. 

I am still missing one fantasy for this year. I would prefer a standalone. Any suggestions? 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- June 2019

I tried to read Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series but because the book was so thick I ended up delaying it to July when I would get a one week break. As of the time this is published, I am reading book 1 of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn quartet- The Dragonbone Chair. I rather enjoy it- the ‘old school’ feel and everything. I am moving slowly through it though so I expect this quartet would probably occupy my next quarter.

Death on Demand by Jim Kelley

To be honest, I should say that I am completely neutral about this book i.e. I neither like nor dislike it. That is not to say that I’m meh about this book, as is usually the case when I say that. Rather, I think it’s solidly written but somehow it just didn’t elicit a response from me, whether that’s on an intellectual, personal or emotional level.

It’s my first time reading a police procedural unless you count Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series but I think that was before the sub-genre of police procedural ever arose (or maybe I’m just ignorant). So perhaps my reaction is shaded by this. But overall, I think the plot is solid- the author had two main plots and they were woven together successfully in the end. There are also moments where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, a feature I always look to for the mystery genre (although I did guess one of the culprits early on). Perhaps it’s the characters who did not quite catch on for me or the pace (I mean, it’s not like a cozy mystery which I felt to be too slow but it’s not fast-paced either. It’s kinda like a light reading with shortish chapters where you can put down and pick up anytime. And well, I was looking for something to ease me back into reading after my long holiday when I picked it up but perhaps I was looking for something a little more fast-paced, something more similar to my own conventional conception of a murder mystery than this).

Merry Chirstmas, Alex Cross by James Patterson

In general, I think this book lives up to the JP formula of a fast-paced, light reading. Alex Cross continues to endear himself to me in the way he shows himself to be a man of high morality. However, this book also has mild doses of what I came to call ‘cheap dramatics’ that I came to expect of JP’s work. Nothing intolerable but I just personally never like books where I felt like the author was deliberately trying to ‘game’ reader reactions in a certain way.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2019

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Firstly, as an ethnic Chinese reading this novel, I commend Kay on his research and besides minor quibbles, I really think his fictional Northern Song Chinese setting came across as authentic and compelling.

I had never read him or Chinese historical fantasy before so I had little expectations of what I will be getting. I was pleased to learn that this is a tale where Kay re-imagines history in a fantasy setting even though the fantasy element is on the slight side. Nevertheless, since my one true love in reading remains fantasy and I know of the major history events that this book relates this does capture my interest. I’m also satisfied with the open-ended ending which leaves me with some hope that Ren Daiyan, the fictional equivalent of Yue Fei, potentially did not meet his bad end (I doubt it given his character but at least the ending dangles some hope in front of you). There was one point where I hoped the ending would be more positive towards Ren Daiyan but I think the current ending fits the book better so I’m content.

Overall, I think Kay is a writer that I will want to add to my list of favourite authors. I think he has a good handle of the omniscient voice even though it made the opening (specifically chapter 1, I definitely started getting into the book after chapter 2 when Lin Shan appeared) a bit slow and at times I felt like the omniscient voice was interference (but other times it felt insightful and deep). I also appreciate his prose- lyrical and full of imagery. However, the main characters (Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan) are only a part of this epic tale, small vehicles in some sense. I do like epic tales and I like this aspect of this book well enough but this does stop me from bonding with the characters and does take away from this book.

Songs of Insurrection by JC Kang

I DNFed this book, the start of the Dragon Songs Saga. I got to the half way mark and then I just didn’t feel like I have the patience to keep on reading it. Perhaps because I came to this straight after River of Stars, I had high expectations of a Chinese fantasy series written by a fellow ethnic Chinese. But I think why I DNFed it was partially this high expectations, partially I was the wrong reader for this series and partially I just had issues with various aspects of the story or the writer’s way of doing things.

Firstly, I didn’t feel like this story really needed to be set in a fictional ancient China and in fact, this story was more like ancient China and a bunch of ethnic Chinese characters shoved into the conventional fantasy setting than an authentic Chinese fantasy story like River of Stars. Specifically, I felt like the conveyance of Chinese elements were primarily delivered through scattered Chinese terms emphasised via italics and sometimes the interchangeable use of specific Chinese terms and their meaning in English just seemed completely random to me. Perhaps that’s my unique experience as a Chinese and this book is really targeted at the ESB market so I’m just the wrong audience for this.

The other aspect in which I think I’m mismatched with this book is that the portrayal of the female protagonist Princess Kaiya mainly resulted in my boredom and disbelief. I felt like perhaps this book should be labelled under romance as a large part of the first half of the book seemed to concern Princess Kaiya being smitten with this foreign prince. This does have a narrative purpose in making readers question whether her actions are really decided by her or she was under undue influence but an unfortunate side-effect was that she was always feeling like her stomach was full of butterflies or other similar wording which really got to the point of being repetitive. Also, Princess Kaiya came across as a sheltered wall-flower who kept second-guessing her own actions and then stick to them anyway. I do get it on one level- it’s a reflection of her being a teenager and/or the Chinese upbringing where you have a fear of going against rules. But again it gets repetitive when she keeps doing that. The same goes for her emotional range-she’s forever fluctuating between determination and doubt/apprehension, even when she’s supposedly drunk (I don’t drink alcohol so I have no first hand experience to relate to but I felt like her thought pattern is the same whether she’s sober or drunk which just doesn’t seem right. I also feel like in this story she fluctuates between being sober and drunk within the span of three or four hours or that’s the way it appears to me). So all in all, whenever we arrived in a chapter in the princess’s POV, I felt an urge to skip it except for the event of the chapter. The pacing of the chapters is nice and quick, that’s the main merit I see in this book and why I stick to the half way mark. That and the other story line with Tian and Jie who were portrayed a bit better in that I couldn’t find direct fault with them but there was nothing to endear them to me either.

The above were my main disconnect from this book but some other nitpicks I also have included: the tendency for readers to get confused when a scene contains multiple sidecasts and the author’s attempt to make them distinct through coupling names and physical attributes don’t always work; world building tidbits like there being three moons and their usage in time measurement that came into the story and then had little narrative functions and sometimes only caused confusion or just in general diverted attention from the story.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Picked this up for my overseas holiday read and I think it’s a good choice- The chapters are short enough that I can breeze through it. As for the story itself, I do think it has all the qualities of a classic. While the omnipotent voice creates distance compared to contemporary novels, I am still captivated by the anti-hero of the story enough to look him up and learn that he is completely fictional. I am also impressed by the depiction of the sense of smell that is central to this novel which then branches out to the other senses. Overall, a good choice for long time readers of the mystery genre looking for a high quality light read.

Chinese (Oriental) Fantasy year

Besides my Broadening Horizon reads and others that took my whims, I’ve dubbed this year my Chinese (Oriental) Fantasy year. In short, this year I am going to read up on all the key Chinese fantasy novels there are (those I’ve identified anyway). I might or might not branch into Japanese fantasy, hence the bracket around Oriental.

Why? Because I am sussing out competition in my chosen sub-genre of Chinese fantasy which is entirely self-named but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already books (mostly from the historical fiction genre) that are based on the same or similar general setting.

So far, I’ve put down the following novels to read for this year:

Chinese:  

  • Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gabriel Kay
  • Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu
  • The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox ‘trilogy’ by Barry Hughart
  • Cradle series by Will Wright
  • Dragon Songs Saga by JC Kang

Japanese:

  • Tales of the Otori trilogy by Liam Hearn
  • Ascendant trilogy by K. Arsenault Rivera
  • The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

I doubt I will get through them all. But then I am going to not stick with each series till the end like I usually do (well, it’s not like I haven’t ditched series before but it’s a rarity since I almost exclusively pick books based on back cover blurbs).

Moonlake’s Book Discovery- Dec 2018

I was going to do another book discovery back in Oct but then I decided I wanted to save it for end of the year so that I can do book discoveries in Mar, Jun etc. as opposed to odd months like this year. It appeals to my sense for order.

Anyway, below is what I read from Aug to Dec this year.  I went back to my main staple of fantasy but I also engaged in a bunch of light reading due to my Oct holiday (which both precluded me from reading in Oct and brought in a light-reading Sept when I cleared away some of my Kindle stack)

Soldier’s Son trilogy by Robin Hobb

This is the first series of Hobb that I’ve read and it really impressed me. Not so much that I have become a die-hard fan of her as I am of LOTR or Feist’s Midkemian world but I do think Hobb is a high-calibre fantasy writer. In particular, I think this series showcases her skills in the following ways: 1) she shows me how small actions (sometimes miniscule) by a weak character and a well-told story can hold reader interest (or mine anyway); 2) I think she presents war in a different slant that I’m used to seeing in epic fantasy and I think her take on it. Overall, I recommend this to connoisseurs of epic fantasy who want to experience something a little different from LOTR vibed epic fantasy (I still love them but I do want variety once in a while).

Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

I talked about this book last week and overall, I like it (even though chicklit isn’t my usual genre and I have no intention of making it my usual nor following this series further). Still, I think it’s a book with substance while at the same time being very approachable in language and funny at times (I’m a serious-minded gal and often humour is lost on me, especially the type in this book. But I did think bits of it were funny in a hilarious way).

Night of the Lightbringer by Peter Tremayne

I was a bit distracted by the content touched on in this book- the aspect to do with Christianity (I do not have a religion myself). I mean that in a good way- it enlightens me about certain aspects of it in an academic sense, even though I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might have enjoyed the book more otherwise.

As for the book itself as a historical mystery, I think I like it well enough (or at least as well as most of the others from this series for which I’m a long-time follower. A couple are better but I this one isn’t subpar, just right on par, I think. Sometimes when I follow a long series, it does wear off on me and I find it hard to distinguish between when it’s the fault of the author’s execution or just the novelty starting to wear off). One complaint, however, is that the final reveal of the ‘Boss’ borders on being anti-climatic. In particular, that mars the fact that I was eagerly awaiting the last chapter for the reveal of the culprit before the ‘Boss’

Masque by W.R. Gingell

Beauty & Beast in a cozy murder mystery (well, it’s not technically cozy but the murder mystery somehow takes second place to fantasy so I personally felt it’s on the cozy side, I guess) is how I would describe this book in summary form. Overall, I found it a pleasant light read but other than that, I have nothing much to add. Recommended for fans of B&B.

Life for a Life by Andy Peloquin

The only reason I read this was due to my light-reading Sept. Otherwise, I’m not much of a short story reader and a short story really has to be above the average for me to like it. In terms of this short story, write-up is solid and pace is quick but otherwise it’s just an average story.

I also read 3 non-fiction this year, 2 of which having to do with being a writer. But I didn’t find any of them great so I decided to focus on fiction here. Till next time.

What I learnt from my Broadening Horizon Reads- 2018

Photo by Mian Rizwan on Pexels.com

My Broadening Horizon Reads this year are a YA vampire/werewolf fantasy and a chick lit. Both are genres I tend to stay away from and both are written in first person (the latter is more of coincidence than design though). Below are summaries of my main take-away from each of them:

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs

I think what it showed me as a writer is the power of the voice. It comes in two-folds: 1) it showed me one way of using voice creatively to go outside of conventions for a multiple narrative story; 2) it showed me how voice is a double-edged blade and that for novels which hinge on voice like I think this book does, reader empathy is 100% whether they bond with the voice (or not as in my case).

Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Again, I think voice is an important part of this book. And while I found the heroine bimbotic for most of the book, I think what the voice in this book scores well on is that it does draw the readers into the heroine’s world. I also think the interspersion of letters and diary entries between chapters is a neat trick in strengthening a special aspect of the heroine or subverting/adding layers of depth to the heroine.

Above all, I think what I learnt from this exercise is to be more adventurous and go outside stereotypical impressions of specific genres once in a while. In both these novels, I found that they were better or rather I like them better than I had originally expected to (well, this is certainly true of Silence Fallen. I felt a bit misled by the back blurb for Mini Shopaholic for most of the book but then the ending did leave me sated and I actually prefer Mini Shopaholic relative to Silence Fallen). Sure, I wouldn’t like to do so all the time because I just like what I like but I am definitely convinced of the merit of introducing more variety to my reading ‘menu’.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- July 2018

photography of a smiling woman

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
So I’m not that much of a YA reader and I don’t tend to read urban fantasy at all but I picked up this book to do structural analysis for a writing course. I also consider this book as one of my Broadening Horizon reads this year. That aside, it’s not as horrible as I thought it could be but neither am I charmed. The pace is quick and the plot contains some twists but other than that, I’m not really taken with it. The heroine is okay but I can develop no bonds to her. I did note that the author suggested that the books be read in order and perhaps my problem of bonding is an artifact of me just picking up a Mercy book so late in the ordering of the series. However, I also think that the problem of this book lies in that Mercy the protagonist hasn’t grown one bit by the end of this book and in a way that made me feel like there is no point in me having read this book.

X by Sue Grafton
So I was really fond of Kinsey up till R maybe? And then it felt like Kinsey had fallen flat. But halfway through this book, I was like “Kinsey old girl, you finally came back!” And that’s what really excited me about this book.

I know the ending to this book is controversial (as a writer myself, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to write such an ending for technical reasons). All I can say that it worked for me and that’s solely because I am very fond of Kinsey.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton
I think this is the most complex story of the Alphabet series so far (which is ending in the next book!), with three parallel plots. To be honest, during a particular point, I thought one of the plot lines occurring in the past was redundant and felt bored but my perception was completely overturned only a few chapters later. So kudos to Grafton for embarking on this ambitious project and for it turning out so well.

1st to Die by James Patterson
So I came to this from the Women’s Murder Club hidden object games (which I liked) and Alex Cross. I like the concept of a women’s murder club before I even venture into this series but this story’s written in a sub-par way in my books. So we just get the page-turning, fast-pace that is Patterson’s wont for the case itself but the problem is that this story is much more complex that that and when all the other elements are in a hit-and-miss state, I seriously cannot say that this story is written solidly.

Mostly, the other 3 women besides Lindsay feel flat and I even have trouble bonding with Lindsay given that one key action she did just felt like a dumb move to me. Some of the chapters that aren’t about the case but about character and relationships are complete window dressing and leave me feeling awkward about their sub-parness. I’m also underwhelmed by the fact that the prologue of the book started off with a hook and then the concluding chapters and the epilogue acted like a major anti-climax to the hook in the prologue. In fact, I just feel like the last few chapters and the epilogue is basically all needless theatrics that Patterson was forced to put in to justify the hook he put into the prologue for lack of a better approach. I think I’m going to stick with the Alex Cross series instead of this.

Now, what have you all been reading? Let me know in the comments.