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Category: Irritated Reviews

When preachy messages overwhelm story and characters

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Image of movie poster for HostilesI recently saw the movie “Hostiles” (distributed widely 2018), and found in it a perfect example of how message fiction can completely kill a story. So, naturally, I had to write one of my Irritated Reviews™ to get the consequent rant out of my brain.

The premise is straightforward. It is 1892, and a cavalry captain in New Mexico is commanded, under Presidential order, to escort a long-captured Cheyenne war chief (who is dying of cancer) and his family to his old territory in Montana to die. The captain will then retire. The full synopsis is here.

Let me get a few unimportant things out of the way. The acting is quite good (to the limits of the script material) and the cinematography and costuming are well done. There — that's about it for the praise.

There are a handful of own-goals, pointless errors that could trivially have been avoided.

  • When a man defends his cabin from a raiding party of Indians, he leaves the shelter of its walls to stand out front pointlessly and be shot. (Because otherwise his wife and children who are watching from a short distance instead of running away won't get to see him die, for the benefit of the audience.)
  • When attacking Indians burn a cabin poorly defended by a family, they have no interest in raiding it for goods or burning any other buildings.
  • When coming across the horses of their dead enemies, this small group of riders has no interest in taking them along as spares to join their other pack horses, despite no shortage of water or fodder.
  • In one soulful moment, we see a white character playing a primitive musical instrument, clearly meant to be of local relevance. It is, in fact, a kalimba, an African instrument that few Americans knew existed before the 1960s, and certainly nothing to do with the local indigenes.
  • When constructing a cairn (!) for one of the dead Cheyenne, the characters find suitable rocks in the grass of one of those endless meadows that hasn't seen a surface stone since the glaciers last paid a visit.

These are the sorts of things that throw you out of any story, whether in a book or a movie, and make you question your confidence in the storyteller.

But no matter…  I wouldn't bother writing about the movie for things this small. No, this movie had much bigger problems.

You see, this movie had a message. And it was going to make sure that we heard that message, loud and clear.

For the love of god, learn something about historical periods before writing about them

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers


I wasn't going to post another Irritated Review™ so soon, but I was reading a Regency Romance novella and I couldn't restrain myself. I'll refrain from naming book or author, but going by the author picture, she's young.

The problems come in two particular flavors: errors of fact and behavior for the period, and modern points of view projected into the past.

Normally I object to these sorts of problems because they throw me out of a book, sometimes violently. In this case, they were so numerous that it was like trying to make out the plot while facing a hail of bullets, one after another. Soon I was no longer reading for the story, but looking for the next blooper, like a game. Here are some of the highlights.

Misused words

There is only the haziest understanding of how a visitor to a town is housed, and it's not in a guesthouse, the term chosen by the author, which does not exist. Inns in villages and hotels in towns are actually what she meant, but other than one reference to lodgings, we keep reading about the guesthouse.

There are waistcoats which are portly (rather than the men wearing them), and brows on ships, where men can stand.

Men want to step onto the “Regent's British soil.” “Regent” is not a synonym for “king” — do you suppose we should be singing “God Save the Regent”?  Later there's a reference to “now that the Regent sat the throne.” Thrones are the seats of anointed kings, not regents, even if they are princes as in this case.

The management of households

The rank of the heroine is never declared, but she is subject to an arranged marriage to the 5th son of a Duke and her parents were the wealthiest in the town, so she must be a member of the lower reaches of the aristocracy, if not higher. Her house is (sketchily) described in matching fashion — it's at least large and well-appointed, though envisioned more as a townhouse than an estate.

And apparently the house has not one single servant.

Kitchen staffNo one to bring tea, no one to dust all the furniture, no one to answer the door when someone knocks, no maid to help her dress, no cook, no one to tend the gardens, no one to do the laundry, no one to empty the chamber pots. If she has horses, no one responsible for their care. There is absolutely no one else in and around her house, not so much as a lapdog. And, apparently, no steward or business manager to run whatever estate or business her income derives from. If the income comes from rents, who collects them? If from a business (not appropriate to her presumed class), who manages it, now that her parents are dead?

Did her parents live this way, too? If not, was there a great firing of servants, a casting off of pensioners in the few weeks since her parents' deaths?

She answers her own door, and brings water to a guest. Every thing else about her household must be tended by the brownies, one presumes. I wonder where she gets the milk to pay them?

Why inconsistencies in fiction matter

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Book 1 of the Joe Pickett series

Another Irritated Review™. I'm just making my way through the 17-book Joe Pickett series by C J Box. On the whole, I like them well enough to buy them (at the grossly inflated traditional publishing prices), but I'm also noting small inconsistencies in factual matters that are irritating enough that I want to expand upon them as a case study in a blog post.

These are mysteries set in Wyoming, and our hero is the game warden Joe Pickett. Each book has an ensemble of continuing characters, and introduces new ones, chiefly to serve as the villains and victims of the particular book — no different from dozens of other, similar series. The writing is professional and reasonably polished, the plots are all right, and the characters suffer the standard long series weaknesses of static personalities or situations — after two decades, you expect them to have matured more than this. All of this is par for the course.

What keeps irritating me are the unnecessary errors of fact regarding the real world, and the unforced errors of prop inconsistencies. (While these are all the author's responsibilities, aren't editors at traditional presses supposed to help catch these?)

Errors of fact

Any genre where the details of the tools or weapons used are important attracts readers who know those tools intimately. It's a truism of the thriller genre that authors dwell lovingly on particular models of guns, for example, and as murder mysteries set in a hunting environment, the Joe Pickett books are no exception.

While I'm willing to give writers a pass on absolute arcana in this area, they need to get the basics right that anyone acquainted with the field would know. Otherwise I'm knocked right out of the story. And it's not just weapons — ordinary tools need to be used correctly, too. For example…


Would you twirl this on your finger?
Would you twirl this on your finger?
Someone checks out a new very large caliber revolver. It weighs three pounds, and it has a mounted scope. Now visualize this — three pounds is a lot, and a scope on top of the barrel for a handgun means something that's almost as tall as it is long. Got that picture? Good.

Now picture him twirling the handgun by its trigger guard to get a better feel for it. On one finger, necessarily. Now, I'm willing to believe that this is possible, but it would certainly be very clumsy and I can't picture anyone doing it. Can you?

The gunfighters who do this in Western movies are using much lighter guns, without scopes. And they're doing it for effect, not to get a feel for a weapon.

Learning from the Mistakes of Others – 4

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

N C Wyeth
N C Wyeth

Another Irritated Review™, but this time it's not mine. I was just reminded of one of the masterpieces of this genre, by the immortal Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), on James Fenimore Cooper‘s The Deerslayer (1841).

For those of you who snoozed through your grade school English classes, The Deerslayer is the last of the five books referred to as The Leatherstocking Tales, another of which is the more famous The Last of the Mohicans (1826), one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century. Sadly, everything that Twain says about Cooper's writing is absolutely true, despite the best efforts of N C Wyeth to make it seem otherwise.


Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895)

“The Pathfinder” and “The Deerslayer” stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.

–Professor Lounsbury

The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. … One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo… The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.

–Professor Matthews

Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.

–Wilkie Collins

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

Learning from the Mistakes of Others – 3

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Another Irritated Review™, but this time I'll identify the author and work since the author is no longer alive: Robert B. Parker, the Jesse Stone books. Or, as I've come to call it, the Frozen Series.

One of the great benefits of the resurrection of the backlist into permanent life in the last few years is the ability to buy an entire series and read it, in one big gulp, as if you were binging on a Netflix series season. Unfortunately, when an author adds one book per year to a lengthy series, you see many things over the course of the few days it takes to read them that the author did not, and not every author bears this sort of scrutiny. I was worried when I reread the Travis McGee books, in the John D. MacDonald series, but those held up well. Robert Parker's Jesse Stone on the other hand…

Parker's main books were the Spenser series and I enjoyed them for many years, until they began to seem mannered, repetitive, and tedious. I had never tried the Jesse Stone series, his “B” hero, until the movie specials of eight of them were broadcast by CBS, with Tom Selleck in the lead role. The movies, which I thought were well done, got me interested in the books, and I have just finished a two-week read of all of them.

  1. Night Passage (1997) – Berkley (Penguin)
  2. Trouble in Paradise (1998) – Berkley (Penguin)
  3. Death in Paradise (2001) – Berkley (Penguin)
  4. Stone Cold (2003) – Berkley (Penguin)
  5. Sea Change (2005) – G P Putnam Penguin
  6. High Profile (2007) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  7. Stranger in Paradise (2008) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  8. Night and Day (2009) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  9. Split Image (2010) – G P Putnam (Penguin)

Parker completed nine books in the series before his death in 2010, and they are still being continued by other authors.  (I'll just cover Parker's books in this review, not the continuations.) They represent his latest work.

Where was the editor?


The Jesse Stone books were apparently Parker's first foray into 3rd person point-of-view, and there are many technical errors related to dialogue and POV that any editor should have caught, especially these mainstream publishers.

In particular, there's occasional head-hopping from paragraph to paragraph and, disconcertingly, dialogue from multiple speakers in the same paragraph.  These are elementary, easily corrected mishaps, but they made it all the way to print.

I also take exception to the concept of one scene per chapter, when the scenes are typically 3 pages long.  A Jesse Stone book with 200 pages will have 60-70 chapters.

The world of Jesse Stone

Not even these guys all talk the same
Not even these guys all talk the same

There's no question that Parker can write, and write well.  Part of the charm of this series (and of the Spenser books, too) is the clever dialogue. Jesse Stone is laconic, witty, and absolutely unmistakable when you hear him. The problem is, so is everyone else he talks to, as though they were just projections of his personality.

At least half the characters around him speak exactly the same way he does. While a certain amount of that might be influence from our hero, we're way beyond that effect: half the people in his department (he's chief of police in a small town), his colleagues, his shrink, several of his girlfriends, and even a few of the villains all indulge in volleys of two or three word phrases with him.  It's all witty enough that the reader is amused, until he stops to think about it.

We live in Jesse Stone's world while we read the series, and adapt to the artifice of the dialogue tic. It's a mannerism peculiar to Parker — the Spenser books are exactly the same, with the banter between Spenser and Hawk or Spenser and Sue Silverman.  It reminds me of the stage dialogue of a couple of centuries ago for comic sidekicks.

Learning from the mistakes of others – 2

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Another Irritated Review™, this time for an Historical Scottish Romance work. (No, the unnamed author is not Diana Gabaldon.)

Things not to do when simulating a time period remote from the present…

The sanitary 1300s

Wouldn't catch him bare-chested -- it's cold!
Wouldn't catch him bare-chested — it's cold!

Our heroine has escaped from south of the border into the highlands on horseback.  Considering that probably half the children would have died of disease in childhood, we encounter remarkably few smells, no lice, nary a bit of spoiled food, etc.  Why, it's just like now.

In fact, it's warm in Scotland, see, and apparently free of biting insects, for our hero is bare-chested for his initial (and several later) encounters with the heroine. With his sword slung over his back. All those blisters from the leather sling chafing his bare flesh must be really attractive.  Sort of surprising that he never does anything about it, like put on a shirt.

Dances have a history, too

This is what dancing was in the 1500s, two centuries later
This is what dancing was like in the 1500s, two centuries later

Couple dancing, with men lined up to ask for the next dance weren't really a feature of the 1300s. It would appear that someone read Jane Austen or some derivative Regency romance and assumed those dance settings applied five hundred years earlier.

The best part was when the heroine is taught by the hero how to dance and she carefully counts “1 2 3, 1 2 3” to help remember the steps.  I hate to tell the author, but the waltz is a dance from the late 1700s-early 1800s. (There's that Regency thing again.)  200 years ago, 700 years ago — what's the difference?

Learning from the mistakes of others – 1

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

We're often blind to our own faults. I find it easier to see problems in the works of other people, especially now that I have a hard time turning off my editorial eye when reading fiction (the downside of being a writer).

I can forgive a few typos, and the occasional fluffs, like a gun that starts as a .22 and ends up as a .357 — these are understandable mistakes.  They're errors of execution, not of understanding.  But there are limits…

Here, for your amusement, are some things I encountered in last night's book which I've sworn never to do myself. I've spared the author name and book title, since the point is not to heap scorn upon the efforts of someone else but to go and avoid these problems myself.

I'll post more of these Irritated Reviews™ from time to time, when sufficiently provoked.

The no-muss-no-fuss death in the family

The tops of the Blue Ridge mountains have no rivers

This thriller is set in the unnamed mountains of North Carolina (presumably the Blue Ridge). Our heroine has returned home, after the recent death of her last parent (no siblings), to her architectural home perched high up in the mountains with a view of chasms.  Her family is one of the founders of the town nearby, and her home has lots of land.

She works for a living, no reference to independent means.  There is no mention of inheritance, estate taxes, or any duties involved in dealing with the death of her mother, other than a funeral.  No mention of property taxes, which would likely be substantial.  Hard to believe she's the last surviving member of her family, or that she can support the house, or that there has been a death of a parent just weeks ago with its necessary financial impacts and unfinished tasks.  Doesn't seem to have any new inherited money or financial responsibilities.  It's a shallow plot device to give her an interesting home, but since it has none of the reality of supporting such a home or the passing of the torch, she operates in an unbelievable financial vacuum.

The river on top of the mountain

The most river you'll see high on a mountain
The most river you'll see high up on a mountain

Her high school boyfriend takes her to a cabin higher up the mountain to reminisce about old times.  It sits along a river, and there's her old canoe.

Now, in my experience, navigable (even if just by canoe) rivers do not appear high up on mountains, even the modest Blue Ridge ones.