Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Backstory Boycott

In the past week, I read two romances that really frustrated me: About That Night by Julie James and The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne. Both of the these books have received very good reviews from others, and if you want to read positive things about them, I suggest you go to those sites. I, on the other hand, had some major issues with the storytelling in both of these novels, which failed because of issues with the characters' backstory.

about that night cover

Kyle Rhodes shut down twitter after his girlfriend broke up with him via a photo tweet of her making out with another guy (harsh), and as a result spent several months in prison. Once he gets out, he runs into US prosecuting attorney Rylann, whom he asked out on a date in college. They're attracted to one another, blah blah blahhhhhhggg.

Julie James always has problems with the beginnings of her novels, even in Just the Sexiest Man Alive (review here), which I adored. But About That Night is probably the worst of all her beginnings so far. There is a TON and TON and TON of backstory that is delivered in the most unimaginative way possible (i.e., exposition and infodump). Even if I wasn't already familiar with most of it from reading A Lot Like Love (review here), I would still want to skim the 80+ pages where we get to see the episodic and brief moment when Rylann and Kyle meet in college; Rylann breaking up with her boyfriend and moving to Chicago, reflecting on life, etc.; Kyle under house arrest, reflecting on how he got into prison, getting out of prison, thinking about life, etc.; AND THEN FINALLY the story starts with Kyle reluctantly testifying about something he witnessed in prison. Except that lasts for about fifty pages and there's still more than half of the book left to goooooooo.

Basically About That Night has no plot whatsoever. The book was so caught up in telling me a backstory that it forgot to deliver an ACTUAL STORY. By the time Rylann and Kyle had gotten together, I'd lost total interest in this not-a-story. Not mention Kyle is the most unbelievable hero I have run across in a loooooong time.

black hawk cover

Joanna Bourne is another writer whom I'm generally a big fan of. She has a great, unique style of writing, backs up her novels with solid historical research, sets many of her books in France, and wrote one of my very rare 5-star reads, My Lord and Spymaster (review here).

The Black Hawk started off with a bang. In my head I was thinking, "At last, a story I can finally sink my teeth into!" In the opening scenes a French spy named Justine is stabbed on the streets of London and seeks help from Adrian Hawkhurst, an English spy we met in The Forbidden Rose (review here). Hawker was the best part of The Forbidden Rose for me, so I was thrilled to see he was getting his own book. It turns out he and Justine have been in love for years, but are always spying on opposite sides of a conflict. Now Hawker has to find out who tried to kill Justine and convince her that they can finally be together.

Hey look, it's a plot! Yay for plots! And it's a different plot from the one Bourne used her last two novels, so double yay! I was settling in for an awesome read... and then the flashbacks started. Not my personal flashbacks, mind (that would be bad enough), but flashbacks of everything Adrian and Justine had ever done in their entire lives.

Perhaps it wasn't everything they'd ever done, but it certainly felt like it. In a 304 page book, 184 pages consist of flashbacks. And in case you're under the delusion I needed to know any of the stuff in these gratuitous flashbacks, let me assure you that I did not. The first flashback, which is sixty effing pages long, basically recounts info I'm already familiar with from The Forbidden Rose. Getting people up to speed is fine; boring people to death with endless backstory that has no purpose and zip to do with the plot is NOT.

And because there was so much time spent on the backstory, just as in About That Night there was no development of the characters and their relationship in THE ACTUAL STORY. Who stabbed Justine becomes obvious as soon as the person shows up on the page, and after that the story becomes très boring. I'm very happy these characters have a long history, but JK Rowling had a lot of backstory she needed to fill her readers in on, too, and she didn't do it by taking her readers out of the story with flashbacks every twenty pages. For which we thank her.

It's common knowledge that I have major issues with prologues, and now I have major issues with flashback scenes, too, thanks to these two books. Aren't flashbacks really just a prologue put into the middle of the book instead of the beginning, anyway?

After reading The Black Hawk and About That Night, I came to a depressing conclusion: as much as Fifty Shades of Grey (review here) made me roll eyes and want to throw myself out a window, it was actually better than either of these two novels (from the perspective of storytelling; neither Black Hawk nor About That Night left a terrible taste in my mouth like I'd just licked garbage, so that's a point in their favor). At least in Fifty Shades there was a plot--one blatantly stolen from Stephenie Meyer, but still, a plot--the characters, for what they were, were believable, and there was some chemistry between them; and EL James didn't bore me to death with backstory delivered in lame-o infodumps and flashbacks. She just told the freaking story and let the characters' history emerge as she made it up it went on. So yes, if I was going to compare these three books (and clearly I am) I would say if this is an example of what James is going up against, I am no longer surprised she's selling so many books. There's a lot to be said for not having one's patience tried.


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