Wake (a review)

Preface: I have over 40 drafts sitting around collecting dust, and some of them have decent ideas in them that I am letting go to waste. No more! Since I can’t think of anything original to write about anyway, I hereby commit myself to touching up/completing and publishing as many of these drafts as possible before clearing out the rest and returning to proper posts.

Why the preface? Well, I was looking back over the history of this blog in views per month, and tried to identify what it was about the June-September period in 2013 that got this blog of mine so many views (comparatively speaking). I was focused on content, and the content didn’t make much sense to me, because it was all over the place.

The only thing that was consistent about that period of time?

I put out a post almost every single day.

And while I have Honours study to deal with, while I’m trying to finish my novel before the end of the year and have it sent off for publishing, I miss blogging every day. It was a good discipline. So pushing out these incomplete drafts seems like a decent middle-ground to me: I get to produce stuff, and at the same time I save time and can therefore focus on getting other stuff done as well.

Let’s see how it goes. This one was started back in January. Has it aged well with time? You be the judge …

~~~

It is always nerve-wracking, as an aspiring writer, to find published works, be they books, movies, comics or whatever that seem like they might have taken your totally unique and original concept and beat you to it. Such was my feeling when I discovered Wake by Amanda Hocking, so naturally I had to buy it to find out for myself.

No, not borrow from the library: BUY IT. I purchased this book because I wanted to read it.

I think I need to re-evaluate my stance on libraries.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Wake. I did, though when I think about why I enjoyed it I realise that I’m incredibly easy to please. And you know what? I don’t really mind that. It means I get more enjoyment out of life.

I do have a few issues with it, though.

Let’s start with the writing.

  • Writing

As I’m still trying to get my ass into gear to start the second set of revisions on my own WIP, it’s rather fortuitous that I read this book beforehand, because it makes quite a few mistakes that I’m familiar with in my own work.

The first one: too many commas. The one I always hear to avoid is the semicolon and I definitely understand why. But whenever I’ve heard of an overuse of commas it tends to be a critique directed towards unpublished works. And frankly, I have to wonder why, if a book like Wake can get published (and Amanda Hocking has sold millions of books) with all of its writing errors, there’s even a point in worrying about it.

I mean there’s enjoyment for one thing. I don’t enjoy reading sentences like: “Following her path, which she’d made look so easy, proved to be rather treacherous, and he stumbled several times.” It’s like having three speed-bumps with 20 feet between each of them on the main road; it breaks up the flow into jarring little segments, and while I think the use of commas there is correct, there are other ways to say the same thing without needing to use commas at all, like: ‘The path she’d made look so easy turned out to be rather treacherous, and he ended up stumbling several times.” That’s one third of the commas used (though one extra word) and says the exact same damn thing. I only had to edit that sentence once. What the hell was Hocking’s editor doing while they read this? Playing a bad writing drinking-game?

It’s so bad that I’m fairly sure I’m going to end up under-using commas during this review, purely out of fear of perpetuating this trend.

It’s not just commas, however; the book uses third-person narrative all the way through and it’s just as jarring, because for some reason Hocking thinks it’s okay to jump between her characters’ perspectives without any sort of indication that she’s going to do it.

For instance, on page 11 and through to page 12:

‘I don’t have swim trunks,’ Alex said, but his resistance was waning.

‘Just wear your boxers.’

He thought about protesting further, but Gemma had a point. She was always doing stuff like this, but he’d spent most of his high school career in his bedroom.

Besides, swimming would be better than waiting. And when he thought about it, it was much less creepy joining her swimming than watching her from the shore.

‘Fine, but I better not cut my feet on any of the rocks,’ Alex said as he slipped off his shoes.

‘I promise to keep you safe and sound.’ She crossed her hand over her heart to prove it.

‘I’ll hold you to that.’

He pulled his shirt up over his head, and it was exactly as Gemma had imagined. His gangly frame had filled out with toned muscles that she didn’t completely understand, since he was a self-professed geek.

When he started to undo his pants, Gemma turned away to be polite. Even though she would see him in his boxers in a few seconds, it felt strange watching him take off his jeans. As if it were dirty.

The totally and completely smooth transition from Alex to Gemma’s perspective is not the only noteworthy writing non-technique in this example, of course, but it’s the one that stayed with me. I realise that third-person POV is meant to be somewhat removed from the action, and it’s a perfect excuse to tell a story from multiple perspectives, but … I mean it’s just good manners to indicate that a shift in perspective has happened, like a line-break or a new chapter or something. And perhaps most importantly, it respects the reader.

This is actually the thing that reminds me the most of my earliest writing attempts, or at least my earliest ‘serious’ attempts, back in the day when I didn’t know how to use indents or grasp the concept of line-breaks and everything I wrote came out in one huge block of text. Everything was mushed together into an endless run-on string of antisocial shifts in perspective, tone and setting, and I thought nothing of it, because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Or, to be more exact: I didn’t know what I wasn’t doing. I read books, of course, so I’d seen the indents and the line-breaks and consistent character POV, but I wasn’t thinking of any of that; I was thinking of the story and the characters and the action, which is what you’re supposed to focus on, in a first draft.

Hell, not even a first draft; some people call it the ‘zero draft‘ because the only important thing is getting those ideas out and working for you, to hell with narrative cohesion or sentence-structure. It’s freewriting, more or less, a stream-of-consciousness barrage of concepts put into legible script, and that is absolutely fine when you’re just getting started.

It is not fine as a finished product, unless you’re aiming to make some kind of deconstructive statement about the rules of good writing or whatever. For run-of-the-mill commercial prose literature: no.

My personal biggest gripe with the writing is when we seem to be in one character’s POV, and then that character will ‘seem’ to do something, or it’ll be ‘as though’ they’re feeling or thinking something, such as when the sirens are explaining their backstory to Gemma on page 165:

‘I think I get it.’ Gemma’s brow remained furrowed, as if she didn’t completely understand it.

It took me until literally right now, looking up that line for me to realise that, yep, the perspective had shifted from Gemma to Penn, the lead siren.

It’s atrocious.

And more’s the pity, because not one page before it the story actually does something that I appreciate, which is to call out the incredulity of the main character upon hearing something outlandish, after something outlandish has just happened to them. In this case, Penn telling Gemma that there were gods and goddesses and Gemma being skeptical, five minutes after she turned into a goddamn mermaid.

Let’s talk about these sirens, actually; I really like them, or the story behind them anyway.

  • Sirens

So, as it turns out, this book is actually educational.

I always thought sirens were naked women who sat on rocks and sang hypnotic songs that lured male sailors to their doom and then possibly ate them, and occasionally I considered that they might have mermaid tails. That’s certainly the case in Wake, but it’s not the whole story.

The backstory of the sirens comes from Greek myths, and after doing some thorough research into the matter, it turns out that I knew more or less nothing about sirens at all.

The image of sirens as water-bound femme fatales comes from Roman depictions, whereas the Greek version of a siren is more similar to a harpy: they had wings, and were associated with birds and song more than rocks and the ocean, though the singing part carried over from Greek to Roman accounts. Hocking has combined the two of them and thrown in mermaids as well, and I have to say, I actually really dig it.

I especially dig it when Penn goes Final Boss Mode and turns into this gigantic bird-woman monster:

Her arms began to change first, growing longer. Her fingers stretched out several inches, ending in sharp hooked talons. The skin on her legs shifted from smooth, tanned flesh to something appearing dull gray and scaly. It wasn’t until the feet changed into bird’s feet with long claws that Gemma realized Penn had grown the legs of an emu.

… The sound of tearing flesh and rustling feathers filled the room as two wings tore out from her shoulder blades. When they unfurled, they were nearly the length of the room.

… Her full mouth lengthened and stretched out, so her lips were pulled back, like a bloodred line around her teeth. Her teeth not only grew but multiplied, going from a single row of flat teeth to row after row of razor-sharp daggers, so her mouth resembled that of an anglerfish. (295)

Again, the writing could be better. But the transformation itself is pretty dope. It also mentions how Penn’s breasts are the only part of her that don’t change, which I found rather amusing. And disturbing. But mostly amusing.

I like how inelegant it is; so much of modern monster design is modeled on synergy and unity, but having a mermaid that turns into a gigantic demon emu anglerfish is so delightfully tangential. I approve.

But it does make sense, and that’s the great thing about it: because sirens are ‘part bird’, which is where the power of their voices comes from, it does make sense that they’d be able to turn into giant bird monsters. The swimming part comes from the curse bestowed upon them by Demeter for failing to protect Persephone from being abducted by Hades; this part deviates from the myth, I think, but it still resonates with it – the original four sirens were cursed because they were off swimming, singing and flirting with Posideon, and so swimming, singing and flirting became their power, as well as their curse.

The whole ‘curse’ thing makes about as much sense as any traditional cursed monster narrative: why the hell would making somebody immortal and granting them superhuman powers constitute a punishment, exactly? I mean sure, it’s gotta be a drag literally living forever and not being able to form lasting relationships with mortals, but what about all the innocent people that they’ll take out their frustrations on? Don’t get me wrong, the Greek gods are idiots to begin with and this definitely fits their MO, but … yeah.

And the book even points it out:

“But it’s a curse,” Gemma said. “Demeter turned you into sirens to punish you.”

“Did it really feel like a punishment?” Penn asked slyly. “When you were out in the water, wasn’t that the best you ever felt?”

“Yeah, but …”

“Demeter was an idiot, and she failed.” Abruptly, Penn stood up. “She thought she was giving us a penalty, but she set us free. Now her daughter is long since dead, Demeter’s all but forgotten, and here we are – as beautiful and powerful as ever, thriving under her ‘curse’. (174)

This book has its shortcomings, but I can’t remember the ridiculous bullshit that goes into curses of this type ever being called out quite so pointedly. Credit where credit is due. Granted, that exchange is a bit out of context: the sirens can hypnotise men by singing (and it can be any song), they can turn into mermaids and swim, and as demonstrated above they can also turn into abominations of nature – and are immortal and eternally youthful and so on. There is the downside of no man ever being able to see past their physical beauty and therefore they can never be loved for who they truly are, and that was just begging for an “I am no man” subversion, but I haven’t read the other books so maybe that does happen.

Finally, the thing I really like about the sirens: they eat people. Not just as a matter of course for being monsters; they are overcome with actual hunger-pangs for human flesh. Insert numerous bad sex jokes here.

Such as that one.

Ahem.

I like this; I like the (incredibly predictable) pairing of the seduction aspect of siren lore, and their powers, with an actual hungering for human flesh. I think I mostly like it because it’s just really unpleasant to think about; it’s the one part of the curse that actually feels like a curse. Because none of the other feelings go away; Gemma still wants to make out with Alex and all that, which makes it really uncomfortable when she starts kissing him a little too enthusiastically, to the point where she ends up biting his lip, drawing blood and realising that she literally wants to eat him:

When she’d been kissing him, she’d been so hungry. It was unlike any hunger she’d ever felt. It was part lust, like she’d wanted to kiss him and be physical with him. But the other part was actual starvation, and that’s why she’d bitten him. (150)

And while the writing still irks me, content-wise the parts of this book about sirens that actually deal with said sirens is pretty cool.

Except …

  • Double standards

With a mythology so sexually-charged as that of sirens, and with this being a YA paranormal romance, you might expect that eventually the grim spectre of absolutely straight-faced sexual-agency-shaming would rear its ugly head.

You would be correct.

I mean the evil skanky monster girls listen to Ke$ha. That’s a scene in this book.

Just after they’ve killed Bernie, pal to Gemma and Harper’s dad and totally not gay for him. And vice versa.

Seriously that should have been a thing, they would have been really sweet together.

But yeah, this whole girl-hate thing that there is no shortage of criticism about regarding YA romance narratives – Gemma has the inevitable ‘if only all of this horrible stuff that’s happened to me wasn’t such a burden on him!‘ moment, specifically the fact that her siren song – literally any song she sings counts as that – making Alex more susceptible to that of other sirens results in the other sirens mind-controlling him at the very end, threatening to kill him if Gemma doesn’t go along with her.

Which is, of course, Gemma’s fault.

Gemma wanted to argue that she’d never sung to him, she’d never tried to put a spell on him, but then she remembered. Right after they’d turned her into a siren, she’d been singing in the shower. Alex came over, and that was the day they’d had the intense make-out session that neither of them could explain.

‘This really is all my fault,” Gemma whispered. (290)

Gemma, who had no fucking idea that she was a siren or the effect that her song would have on literally any male person (again, really hoping this heteronormative thing gets at least addressed at some point in the series) and in her absolutely justified ignorance committed the heinous sin of singing in the shower – after being turned into a siren against her will – yes, it’s her fault, obviously.

UGH.

It’s the lack of scruples about this that really gets me, as well as the number of times it’s happened in the teen girl metanarrative. If you are a teenager and you are a girl, you are just inherently wicked and sinful, apparently.

I get that this moment of shame kinda has to happen in order for her to agree to join the sirens, and I’m sure there’s a ring of authenticity to it in terms of how some people would feel in this situation, but it’s still horrible and toxic and far too pervasive of a trend for me to forgive. It may well be that by the end of the series either she works it out or somebody else does it for her and she realises that the actual villains here are the actual villains.

Which is the other double-standard, a far more established-in-popular-consciousness double-standard: that of any girl who is ‘too sexy’ being instantly labeled a slut and, by extension, the source of all evil, which the narrative inevitably backs up as being true.

Penn, Thea and Lexi, our triumvirate of evil scarlet women, appear in town one day and because they’re stunningly attractive, flirty and wear revealing clothes are instantly hated by Gemma, and I think every other woman in town as well. There is some fun to the idea of taking a stereotype of a really detestable type of person – in this case the Most Popular Girl In School (only they’re not in school) – and making them actual monsters; I don’t deny that I understand the catharsis that this practice could bring, kind of like having the dude who ran off with your wife turn out to be an incubus or something, so that you can fully justify your hate towards them, which will hopefully end in murder, which will also be justified. And I use that example specifically because of the jealousy factor involved with this particular strategy; these are the ‘girls you love to hate’, and that hatred comes bundled with at least some level of jealousy.

The thing is, Penn and co. haven’t actually done anything except for wearing revealing clothing and flirting and being pretty, so what else is there? I mean yeah, there’s the ‘evil vibes’ that any evil person gives off, obviously, because who needs subtlety or nuance, but other than that?

Because here’s actually a part of this specifica YA teen girl narrative that I wasn’t expecting: Gemma is specifically made out to be really attractive.

Gemma knew she was pretty, and sometimes when she was dolled up she thought she was downright hot. (65-66)

I do appreciate that it’s not yet another iteration of the ‘plain Jane’ lead protagonist who is then for some reason the most desirable person on the face of the planet, at least to supernatural Chippendales troupe members. But it does make Gemma’s vitriol towards these girls seem incredibly catty, and I can’t help but read the subtext into that.

And you know, that could have been an interesting dynamic, not to mention relatable. Even men have that kind of hatred for other men who happen to be very attractive and get a lot of attention, sexual or otherwise; it’s just kind of a universal experience, resenting other people who have something you want and feeling like they’re somehow hogging it all for themselves. It’s only partly irrational, but that doesn’t make it any less petty or entitled, and that is a part of life. Hell, it could have been character-development here, but no, of course Gemma is too good to become involved in that sort of thing, can’t you tell by how pretty yet un-skanky she is?

It is noteworthy that Gemma is selected by the sirens to become their fourth because she’s the prettiest non-siren in town, if only to point out that yes, these girls who are so hateable are in fact deserving of said hatred because they enjoy eating people and … yeah okay that is pretty hate-worthy, but still. It’s never a surprise.

And then there’s the other characters …

  • Who cares

There’s Harper, Gemma’s older sister and the other protagonist of the story. She has big sister angst about having to fill the role of their mother, who is in a psych ward type thing because she is … I don’t know. I don’t care. It works into the plot in some really artificial way that I can’t remember and I’m happier that way.

Harper herself is fine; the characters in this book all have this strange quality about them where there’s just enough to them that I want to like them, but not enough there so that I actually do like them. I like the sirens, just as my favourite character in Beautiful Creatures is Riley, whose Caster “type” is, wouldn’t you know it, a Siren.

At least she’s not a Succubus I guess?

Alex and Daniel, the romantic interests, are … well we’ve met Alex already. Let’s see if I can’t find a good place to introduce Daniel …

The first time Harper had met him, she’d been on her way to see Brian at the dock. Apparently, Daniel had woken up and decided to pee over the edge of the boat. She just happened to look up at precisely the wrong time and got a full view of his manly parts. (31-32)

In my notes I constantly refer to Daniel as a dick. I don’t think it’s because of the way he’s introduced, but still, urinating in public is generally considered fairly antisocial.

To memory he’s the Gale to Alex’s Peeta; Alex is shy and sensitive, whereas Daniel is self-assured and obnoxious. But only sometimes. Most of the time he’s the kind of accommodating and perfect that only comes from having absolutely no internal existence of your own because you’re a plot-prop or object of wish-fulfillment, and this completely overrides any semblance of personality he otherwise might have. It’s a shame, really. He could have been interesting.

Next.

  • Oh look it’s the end

The book ends two-thirds of the way through a decent if bloated plot with characters that don’t feel quite fully-realised, particularly the two love-interests. Gemma and Harper – I really wanted to like them and their relationship; I really wanted to invest in the story and the characters in general, even if the ending of said story is equivalent to how it would have been if The Empire Strikes Back had ended with Luke leaving Dagobah to save Han, Leia and the others from Cloud City. I think a large part of why I didn’t get into it like I wanted to was the writing.

And I know I’ve bashed on the writing a lot, and I feel as bad about it as I can while criticising the book of an author who has sold millions of copies of said book (and there are another three in the series). There is obviously a market for this, and far be it for me to begrudge Amanda Hocking or anybody else for benefiting from it.

Also – the way this book is written reminds me of my very earliest stuff; yes the writing was similarly atrocious, but that’s not what I mean. What I got from Wake was a sense of enthusiasm and passion, and I’ll be honest, that was really endearing. It was even inspiring, actually; I was jealous of how much joy radiated out from this book. And I think that’s connected to the prose and the characters, because it’s indicative to me of a writer doing something that they really wanted to do, where reach exceeds grasp but they don’t let that stop them. I always admire that in a book, and on those grounds alone I’m happy she’s been successful. And it’s not like there’s nothing good about the book: I really dig the siren lore and the siren characters, who are slightly more complex than your typical “evil slut” villain stereotypes, and while I didn’t like this book per se, I found it incredibly engaging.

I just hope she honed her craft as the series progressed. But much like with The Mortal Instruments, I must admit that I’m not particularly interested in finding out.

Mostly because I still feel guilty about not devoting the time and energy to my own novel that I feel I owe it. I don’t know how you can owe an abstract concept anything to begin with, but there it is.

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One thought on “Wake (a review)

  1. Pingback: Envy | Vevacha

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