The Last Post…

…on this site, that is.

I now have a brand new site at:

Most of my loyal followers should have been ported across to the new blog, but because it’s self-hosted if you don’t follow by email (there’s a box and a button for that!) you won’t get an email.

People who have followed by pressing the WordPress button this site, rather than following by email, will not get an email any more – posts will only show up in their WordPress Reader.

After a short while, this site will disappear completely, leaving only the new site.

See you over there, OK? :-)

Awful Library Books

Yesterday, I found Awful Library Books, which is a site run by two American librarians whose mission in life is to expose to the shrinking eyes of the reading public the horrors that either await them on library shelves, or which have been removed by heroic librarians, fearless in the service of readers everywhere. Just so you know.

Like TV Tropes, it’s the kind of site that sucks you in. Page after page of books that have been hiding on library shelves, unloved, unread, and unseen, for forty years or more. Books from the 1970s, full of strange things to make out of tin cans or ring-pulls. Books that are just plain strange. Or that have had strangeness thrust upon them in the form of mould or pets.

When they say “everyone has a book inside them”, probably they mean these books. Either literally, in the case of books that have been partially eaten, or figuratively, in the case of the books that make you think… “A publisher published that? Why?”

I find it strangely heartening. After all, if someone can get Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself published, surely there must be hope for me?

The Ordinary Hero

This week, I read four books from two different series, both of which featured what I’ll call an ‘ordinary heroine’ – that is, someone who doesn’t use kick-ass powers, but is actually quite powerless (at least, in comparison to the characters around them). This is an Everyman sort of character; the ordinary Joe who steps up when the plot descends on him, wrecking his humdrum life, as opposed to someone who is already in a traditionally plot-prone position, such as a private investigator etc.

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

The first and second books were Written in Redthe first book in the Others series by Anne Bishop, and the follow-up book, Murder of Crows. In these books, Meg Corbyn isn’t quite an Ordinary Jo, because she can see the future when her skin is cut. However, that ability (in-universe, she’s a cassandra sangue – blood prophet) has meant she has been kept a prisoner for her whole life, forced to prophesy to make money for her captors. When she escapes, therefore, she has no life skills and no money. She therefore accepts a job as Human Liaison to the Courtyard in the town where she ends up. The Courtyard is where the supernatural creatures live, and in this world, the supernatural entities are in charge, and they eat humans.

Meg’s job is basically to be in charge of the post room, taking in deliveries and making sure that they get to the right place within the Courtyard, which actually appears to be quite a large compound. Human Liaisons don’t tend to last long – they either quit or get eaten, and even while alive they tend to be pretty uninterested in actually doing their job right.

So, moving on to what makes Meg the Ordinary Heroine. Despite her power of prophecy, she’s decidedly underpowered when living amongst vampires, wereanimals, a being that all the others are scared of, and elementals. However, she maintains her position as centre of the story not because she’s some kind of human MacGuffin, but because of her attributes as a person. She is the first Liaison to take the job seriously and actually do it right, and this means she becomes valuable to the fairly terrifying creatures living in the Courtyard. She also tries to go beyond just being a glorified post-girl, and tries to find solutions to problems – sometimes, due to her lack of experience of the real world, in innovative way. This leads to the supernatural creatures starting to see first Meg herself, and then other humans who work for the Courtyard, as something other than prey. Since she has been kept prisoner from birth, and has no experience of real life, the reader also gets to see Meg learning how to cope with the outside world – even deliberately trying out different types of music and writing down whether she likes them or not, for future reference.

Meg, however, remains decidedly underpowered. Her position within the plot depends on the relationships she forges with the other characters, and their reactions to her. We also get to learn more about the supenatural creatures by the way they react to Meg. By the end of book 1, she has changed the dynamic between the Courtyard and the human town, and further changes are afoot. In some ways, she is a catalyst for change rather than an agent of change – but the setup works very well. Meg learns and grows, and in Book 2, she is more confident, has consolidated her position, and is starting to use her power as a cassandra sangue to benefit her new friends and employers in the Courtyard.

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

The second pair of books were Dark Currents and Autumn Boneswhich are the first two books in Jacqueline Carey’s  Agent of Hel series.

The heroine of the Agent of Hel series is Daisy Johannsen, hellspawn – the offspring of a human mother and demon father. She lives in small-town Pemkowet, MI, which is one of the places which have a functioning underworld (this one being run by the Norse goddess Hel) and thus magic works and supernatural creatures exist. Daisy is a part-time file clerk with the Pemkowet police department, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, she is also Hel’s liaison with the mortal world and thus responsible for keeping the supernatural peace in Pemkowet. Although Daisy’s emotions can affect the world around her, if she embraces her demonic birthright, it will (we are told, although it’s unclear why) touch off Armageddon.

I really enjoyed the first book; Daisy was kind of ditzy and made a lot of mistakes, but she was dealing with her first real challenge as Hel’s liaison. The plot was pretty good, with some interesting moral ambiguities. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t live up to the standards set by the first book.

Unlike Meg Corbyn, Daisy Johannsen didn’t seem to have learned anything from the events of the first book – she was still ditzy, still careless, and still making stupid mistakes which put those around her in danger. Furthermore, since the Agent of Hel books are written in the first person, the reader doesn’t get to see anything from any other character’s point of view, or any scenes where Daisy is not present. This is a problem because with an ‘ordinary heroine’, since the main character’s powers aren’t making them the protagonist, it has to be character. Why do the other characters in the book let her take the lead, or take any notice of her at all? Why do they rally round? Why does she make a difference? Why, in fact, don’t they just ignore her and roll right over the top of her? Meg Corbyn did her best to help people, and we got to see her working out how to deal with real life (and werewolves). Daisy Johannsen, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be making much of an effort at all.

On the romance front, being paranormal fantasy, there are the obligatory Hot Guys. One, in the case of Meg, and three in the case of Daisy. It was pretty easy to see what the Hot Guy saw in Meg: she was hard-working, loyal, caring, and sweet. With Daisy, it’s a lot harder. She didn’t seem to be very good at her job, didn’t seem to be interested in improving, didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than watching old movies with her mother, and, all in all, seemed to be a bit of an idiot. What was making all these Hot Guys pant after her? I could believe one (no accounting for taste) but three? Daisy’s attitude to adversity pretty much seemed to be to ignore it until it went away, which it promptly did. She spent as much time worrying about which Hot Guy to choose as she did potential Zombie Apocalypse, which not only made me wonder about her priorities but also rather destroyed the pacing of the story.

Comparing the two, we have two heroines who are underpowered compared to the other supernatural characters in the book. Yet they each maintain a central role. In the case of Meg Corbyn, this is accomplished not only because of her own actions, but also because of the relationships she creates and maintains with the other characters, producing a domino effect of change which goes beyond anything she could have accomplished alone. In The Others, we therefore have a group of central characters tied to Meg, all of whom we get to know. Meg, however, remains the centre of the story about whom all of the others orbit. Meg also grows and develops throughout the two books, so while she starts Book 1 naive and pretty helpless, by the end of Book 2 she has greater agency – and we can look forward to more in Book 3, as she consolidates her position within the Courtyard and learns how and when to use her powers safely for the benefit of herself and her friends.

In the case of Daisy Johannsen, the same growth doesn’t happen. She’s as hapless at the end of Book 2 as she is at the beginning of Book 1. This is frustrating, because she never seems to learn from he mistakes, or to start to really take responsibility. The Armageddon thing, which is never explained, precludes her using her hellspawn powers, and many problems in both books are solved by other, more powerful characters, coming to the rescue (often because Daisy’s ditziness has created the dangerous situation in the first place). Although Daisy manages to have sex with two different men, both men are so two-dimensional that we don’t know what they see in her, and even Daisy doesn’t seem to have any interesting thoughts about them other than “he’s sexy”. Even an Ordinary Heroine has to grow and develop throughout the book/series – whether that’s power, skill, relationships, whatever. There has to be change. So Daisy not only fails to step up and really start to take responsibility as Hel’s liaison, but she also doesn’t grow as a person. Such a shallow, ditzy main character has neither the depth nor the grit to sustain an interesting plot over two books, so the plot of the second book fails. Or, possibly, if the plot had been better, Daisy would have had to develop some depth of character in order to deal with it.

The Ordinary Heroine (or hero) is one of the most difficult to write, because the character doesn’t have special powers to carry the plot and justify their central place in it. They have to have enough – well – character to make it believable that other, more conventionally powerful characters will follow their lead, or at least take notice of them. Even if they start out being pretty useless, they have to learn from their mistakes and use whatever skills or powers they do have to the best of their ability. Failing this, the story will start to come apart, or readers will lose interest in, or be frustrated by, a protagonist who does not seem to justify the way the other characters act towards her.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

My new book reader finally arrived… Hooray!

Kobo Aura H2O

Kobo Aura H2O

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to break my primary ebook reader. It is (was) a lovely Kobo Aura HD. It went everywhere with me, which may have been the problem because everywhere includes to work in a rucksack and into the shower.

This was, of course, an opportunity to order the new Kobo Aura H2O, which wouldn’t mind if I took it in the shower.

A waterproof book reader – it’s amazing nobody has thought of it before. I knew there were places you could send your reader off to, and they would waterproof it (for a price, obviously), or you could do it the low-tech way, which is to put your reader in a freezer bag, but a real waterproof reader is amazing.

It’s lovely to be able to take it in the shower – and I’ve started having baths again, just so I can relax in the bath with my Aura. Plus, the screen is an improvement over my old Aura HD – the white is whiter, the black is blacker. There isn’t a hard button for turning off the light any more, but I’ve got used to doing it with the on-screen slider.

I was an early adopter of ebooks – I like gadgets! Since getting my first ereader – an Irex ILiad, which cost over £400 – I’ve become a firm believer in ebooks, for fiction at least. I love being able to carry multiple books around with me, and never having to worry about running out of things to read (especially since I also carry my emergency reading on iPhone and iPad, just in case). I love being able to read while eating without having to work out some way to keep the book from closing or flipping over pages. I love being able to read in bed by the soft glow of the reader screen, rather than having to keep the main light on. It’s also easier to get to sleep after reading in a mostly-dark room.

Aside from my love affair with my book reader, I always love to see more authors’ backlists being published as ebooks – for me, it’s one more step towards every book being available electronically. Being a long-time ebook fan, I’ve watched as more and more prominent authors moved towards having ebook editions, and rejoiced every time I found a new one, whether I intended to buy any of that author’s work or not. Ebooks have also allowed the revival of the novella – uneconomical to publish in paper format – and for authors to publish short stories as singles for the first time. Thanks to ebooks, authors have more freedom than they have ever had before, incuding the freedom to publish without involving a commercial publishing house.

Yet, even with the evidence of ever-increasing ebook sales, there are still people who swear that ebooks are a passing fad, or that ebooks aren’t as good as paper.

For some uses, yes – at least at the moment – paper wins. I still prefer paper for textbooks (until I have to copy out any quotes, of course, at which point I prefer electronic), and in schools it’s probably logistically easier to use paper for class reading books. And yes, paper books look pretty on a bookshelf, and downloading an epub file doesn’t have the same feel as buying a book and taking it home…

It’s noticeable, though, that most critics of ebooks do not concentrate on what paper books do well (easier to keep a class of kids on the same page, easier to flip back and forth, no colour diagrams on an ereader); nor do they concentrate on what ebooks do badly (colour pictures, browsing bookshelves, being able to see at a glance what books you own). Instead, they concentrate on emotional responses that are nothing to do with the author’s words. When I read of someone criticising ebooks because they “like the smell of a paper book” or they “like to turn the pages by hand”, I find myself thinking, “well, if that turns you on, buy yourself a blank notebook from WHSmiths; clearly, the author’s words aren’t important to you.” It’s also interesting how many of these ebook detractors admit that they’ve never even tried reading an ebook.

As for being able to pass on old copies of paper books – well, good luck with that. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find a charity shop that will take books, and second-hand bookshops are getting picky too. Selling on Amazon will get rid of the books, but since many paperbacks are selling for 1p each, it’s often more (or nearly as) expensive to sell the book than to just stick it in the recycling box.

These people seem to forget that books are for reading. Books are not for home decor, nor are they fashion accessories. They are a mechanism for making the words of the author available to the reader, and an ebook does that supremely well – far better than a paper book, because it’s faster and cheaper, and doesn’t snap shut if you don’t weight it down with the edge of your dinner plate.

After all, paper or eInk is only the delivery system: the real magic of reading happens in your own head, as the story unfolds in glorious technicolour behind your eyes – regardless of whether you have a paper page or a black-and-white eInk display.

Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.

The Human Connection

I read a lot. Constantly. And, being a lover of urban fantasy, I read a lot in that particular sub-genre. The thing about genres is that there is pretty much only a handful of story structures. There are also a lot of tropes which come up over and over again. So, you pretty much know what you’re getting – the fun is in how the author puts his or her own spin on the-real-world-but-with-magic.

The thing is, I can usually tell whether or not I am going to like a book within the first few pages. The plot has hardly got started, we’ve only just been introduced to the main character – and already I’ve got a pretty solid yes or no feeling.

Today, I was thinking about how and why that happens. Why is it that I’ve already decided whether or not I like a book before the author has really had time to get to the good parts? Isn’t that just a bit unreasonable?

Then I remembered Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. It’s a book about screenwriting, but it’s applicable to writing any sort of fiction. And the point he is making in the title is not that he really likes kitties, but that a good way of showing your kick-ass hero(ine) in a human light, so the audience (or reader) can connect with him (or her) is to show him/her doing something spontaneously nice, or cute. This sounds like kind of crap, until you actually think about it.

Take Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – Harry Dresden, the hero, is your standard hardboiled PI; he has no money, he’s behind on the rent, he can kick ass when required, et cetera et cetera yadda yadda. But he keeps (or did, at the beginning of the series) a box of paperback books in his office for when he’s got no work to do. That makes him human, and someone I could potentially like. I mean, he reads. That’s something I can relate to.

In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Eve Dallas, kick-ass murder cop, thinks the vending machines are out to get her. Her department-issue car develops a new and interesting fault (or gets trashed) in nearly every book, and her very old office computer sometimes prints out in Chinese. And someone is stealing her candy… She may be the best at solving murders, but everyday technology tends to get the better of her (plus, someone is stealing her candy).

One potentially very good series that I’m sorry didn’t carry on was Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series. Excellent books – although not for the squeamish. The series was cancelled by the publisher after only three full-length books. The reason, I believe, was that sales weren’t as good as projected from the reception of the first book. Looking at the reviews, I think one major reason is that readers were finding it hard to relate to the two main characters. Far from Saving the Cat, the reader was given the impression that one of them, at least, was far more likely to sacrifice it unhesitatingly. This is not hero-like behaviour. Personally, I liked the hard-edged storytelling, and I liked the fact that the main character, Ray Lilly, was an ex-con trying to put his life back on track – an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary events and attempting to cope. But Ray and his employer, Annalise Powliss, did not save the cat, and for that, I think, their series was axed. (Personally, I think they did save the cat, but I possibly I was seeing a different cat.)

So, to go back to my point, I think the reason why I can tell whether I’m going to like a book or not is whether – within that short opening section of the book – the author has given me a way to connect with the main character on a human level, rather than simply portraying them as the Kick Ass Hero(ine). Have they, in fact, saved a cat?