The Handbook For Mortals publicity melt-down train seems to have finally derailed, sliding sideways into the station where it shall rest until the next big convention. Which means we can jump into the recap with both feet!
Trains have feet, right? VICTORY, MY METAPHOR WORKED!
For what I think is the first time in this entire book, something set up at the end of the previous chapter actually happens in the next one:
A few days later, I joined the cast and crew on one of the camping trips Mac had mentioned.
I don’t know how to handle this, guys. I wasn’t expecting to actually see the camping trip. Anything that takes characters out of their element is always a good time, and really provides the chance to showcase some growth and… No. No, I can’t even do that sarcastically.
I should have probably put my tent up right when we got there, but instead went swimming and messed about till it was after dark. I’d been trying to put up my tent for nearly forty-five minutes in the blackness of night, and I was getting frustrated. I knew I could have asked someone for help, but it had gone on too long. My pride wouldn’t allow it.
Every once in a while, I’ll read a book with a Strong Female Character™ and I’ll think to myself, “Could I survive as a Strong Female Character™ myself?” The answer is almost always no, absolutely not. Because I need help doing so many things, and Strong Female Characters™ never need any help. I’m not even blaming Sarem for using this trope because she’s an amateur writer and it’s a mistake we all make when we’re starting out writing independent women. It’s like we have to show them as being unwilling to ask for or accept help, lest someone call them a damsel in distress, no matter how stupid it makes them look to the reader.
“Need a hand?” A friendly voice came from the dark behind me. I jumped.
“Riley! Oh God, you scared me.” I clutched my chest. “No, thanks. I’ve got it.” I grinned at him.
See? In a beginner’s mind (and in the minds of some readers), if Zade had accepted his help, she would no longer be Strong, because Strong Female Characters™ never have any human limitations. This isn’t an issue with the book so much as an issue with that SFC trope itself.
Riley walks off and Zani copy-pastes her longing for stars:
I’d begun to get used to being in Las Vegas, where it’s actually hard to see the stars because of the bright lights that are everywhere. Apparently, moonilght and large glittery casino lights drown out all but the brightest stars.
Thank you for reminding us that you can’t see the stars on the Las Vegas strip, because I forgot all about that from two chapters ago when you described it in almost the exact same way.
I think no matter how old I get I will always be amazed how stars take my breath away. It reminds me of a quote I’ve always loved: “[A] star is a huge flaming ball of gas…[T]hat is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.” What we are made of and what we are, are not there same.
It’s her favorite quote, but she doesn’t bother to give the source. PS. It’s an often quoted line from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader that she’s sliced up. One of the things Lani Sarem has been accused of doing during book signings is writing favorite quotes of hers as inscriptions without crediting the source, so it looks like she’s the one who said them. If you quote something or someone, you need to source that in the text, or at the very least make a footnote.* But it’s so much easier to just say, “It reminds me of a C. S. Lewis quote I’ve always loved.”
*The only place I don’t think this is necessary is in the case of quotes that have become common colloquialisms or whose source is uncertain. I mean, does anyone really know who said “Pobody’s nerfect” for the first time?
Anyway, after setting up the strong, independent woman trope, Sarem throws this curveball:
At that exact moment, I wished I had a guy. If I had been dating someone, anyone, then he would have also been sleeping in the tent with me–and therefore helping me put it together. Not that I couldn’t do it by myself, but I liked the idea of having someone to do things with. Things like this and other things.
Things like this, and other things, such as…other things. You know. Those. Whatever they are. I honestly can’t figure out if that’s supposed to be a nudge-nudge, wink-wink or if it’s just masterful prose in the vein of E.L. James’s “…or something.”
I was fiercely independent but that doesn’t mean I always want to do things alone.
Except write a book, because clearly, you were the only person who saw this thing before it was published. You freaking switched tenses in the middle of a sentence. But what really bothers me is the idea that independent women don’t need anyone’s help, ever. Or that they just don’t get lonely.
Even though she doesn’t like to use magic for mundane tasks, things are going about as well for her as they did for the fairies in Sleeping Beauty when they tried to throw that disaster of a birthday party for Princess Aurora. So, Zanzi does what they ultimately did, and puts the tent up using magic. Then she goes to the campfire for the romantic drama.
When I reached the campire I noticed Jackson and Zeb sitting next to each other talking. They were sitting close enough to the fire that the warm glow reflected off of Jackson’s face making him look almost angelic. For a split second, though, the glow off Zeb’s face somehow made him look just a tad…evil.
Because the foreshadowing here is so subtle, “evil” looking Zeb gets up and goes off in a huff, barely acknowledging Zade. She sits next to Jackson (and ZOMG THE SIDES OF THEIR THIGHS TOUCH) and asks him why Zeb doesn’t like her. Jackson tells her it’s not that Zeb dislikes her, just that he takes a while to warm up to people. They have a little conversation about the tent and whether she’s an outdoorsy girl, then Jackson asks Zales where she’s from.
My mind danced to a place where the weather was far more humid, every restaurant served sweet tea and more fried things that you could shake a stick at, biscuits and gravy were a breakfast staple, and people talked with a slow drawl.
I’ve heard so many “Pure Michigan” ads that I read that entire paragraph in Tim Allen’s voice. This sounds like copy written for a tourism bureau, but the TV spot would have “I Wish I Was In Dixieland” playing in the background and end with a shot of a pretty blonde plantation tour guide in full southern belle regalia.
I could have gone on and on about the things I did miss and the things that existed that caused me to leave–though I couldn’t tell him a lot of it, either.
Then I guess you really can’t go on and on, can you? She gives him an evasive answer, and he says:
“Copy that.” I’d learned that that was an expression a lot of the crew said a lot in place of “okay.” It’s radio lingo that had made its way into regular conversation.
I feel like the narrator of this book thinks every reader has been living in total isolation, never having any contact with the outside world aside from the little slot in the door that opens so food can be slid into their windowless cell, and therefore need even the most obvious of things explained to them.
Zade says she misses her mom.
We hadn’t really talked since I had left. I knew she didn’t like that I was in Vegas–and I was sure she didn’t really want to hear any stories about the show that she wasn’t happy I was out here working for, so I didn’t have much to say.
There is so much wrong with this whole, “Mom said I couldn’t try out for the show, but I’m trying out for the show” thing that’s going on. We guessed pretty early that Charles Spellman is Zandar’s father, but why has she never thought to herself, “Huh, it’s weird that my mom specifically forbade me from trying out for this random Las Vegas magic act to the point of using real magic to keep me from leaving.” Does she know that Spellman is her father? If so, why is that being kept from the reader, if we’re in Zardi’s head? And why would she be afraid to tell Spellman how the trick was done if he’s her dad? The only thing really mysterious about why her mother wouldn’t want her to try out for the show is how on Earth Zade never wondered why her mother had such a very specific objection to her daughter going into showbiz.
All of that could have been cleared up at any point it’s been mentioned by simply saying, “Ever since I’d started talking about my dream to be in Charles Spellman’s magic act, my mother had discouraged me. It seemed odd that she would worry about that show, specifically. Maybe she just didn’t want to see me disappointed if it never happened.” Or something like that. As an editor, that would have been my suggested fix, by the way: “You need to work in a plausible reason for her mother to discourage her or else people are going to see your twist coming from a mile away.” Actually, any editor would have left that note.
At that moment, I noticed Mac getting up from where he had been sitting nearby and saunt off to lean on a tree away from the glow of the fire–and from the rest of us crowded around it. He looked a little upset as he crossed on the other side of the fire and walked away. I couldn’t help but wonder why.
How can iZarley be this dense and not drown in a light rain?
He stayed close enough to where he could see us and therefore we could see him, which was also curious.
It’s not that curious. If you can see someone, they generally can see you, unless you’re looking through binoculars or a gun scope or hugely pregnant and hiding behind a tiny potted plant to videotape Fabio nine years ago.
Lando thinks about going over to Mac, but then Tad does, so she just keeps talking to Jackson. Until Tad leaves Mac alone and one of Jackson’s friends conveniently hijacks the conversation. Then she takes off for Mac.
Mac had on a slightly puffy jacket with the collar turned up, and he looked rather “Abercrombie and Fitch” leaned up against the tree.
I realized this was also the first time I had seen him out of his work attire: his standard black Dickies and black button down, his “show blacks” or his occasional Carhartts if he was doing something more mechanical that day.
I realized this was also the second time you described what show blacks are.
Instead, he was wearing fitted Levi jeans with the bottoms of the legs slightly rolled up and a long-sleeve red, blue, and yellow patterned linen plaid shirt.
I say again:
She noticed earlier in the day that he was wearing a t-shirt underneath all that:
In the south those types of white undershirts are often called “wife beaters.” It’s a horrible name for anything really but especially a shirt. Though, in every movie I’ve ever seen the redneck wife beater wears one, and without a doubt you call it that and people instantly know what kind of shirt you are speaking about.
Okay, maybe this book did see at least one editor. Or her writer friend I’ve never heard of gave her a note because this reads exactly like an in-text justification for something someone suggested. It probably went something like, “I don’t think people call them wife beaters anymore. Maybe you could just call it a sleeveless undershirt?” And then, because Sarem is a first-time author, she likely argued, “But that’s what it’s called in every single movie. If you call it that, people will instantly know what I’m talking about,” and then just couldn’t let it go.
She goes on to describe not just the outfit he’s wearing now–right down to how he’s laced his boots–but how he’d been wearing everything before.
He looked somewhat like a hipster, but a hipster could actually hunt and do other manly things most hipsters don’t know how to do.
I don’t even know how to approach that sentence. Like, what angle do I focus on? I guess I’ll go with “you don’t have to kill to be a man.” But there is so much toxic masculinity described in that sentence I’m exhausted just imagining trying to analyze it.
They open their exchange by calling each other “Magi Girl” and “Superman,” and he’s like, are you glad you came along, and she’s like, are you glad I came along because she can’t tell if going off and brooding while she’s talking to another guy is a sign he likes her. I mean, she doesn’t acknowledge that he went off to brood because she was talking to Jackson, but it’s not like any of this is subtle. Mac tells her she’s not the worst person to work with:
“Nope. There are worse ones for sure…and here come some now.” He pointed at Sofia and another performer, Mel, who were walking toward the tree Mac and I had been posted up on.
Mel? Which Mel? Is it Mel 1 or Mel 2? Mel B or Mel C?
Mac takes off as Sofia and one of the Mels approaches.
He winked at me when he turned around, which surprised me, and I was still caught up in that feeling of surprise when Sofia reached me and put her arm around me. Me, who was probably Sofia’s closest friend, flanked me on the other side. I had no idea why they had cornered me, but Sofia’s grip on my shoulder told me she wasn’t going to let go of me easily.
I can see how Sarem and Nicholas thought this book was a YA. Even though the characters are adults, they behave like cliche high schoolers in a poorly-conceived straight-to-Netflix teen drama. Sofia tells Lanzo that she’s “wasting her time.”
I had no idea what she was even referring to as far as what I might be “wasting my time” about, not to mention the strange new behavior from Sofia who had, so far, ignored or snubbed me when we were at the theater. Maybe she was trying to be nicer since I had saved her life. Somehow I doubted that, considering she still hadn’t even thanked me–or even apologized for being mean and pushing me away when I was in the middle of saving her life.
Again, this never happened. This wasn’t a thing that happened. It was a thing Sarem conveniently added to make Sofia seem terrible but was too lazy to go back and write.
“Not dating performers is a rule of his. I’m sure you’ve heard about them by now. The man lives by his rules. Don’t take it personally.” While Mel spoke, heer head shook from side to side. It made me wonder if she had anything inside of it, or if it just kind of bobbled around with empty space.
The thing is, Mel isn’t really saying anything stupid here. She’s saying something that’s true. And while she and Sofia are the de facto bitches in this misogynistic mess, she’s not saying anything particularly mean, either.
I was already on the defensive from the second they walked up, and I realized I had been fidgeting somewhat as I stood there. “I’m not trying to date Mac, or anyone else for that matter. I’m just trying to get along with everyone.”
“Sure,” said Mel, “if that’s what you tell yourself to sleep at night. You can’t fool us though. You’re totally into him.”
I remember hearing this stuff as a teenager trapped in a culture which pits girls against each other and tells them that the most important thing in the world is getting and keeping a boy’s attention. It’s too bad that not everyone gets what they need to move out of that mindset. And then they write a book about it.
I’m not sure why they thought that they were so above me, or why if they never were able to have him that meant I couldn’t either.
They have to think that way so that you can be triumphant when you and Mac end up together. What’s the point of falling in love if the relationship doesn’t come with a side of petty victory?
“Well, as we say in the South, bless your heart . . . and . . . uhh . . . thanks for the advice, or whatever you’re calling it, but we are just friends. If I was after him, as you’ve stated, then I promise you I would have better luck than either of you.” After the words came out of my mouth I was actually surprised that I had been so bold to both of them. I was proud of myself though.
You were proud of yourself for engaging in the competition you wanted no part of?
I stood and stared back at them waiting for their response. Zade: one; stupid girls: zero.
And this, right here, is the crux of the problem. If Sarem hadn’t confirmed that this was written as wish-fulfillment fantasy because she couldn’t get acting roles or modeling jobs, the use of “stupid girls” would have outed her, anyway. This is a grown woman thinking of her professional colleagues in terms only a miffed middle-schooler would use.
“You actually think you’re hotter than either one of us?” Mel licked her lips and narrowed her eyes as she crossed her arms and tilted her head. I contemplated my options for a moment to make sure my answer was truly a good answer–not just something spiteful.
That’s right. Zani is going to be mature and not spiteful, putting an end to this confrontation in the most adult way possible…
“Physically?” I replied. “No, not a chance. You’re both far more beautiful than I am, if we’re talking about the outside. But have you ever bothered to see what you look like on the inside? There’s a song called ‘Ugly Girl’ that I swear is about both of you. I’ll play it for you sometime.”
…by calling them ugly and turning this into a songfic. At least she didn’t print the lyrics out this time.
Lade’s comeback smacks of the author’s personal catharsis. This is what she wished she could have said to all the girls she has built up in her mind as being mean, petty, and vapid by virtue of their success where she found none. I mean, I don’t like to tell everyone “this is what the author thinks,” but since she’s come right out and said she wrote this book because this is exactly how she thinks, I assume it’s safe to interpret it this way.
Sometimes I wished I could be the star in my own movie so at moments like that the song I was thinking of (in this case by the band 100 Monkeys) could start playing.
You know what you should do, Zade? You should write a book with a self-insert who looks exactly like you, then make it a #1 NYT bestseller through any means necessary so it becomes a movie. Then, you can use the screenplay you already wrote to make the movie, with yourself as the star. And be sure to base one of the love interests on a guy in the band whose music you referenced in the book, so he can be in the movie and his songs can be on the soundtrack. I’m sure that you’re clever enough to pull all that off without a hitch.
With that parting shot, Zarni leaves, and we get one of those triple goddess symbols that indicates an italics-fueled POV nightmare is headed directly toward us and we are powerless to stop it.
Mel asked, “Why do you care anyway, Sof? So he wouldn’t go out with you. He’s a tech. He’s the king of the techs, I guess, but I only tried to sleep with him, ’cause I’ll sleep with anyone that’s cute.”
What’s interesting is that this spirit of sexual liberation is supposed to make us dislike Mel, when “I don’t care about your drama, I’m just here to fuck,” is far more refreshing and likable than, “Girls who want to sleep with guys are bitches by default.”
Also, note that Mel calls her “Sof”, in keeping with the three-letter nickname rule that was going on earlier. So, if “Sof” is her nickname, why do all the male characters call her “Sofie”? Is this intentional and meant to subliminally assure us that no man is truly attracted to or cares about her?
“I don’t like her, and if they start dating she’ll end up more privieged than she already is,” Sofia replied, resentful of being upstaged in the theater she had claimed as her own. She was bitter and angry and it showed even in the falling darkness.
Even outside of Zade’s POV, the characters are thinking of themselves from Zade’s POV. I’m still not understanding why Sofia would be threatened by Zade dating the technical director when Sofia is dating the actual star whose name is on the theater itself. Yes, Charles cut her “main illusion,” but “I’m dating the star, so I’m queen bee and you better fall in line,” would still be a much more believable way for Sofia to behave than, “I’m going to sabotage your romantic prospects and possibly endanger my own power by cheating on my mega-rich and super famous boyfriend who is also my boss.”
Even Mel agrees, asking Sofia why she would “want to give up the red carpet for stage blacks,” and for the first time in the whole book, “stage blacks” isn’t followed up with a painstakingly detailed description of what black clothing tech crews wear.
Mel had lost all interest in the whole thing and really wanted to go back to flirting with the newly single performer, Parker, who she had her eye on this week.
Again, Mel’s sexual promiscuity is meant to make the reader dislike her, but her unwillingness to engage in Sofia’s drama subverts that intent. Unless you’re the kind of person who’s really into hating women for having sexual agency, which I assume applies to the readers to whom this book appeals.
Jackson has apparently been standing there listening to the entire exchange this whole time, so he walks up to defend Zard. Because of course, he does.
“If it matters, I don’t agree with her. I think she’s much hotter on the outside, as well as the inside.” Jackson tipped his beer bottle at them and walked away.
Note that the satisfactory defense of Zid is blatant objectification and a reassurance to the reader that he finds the self-insert character hot. Mel and Sofia are obviously outraged at this, and the chapter ends.