Saturday, January 31, 2009

Non Laughter Reviews

Anna Gavalda

Four people, misfits in regular society due to age/class/childhood/outlook, bond with one another.

What Works
Paulette, an elderly woman living in the French countryside, is forced to give up her independent lifestyle due to fragile health. Her grandson Franck is a gifted chef in Paris following a rebellious adolescence caused by maternal rejection. Philobert is a socially awkward bluebood who can trace his family history back in detail through a dozen generations, yet makes his living selling postcards while living in an enormous, derelict apartment subject to estate litigation. Camille, a gifted artist struggling with anorexia and an emotionally starved childhood, slowly binds them together.

The story of how these disparate and emotionally damaged yet hardy and hopeful souls choose to provide for each other what their 'real' families would not is unpredictable and engaging.
It is told mainly through the point of view of Camille, a complex and sympathetic character. Beset by mental baggage, she struggles valiantly to put her experiences to good effect for herself and others. Her most fascinating characteristic is to see the world purely through artist's eyes. Her concepts of attractive/ugly/old/nude/appropriate/visually interesting are unusual, such that it is well past the halfway mark of the book that the reader learns from another character that Franck (frequently socially obnoxious) is good-looking. The observation startles Camille, who judges by actions and the play of emotions on a person's face as they recount stories about themselves. The sweetest character is the aristocrat Philou, forbidden to forget his prominence for even a second by his demanding family, simultaneously proud of his illustrious past and yearning for real affection and the chance to live in the present.

What Doesn't
The story is told in a choppy language; Apprentice Writer couldn't tell if this was the author's voice, or something to do with the French translator's style. There were numerous references to French historical figures and events that AW didn't get, but which didn't seem to interfere with grasp of the story.

The choice of opening 'hook' is astonishing, with the first pages describing Paulette's increasingly frequent bruising falls, culminating in head trauma and admittance to depressing and undignified care. The reader wonders whom the author was trying to entice with such an opener; had AW been doing the first paragraph test in a bookstore, rather than reading for her book club, this would have gone straight back on the shelf.

Finally, the epilogue was the subject of heated debate in the book club. Some members loved the way it showed the continued healing and connection of various characters, while others (who had been perfectly happy with how the main story ended on a hopeful yet character-consistent note) despised what they considered a syrupy Hollywood ending - to the point that some wondered if it had been tacked on in the English translation for the sake of the North American audience, and whether we should check the French original for inclusion.

An unusual, thoughtful tale on the significance of blood ties vs. ties of affection in the modern world. And, always a plus to get a little taste of life in another culture.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Non Laughter Reviews

Deanna Raybourn

Victorian widow learns her husband was murdered and decides to assist private investigator.

What Works
Many elements, from first sentence on: "To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor."
The story is told in first person, with the plot mirroring the heroine's development. She starts out somewhat bland, somewhat rigid, not entirely content with her role and stifling societal conventions but not really ready to break out of them either. She isn't especially likable at first, taking the good fortune of her privileged position more or less for granted, and writing entire groups of people off on the basis of arrogant prejudice, such as when her more rebellious sister recommends an affair and she rejects the idea of a liaison with a footman because they are employed for their looks rather than their brains.
But as time goes by, the plot increasingly picks up speed as she is forced to examine her preconceptions - about faith, class, ethnicity, family, sexuality- one by one. The resulting person is a stronger, more sympathetic, and more likable one.

What Doesn't
Very little. Apprentice Writer guessed the identity of the murderer early on, but still enjoyed the process of how that person was exposed. Readers who like all loose ends tied up may be disappointed, since the Nicholas Brisbane mentioned in the first sentence is all one would hope a good-looking, enigmatic, intelligent, highly capable hero to be, but the attraction between the protagonists is not expressed in this volume. No doubt the relationship will be further explored in this continuing series.

Great introduction to what promises to be a wonderful suspense series, this book won this year's Rita award. The second volume, Silent in the Sanctuary, takes Lady Julia Grey to Italy - one of AW's most favorite settings. The third, Silent in the Moors, will launch in March.

The author also maintains an entertaining blog whose name alone makes it worth a visit: Blog -a-Gogo.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Austen Madlibs

Apprentice Writer keeps talking about the authors at 'Risky Regencies'. She really ought to develop a more balanced approach to the plethora of bloggers out in cyberspace, but those Riskies are so darn entertaining.

Today, they invited surfers to participate in a Regency version of the childhood game of Madlibs, where a person fills in the blanks of different types of words and then gets to see how they're all strung together nonsensically, and most of the time, amusingly.

The blanks were:
Abstract Idea / Adverb / Kind of Person / Possession / Member of Household / Degree / Plural Noun / Plural Noun / Group of Humans / Member of Household

Here is how AW's contributions played out:

It is an aloofness morosely acknowledged, that an undertaker in possession of a good stamp collection, must be in want of a creepy uncle.

However well known the false teeth or spittoons of such a man may be on his first entering the New World, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding river rafters, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their distant cousins thrice removed.

(The Gentle Reader will have recognized the famous first paragraph of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'.)

Many other funny examples at the site. Take a look:

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Laurie Viera Rigler

Georgette Heyer


Contemporary woman wakes up in the body and home of an Austen-era woman.
Newly-orphaned woman learns her financial affairs have been left in the control of her ex-fiance.

What Works
Never mind how enticing and romantic history looks in period cinema - what would it really be like for someone used to modern-day comforts (and flaws) to experience a bygone world? The author's experiment of how this could play out was an interesting one. In her regular existence, her heroine escapes unpleasant realities in the pages of Ms. Austen's works, but soon learns that life in Regency England - especially for a young woman, even if of relatively privileged position - is not all dancing and roses. She goes from a flippant sort of perspective, thinking what she does in this world doesn't really matter since she will soon wake up in her true world, to a gradual understanding that her actions and speech can have potentially devastating consequences for the woman whose body she inhabits (for example, the very real threat of confinement in an insane asylum), the servants who may be blamed for things she does, and her family and friends who can be destroyed by association with a woman of potentially ruined reputation. Though she doesn't ever completely stop chafing at the restrictions and double standards placed upon women historically, she does develop an appreciation for the quieter pleasures of life, and respect for individuals who hold not only others but themselves up to much more encompassing moral standards than she is used to.
Reading a contemporary, American woman's description of the historical social scene in the city of Bath alongside a previous-generation, English woman's description of the same thing was entertaining.

What Doesn't
For a time travel novel, apart from the appearance of a wise Gypsy woman there was virtually no explanation of how the phenomenon took place or was reversed, and absolutely none of what happened on the other end (did the woman whose body was inhabited 'stay' there in a dormant state, or did she wake up in modern times?). On an intellectual level, Apprentice Writer can understand that the focus of the story was on the heroine's developing insights, making the time travel mechanism secondary. As a reader, though, she felt grouchy not to get more detail. A machine disguised as ordinary everyday appliance? Magic rainbow? Disembodied voice and invisible transporting hand? Give this reader something, anything; she promises not to snark it.
It also felt odd how negatively the heroine viewed her Austen-time mother, due to he latter's obsession with marrying her off. This preoccupation is easy to see as humorous and old-fashioned from a modern perspective, but it seemed strange for the heroine to ridicule it considering her adoration of Austen novels (her single greatest joy in the stoy is being able to read first editions) and the fact that The Big One contains that excellent scene when Mrs. Bennet, up to then a slightly comical character due to similar fixation, is mildly chastised by her daughter for it and she draws herself up magnificently to deliver a succinct summary about the harsh reality of finding spouses (i.e. lowering the odds of spinsterhood near-starvation) for five daughters. One of the most outstanding reality-check scenes of all time, yet the heroine seems to overlook it entirely.
Works by Georgette Heyer, the late and highly prolific author, are enjoying a renaissance of interest. This title was Apprenctice Writer's first foray after reading waves of praise for the author's witty, original characters, dialogue, and plotting. At the half-way point of 'Bath Tangle', she was still waiting for something to happen, and for all the wit and originality to appear. Mostly, the story till then consisted of exclamation points (many, many per page) and various characters commenting on the poor behavior of others. Luckily, the authors at Risky Regencies came to AW's rescue by chatting about their Heyer favorites. When AW confessed what hard going she was finding "Bath Tangle" they assured her this is not the author's best work, suggestd a slew of better ones, and even (gulp) suggested she abandon this title without guilty conscience. So she did.

A thoughtful exploration of adjustment to a different world.
Heyer judgement on hold; curious about whether the exclamation mark fondness will show up elsewhere.

Gentle Reader - how do you feel about time travel being explained? If you have read 'Bath Tangle', do you think AW was right to DNF or should she persevere?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail and Welcome, Great Orator

Some years ago, at another crisis point in history, a charismatic American defied political and logistical odds to do something that many thought impossible. He used technology and conviction to bring hope and relief to a beleaguered people, and marked the occasion with an electrifying speech culminating in the words that symbolized his belief that humanity is one, and the suffering of one is the suffering of all:

ICH BIN EIN BERLINER (I am a Berliner)

Today, many, many people around the globe feel that same electric power, and the sense of


Apprentice Writer confesses that she listened to the inaugural speech of hard truths and hope with tears. Her parents, of two different countries, faiths, and ethnicities, met and married in the United States during the same year that Martin Luther King gave his much-referenced speech. They still had to fill in the blank on the marriage certificate to indicate their color. (Her mother wrote 'white', her father 'brown'; AW figures this means she herself is beige). If nothing else, AW hopes that the advent of this Presidency means that the junior apprentice writers will grow up in a world where it will not occur to anyone that there is any point to collecting such information anymore.

All the best to you and your family, Mr. President.

(note: post title refers to title of previous post, below)

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Hail and Farewell, Great Miscommunicator"

The planet is on the verge of what may be the most anticipated (certainly, the most watched) hand-over of political power ever.

Prisoners-of-war, comedians, the military-industrial complex, celebrity impersonators, the newly jobless - all have their personal reasons for eyeing this development with joy or trepidation. As a fan of new word inventions, Apprentice Writer will admit to a pang of sadness at the thought that Mr. Bush's creations will now be less visible to the public. To mark the final day of office, here AW's salute to some of her favorites.

BIGACY (as in: "...I denounced anti-Catholic bigacy."

EXPLORATIONISTS (as in"...explorationists are willing to move equipment...")

EMBETTER (as in " hard to embetter themselves...")

TERRIERS AND BARRIFFS (as in"...if the T & B are torn down, the economy will grow.")

RESIGNATE (as in: "...the issue doesn't seem to resignate with the people.")

and final drumroll for,

MISUNDERESTIMATED (as in: "[America's enemies] misunderestimated me.")

The President-Elect may be a gifted orator, but something tells AW that he is not as expert as the soon-to-be-former President in the art of word creation.

*(Post title taken from The Toronto Star, 14 Jan. 2009)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Apprentice Writer read a newpaper article about a family who didn't make any monetary purchases (except for food, utilities, medical needs) for a year. This experiment was the result of the parents' alarm that their teenaged daughter spent almost all her free time at the mall with her friends, shopping or planning future shopping. According to the article, it took a little while for all members of the family to settle into the new make it yourself/ barter / recycle / trade routine, but after the year was over they all agreed to continue with their good habits and enjoyment of rediscovered leisure activities.

Neither AW nor her family are ready for such a hard-core experiment. But it did make her take a very hard look at her TBR pile; like that of many a book-lover, it seems to double in size regularly. Yet, she keeps buying more. (The new paper smell! The pretty covers! The fact that there is always someone in the checkout with more books, giving a feeling of pseudo-virtue!)

Recently, other family members became disgruntled at AW hogging all the shelfspace. She brushed it off and recommended they get gruntled again.

Then she did a quick inventory. Yikes. Enough reading material for two books a week for over a year, sitting around gathering dust.

AW resolves not to buy books in 2009.

But won't that cause the teetering tower of publishing in these harsh economic times to collapse altogether?

She thinks not. The whole point of the exercise is to clear space, SO AS TO BE ABLE TO FILL IT AGAIN. Also: isn't it insulting to the authors who worked so hard to polish their manuscripts to treat it like a rectangular rock?

Gentle Reader - What are you book-buying plans for this year? Do you also experience books giving off an 'essential' vibe in the store only to have it change to 'put-offable' on the way home?

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Way We Were (...or wanted to be)

Apprentice Writer somehow became involved in sharing thoughts with Harlequin about books they occasionally send to her. (So far, two American-set 'Love Inspired' Historicals). As a result, she recently received a '2009 Harlequin Vintage Cover' Calendar, celebrating the company's sixty years of 'pure reading pleasure' (according to the back blurb).

The covers? Seriously Wow.

Apparently, in the days when these books cost 35 cents, the kind of titles calculated to attract buyer attention included things like:

"Virgin with Butterflies" (Are experienced women with butterflies any different?)

"Pardon My Body" (Did it sneeze?)

"Idaho" (Take that, Texas!)

"The Manatee" (Obviously a better choice than 'The Platypus')

"You're Lonely When You're Dead" (It's better to be dead together?)

Taglines include:

"She lived like a wicked little animal"

"The private affairs of not-too-private secretaries"

"A fast, salty realistic yarn pulsing with action"

In contrast to many current romance books, all of the illustrations show a woman. Eight include one or more men. There is a lot of leg and plunging decolletage involved, and the kind of figures that used to be called 'buxom'. Four covers depict guns, held by men and women alike. A rampaging bear, a gigantic green hand about to pluck an amorous couple, train tracks and five male heads with wings instead of ears round things out.

Also interesting are the author names: 9 of 12 are either masculine or neutral (e.g. initials). Did female authors adopt male pen names for these early Harlequins? Or did men actually write them? Was Harlequin trying to go after both the male and female segments of the reading public?

Altogether - a very fun and entertaining look into the past. You've come a long way, Cover Babe.

Monday, January 5, 2009

SO LONG, 2008, Part II

One of the first decisions a writer needs to make when dreaming up a new story concerns secondary characters. Include? How many? Do they only get lines in scenes with the main characters or will they have a life of their own?

Apprentice Writer's position is clear: she loves them madly. In books she reads and books she writes (to the point some have gently suggested she may need to rein her writerly instincts in). Here is the AW salute to secondary characters that remain vivid in her memory regardless of how long ago in 2008 she read them:

Magny (Loretta Chase, Your Scandolous Ways) - A mysterious Frenchman, who was not only funny but played a totally unforeseen role.

The Marquess of Wharton and Villiers (Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses) - A befuddled aristocrat, who writes exquisitely terrible poetry and feels genuine fatherly concern. A brilliant aristrocrat, who plays exquisite chess and feels strange and contradictory emotions.

Charlotte Bronte (Jennifer Vandever, The Bronte Project) - The immortal author whose spirit suffuses the whole delightful novel via chapter epigraphs from her correspondence.

Velith (Ann Aguirre, Grimspace) - A fascinating & philosophical extraterrestrial assasin.

Humpty Dumpty (Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy) - By far, the most versatile egg ever.

Toot (Laura Kinsale, My Sweet Folly) - A smart ferret. It's wonderful when animals get real roles, rather than acting as mere window-dressing in novels.

Mother Theresa (Claire Cook, Must Love Dogs) - A blundering St. Bernard puppy. Even more wonderful when dogs aren't written in merely to prove that the hero/heroine is a 'good guy/girl' for being briefly nice to them.

Imperial Rome, 19th century Egypt, 19th century Venice (Lindsey Davis, The Silver Pigs; Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank; Loretta Chase, Your Scandolous Ways) - Settings that make the reader not only feel they are right there with the characters, but yearn to stay in that world.

Red high heels (Elizabeth Hoyt, The Serpent Prince) - This footwear, belonging to the hero rather than the heroine, took on symbolic life of its own and miraculously managed not to detract from Viscount Iddlesleigh's masculinity.

Gentle Reader - Which secondary characters did you especially love this year?