Monday, July 30, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #1

There are a 1001 places on the web dedicated to comments on books and movies. The Apprentice Writer figures that number is probably adequate.

To offer something a little bit different, Apprentice Writer will attempt to look specifically at whether material is funny.

A huge undertaking, you say? Indubitably.

Showing an inflated opinion of one's comedic authority, you say?

Well, yes. Isn't the entire premise of the blogosphere that one's opinions are so valuable that they cannot be withheld from the general and defenceless public?

Impossible, you say, due to the extremely subjective nature of what is laugh-worthy and what isn't?

Yes and no. It is true that everyone's perspective on funny is to some degree unique. But it's also true that people generally gravitate towards reviewers with whose opinions they tend , for the most part, to agree. The Apprentice Writer, for example, likes to check out the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site, and the Toronto Star's movie critics' summaries. Not because she agrees with them all the time (far from it) - but because she agrees often enough that if they very strongly like or dislike something, she will take note. Plus, they are often amusing.

So here we go. First edition of the laughter reviews, coming up. Be forewarned: Apprentice Writer is hard to please. For movies or books to be listed as "Keepers" is the bookshelf /DVD case equivalent of a blue moon.

SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES by Mary Janice Davidson

Non-stereotypical mermaid investigates aquatic mystery while fending off admirers.

What works:
Fred is an utterly original heroine, engaging the reader despite her near-perpetual crankiness, and an opening scene meant to play hilariously off every child's most squirmingly embarrassing encounter and which instead is just clumsy. The two males who pursue her are both compelling enough to make the question of whom she will choose interesting. Also, good title.

What doesn't:
The writing isn't especially elegant or skillful. Given Fred's straight-forward, ultra non-girly persona and the concentrated aggravation that comes her way, a certain amount of angry cursing makes sense. But the amount of feces that gets flung about in this text, as a plotpoint, exclamation, process, adjective, etc. etc. is so over the top that it lifted AW right out of the story and into high-school lectures about Freud and the perils of excessive toilet-training.

A secondary character who has loved one of Fred's colleagues from afar for six years chooses to start wooing her by insulting her ex in extremely unoriginal, crude terms. Really? This was his idea of the best way to attract a reserved, PhD educated woman? It made so little sense that it took away from the commendable younger man/older woman romance concept.

In other places, eye color is described as 'liquid emeralds' and hair color as 'crushed rubies'. AW is all for playing with words and poetic licence. But this made her stop reading to contemplate when anyone, ever, would have had an opportunity to see gemstones in such condition, and if they did: wouldn't it just bring green Koolaid and aquarium gravel to mind? (On second thought, maybe the latter makes sense.)

In the 'glaring absence' department - one of the most intriguing scenes is at the beginning when Fred swims in the main tank of the New England Aquarium, partly to feed the creatures and partly to gather information. She does so by telepathy with the marine animals, who are said to be on a hunger strike and communicate in a fascinating, clipped, one-track-minded kind of way. Why they are striking, why they like certain music, why they keep talking about pounding were all things that seemed to hint at the mystery subplot to come - yet no follow-up scene to pursue these points ever came up. Neither did any aquatic animals play a role during Fred's forays out into the open bay. This failure to work the animals more into the story (what do they think of merpeople? Captivity? The co-swimmers who want to eat them and the ones they want to eat?) was a huge disappointment.

This novel signalled too strongly that it was first in a series, not only with dangling plot threads (which could be forgiven) but what felt like a rushed ending (the mystery, its solution, and villain depiction especially are thin to the point of anorexia) and neglect of what makes the ocean fascinating - it's creatures (which could not). This is a shame, given the strong wish for the novel to be satisfying which the reader initially develops on the strength of Fred's unusual heroine qualities. In the foreword, the author describes in some detail about writing obstacles which pushed back the original publication timeline. Although it was a nice touch that this was wrapped in a salute to her agent, AW suspects the author did herself no favours by pointing out how pressed for time and preoccupied she was during the book's birth.

But does it make you laugh? YES

Not as much as the author intended, perhaps, but Fred is definitely worth a look regardless of the novel's other weaknesses. To list comic examples would stray too close to spoiler territory - so just take it on faith: Fred is one funny fishgirl. Let's hope her further adventures don't just show whether she gets her man, but whether she gets her dolphin, clam, octopus, guppy....

1 comment:

Christine d'Abo said...

Good review! I always wonder when I try to write funny if I'm managing to pull it off. Comedy can be a very hard thing to write successfully.

I'll have to see if I can get my hands on this book to take a look.