Friday, February 27, 2009

Non Laughter Reviews: COUNTDOWN

Michelle Maddox

Speculative Fiction

Petty thief wakes to find herself chained to a wall as the unwilling star of a reality TV show in which the price for failure in any successive level is instant death.

A serious-looking couple running against a dark-lit background with a comicbook kind of vibe; gives an accurate idea of what to expect.

What Works
One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is "start the story in the middle of the action so as to hook reader interest, and then never to slow down so as to maintain it'. To put it mildly: the author has taken this advice to heart. From the first page, the pace is pounding, and never lets up. Written in first person, the reader has to figure out what's going on bit by adrenaline-rocketing bit alongside the heroine and hero (or is he? which seems to be a repeating theme in SHOMI titles; see also Eve Kenin's 'Driven'). The stakes are high, the situation desperate, the touch of paranormal enough to make things interesting but not so much that the feel of regular-person-against-corrupt-system is compromised. To thoroughly mangle Tom Hanks' famous line from 'A League of Their Own': 'Stagnation? There's no stagnation in Countdown!'

What Doesn't
Aspects that might not work for some readers are all actually things that make sense for the type of story this is. Beyond the very general backdrop of a post-apocalyptic, decaying urban world that everyone with enough money or connections wants to get off of, there is practically no world-building - but there doesn't need to be given the heroine's narrow 'just let me survive another hour' persective and the fact that the action takes place almost exclusively within the reality TV framework. The heroine spends the much of the first part of the story demanding to be told what is going on, yet whenever anyone gives her a piece of information or advice she ignores or acts in direct opposition to it - yet given the fact that she's been on her own since mid-adolescence following the deaths of her family members, her mistrustful nature and fight-or-flight response to everything makes sense. The clues to solution of each countdown level and the method of final confrontation with the villain seem a bit simple - but this story doesn't pretend to involve complex, brooding, multi-layered intrigue. If Apprentice Writer has grasped correctly, the SHOMI line is designed to appeal to younger readers who may also enjoy graphic novels, manga, and fast-paced action adventure. This book signals what it is with the comic-like cover vibe. Countdown delivers exactly what the package promises - a light, entertaining, furiously fast read.

It will be interesting to see if the author continues to write speculative fiction along with the humorous paranormal books she writes under her alternate pen name, Michelle Rowen.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Notable Quotes: THE DAY AFTER

To write is to live forever.
Tina Fey, presenting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay

The man who wrote that is dead.
Steve Martin, in response.

You look like a big Canadian flag! Beautiful!
Entertainment reporter Ben Mulroney to Nicole Kidman, dressed in an all-scarlet gown, in a clip from last year advertising coverage of this year's event. Ms. Kidman wore a conspicuously non-red gown last night.

Hugh Jackman was funny and charming in addition to looking fab in a tux and never breaking a sweat or sounding out of breath during all the singing and dancing. No chemistry with Beyonce but what girl didn't want to be Anne Hathaway, swept out of her seat and onto the stage like that? Billy Crystal, David Letterman or Jon Stewart couldn't have done it, Whoopi Goldberg maybe but it just wouldn't have had the same effect.
Apprentice Writer (who can't comment on things like the fairness of awards bestowed or lost, not having seen any of the Big 5, but who did see Wall E and loved that those genuine, emotional moments between robotic leads were highlighted during several montages including 'Romance')

Jai Ho!
Everyone else

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Laughter Reviews #23

Kristan Higgins


Tall, athletic journalist moves back to small hometown and deals with large family and unrequited love.

What Works
The author has developed a
trademark of creating appealing 'everywoman' heroines who triumph over the types of problems a regular reader might encouter. Chastity is no exception. It is very easy to like her as she negotiates the benefits and disadvantages of being built like an Amazon, the only sister to five brothers who are not only older but perform heroics for a living as firefighters and paramedics, and saddled with a name like 'Chastity Virginia'. Years of suppressing the feelings she has for a foster brother who now works with her father and siblings seem to have helped her see beyond the surface emotions of others, leading her to express understanding of people in emotional crisis even after those people have behaved poorly towards her. Deeply devoted to all members of her extended family, she struggles to remain unjudgmental and supportive as couples at different stages of life ask the question of whether love is enough to keep them together. It is a question worth asking, and given different answers in different cases

What Doesn't
There are a few spots where for the sake of comic or emotional effect, statements or reactions seemed speeded up/simplified beyond realism, such as a suggestion made within the first moments of meeting on a market singles night, and highly common-sensical suggestion given to a person experiencing a longterm problem that suddenly causes a turn-around. After the initial "What?" reaction, though, Apprentice Writer was willing to suspend disbelief because the scenes did turn out to be funny, and also since her IRL experience in work and volunteer positions proved more than once that advice and a person's state of readiness to hear it have to coincide. Until that person is 'able' to hear the advice, it can be offered countless times without result.

In the
'Only a Writer Would Care About Things Like That' department, there were two spots that made AW stop reading to try and figure out the hidden meaning of it all. Part of the storyteller's task is to find different ways to develop an underlying theme showing growth of the characters, often done with symbols that keep popping up. In this story, Chastity suffers from a blood phobia which goes far beyond garden-variety squeamishness, with near-fainting at the sight of blood an embarrassing reality. Yet there is repeated reference to her dog dripping so much blood when in heat that she needs to wear men's underwear - without any negative effect on Chastity. Apart from the whole TMI aspect of canine menstruation (if AW had any doubts that she is more of a cat person, this cleared it right up) - what was this supposed to signify? That Chastity can handle regular biological facts of life, just freaked out by serious accidents? That may be a legitimate issue for readers who wonder if she had a preventative hysterectomy at adolescene, but the whole train of thought took this reader way out of the story. Then again, maybe no-one else noticed.

The second instance was again attached to canines. Dogs, on the covers and in the stories, have become this author's signature. More than one appears in this story, and the heroine's own pet was chosen specifically because she is so ugly as to be loveable. So, in a body of work stongly focused on dogs and female ones in particular- of all possibly terms, why would 'bitch' be used as an insult? Wouldn't that be ineffective or even a compliment among such extreme doglovers? AW couldn't figure it out.

This was AW's introduction to this author, and she is delighted to have found her. Glomming streak, ahoy! The author blogs at 'Sisterhood of the Jaunty Quills' (which should win a prize for fab name) as well as her own site, where she holds contests for fun things like including the best reader-supplied 'worst date story' in an upcoming book. AW will be searching out her just-released title, "
Too Good to be True", ASAP.

But does it make you laugh? YES
Magical creatures, life-or-death stakes, vast fortunes, the apocalypse, the distant past, the distant future - all these things have their legitimate place on the entertainment scale. But sometimes, it is nice to be reminded that an absorbing, satisfying story can be created from ingredients in your own neighborhood. 'Just One of the Guys' is a feel-good, funny tale that proves that 'contemporary' is not a bad place to be.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

DEMON ANGEL (Book 2, Guardian series)
Meljean Brook

Halfling female demon and medieval-knight-turned-guardian battle each other and their attraction over the course of centuries.

Extremely 'meh' compared to the power of the storytelling and the anything-but-boring protagonists.

What Works
So much.

Apprentice Writer is not a vampire person. Consequently, it takes an extraordinary author to make her enjoy a story with vampiric elements. That author is Meljean Brook. AW first came upon her meticulously created and fascinating Guardian universe by picking up the anthology containing Book 1 (novella 'Falling for Anthony', in "Hot Spell") on a whim. It made such an impression on her that she started visiting the author's blog and began working her way through the series - due to her contrary nature, out of order. A mistake: the universe is so multi-layered, the rules of interaction between the races and their overlords so complex, that she suspects even readers who follow in order of publication need to keep all their wits about them to catch all the clues and nuances. Thankfully, for readers like AW Ms. Brook is very gracious about accomodating questions and directing the reader towards helpful discussion threads.

But what works about this specific book? The fascinating, literally kick-ass (and many other parts) heroine
Lilith, who flies, shapeshifts, uses the arts of persuasion to lure evil-doers to suicide, and whips out lethal swords in a flash. The ethically impeccable hero, tormented by his obligation to oppose Lilith's actions while tirelessly seeking to draw her back to her original human nature. The ingenuity with which they seek a way to defeat Lucifer's hold on them. The way their relationship spends centuries galvanizing via intellectual and emotional attraction alone, the physical bond following long after (but all the more intense because of it). The delicious secondary characters of demonic, human, and angelic origin introduced. And, happily unexpected in a dramatic book, two laugh-out-loud moments: one involving 'he-who-must-not-be-named', and one where a character known chiefly for his good looks, vanity and popularity with women encounters a young woman (whom he likes very much) in an unearthly realm and she is at first glad to see him, but disappointed on learning he is not gay because she thinks she might be in love with another character and wanted someone with whom to talk it over.

Basically, it's all good.

What Doesn't
Some readers may not enjoy keeping track of the multiple recurring characters, or paying careful attention to content and under what circumstances conversations take place in order to understand the bargains and counter-bargains crucial to the demonic characters. This is not a novel for someone who wants a quick, breezy, comfortably predictable read. It
demands a lot from the reader - but, in AW's opinion, rewards investment richly.

Unusual, intriguing, well-written - it is not difficult to understand how this author has developed a devoted following in a relatively short time. The last book in the Guardian series will be released before too long; AW looks forward to that as well as the launch of the authors
steampunk series with great anticipation. In the meantime, she'll catch up with the recently released 'Demon Bound'.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

When Life Hands the Novelist Material

Honor. Trustworthiness. Moral rectitude.

Who has it, who doesn't, and to what degree is explored in many a story. From the first hints of a character's description, the reader often leaps to conclusions about whether he or she can be sorted into the hero/heroine or villain/villainess group.

So what's a person to do when their usual reference points break down? Express their outrage to the press, of course.

PIRATES who seized a loaded cargo ship to hold for ransom terminated employment of the middlemen negotiating an agreement with the ship's owners when it became clear the brokers reported only half of the ransom being offered.

"We can't trust them. They're trying to take the money, and we are the criminals! We can't accept that."

stated Pirate leader (shouldn't that be 'Captain'?) Shamun Indhabur to 'Newsweek' magazine.

What's a taken-advantage-of pirate to do? Why, cut out the middleman, of course. The pirates continued negotations with the owners directly.

No word on whether the negotiators have found new jobs.

Friday, February 6, 2009


In her daily quest for Very Important Research Items (*cough* procrastinating*cough*), Apprentice Writer stumbled across this contest.

The name made her laugh, and she is happy to support anything that makes her laugh.

The prize has a twist: the winner gets to choose 1 book from 3 in 3 categories, for triple loot.

Which would be great in itself, but 2 of the 9 titles
are by AW's chaptermates!

THE WARLORD'S BRIDE by Margaret Moore


MADE TO BE BROKEN by Kelly Armstrong

Go take a look.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

(Non?)Laughter Review #22

Robin Kaye
Contemporary Romance

Hardworking, housekeeping-challenged executive meets hardworking, housekeeping-gifted CEO under deceptive circumstances.

Anonymous manchest behind breakfast tray destined (presumably) for woman lounging in bed - more or less indicative of content. For Apprentice Writer, the breakfast tray attracted as much as the manchest repelled, so it evened out. It is possible she might have paused to look at it in a bookstore if she hadn't encountered cyberbuzz.

What Works
AW doesn't believe that non-perfect housekeeping means less femininity, or that housekeeping ability decreases masculinity, so she was a good fit for the a story about a non-traditional couple. And how that couple goes about figuring out how to deal with each other in non-traditional ways (not just in the house) was the most interesting part of the story, and in this reader's opinion mostly well-done. Rosalie doesn't just choose to devote her energy to her career rather than her home (much to the dismay of her grandchildren-desiring mother), but she draws the hero's attention by being utterly disinterested in helping him spend his money, and not hoping for a ring. She doesn't try to disguise the state of her home from him, or change her mind about things just because he thinks they shold be done a certain way. It was refreshing.

Also, the character Dave is great. AW is a sucker for inclusion of animals as more than window-dresssing, and the heroine's dog was a nice touch.

What Doesn't
Quotes and blurb talk about "romp", "witty dialogue and a lot of fun", "..Brooklyn Italian-American family values..", "...sparkling voice...". Together with the metallic bubble-gum pink cover, it led this reader to expect an upbeat, comedic book with secondary characters a la 'Moonstruck' or 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding': kooky and at times exasperating yet bound by genuine affection and desire for the others' happiness.

That's not what she got.

The families of both protagonists are absent for long stretches, including puzzling ones such as when the heroine is seriously ill. And when they do show up, the relationships seem troubled, characterized by tension and lack of affection on multiple sides. The only family member the heroine seems to have a positive bond with is her brother - who lives far away and only visits occasionally. The hero is a generous financial provider for his mother and grandmother, but the only time he interacts with them directly during the story is a chance encounter when they spot him before he can sneak away, and which he tries to escape as soon as possible. He visits a cousin often (and is likewise generous to his nephews, as well as the son of an employee; in fact, generosity of spirit is one of his principal traits) but that seems more motivated by simple hunger and the cousin owning a restaurant rather than pure love.

The non-ideal family background of both Rosalie and Nick forms an important part of the reason why they are the way they are and the conflict they need to work through to get to their happy end, so it made a lot of sense for the story that these diverse tensions be included. But the contrast between the way the story panned out, and what seemed to be promised, was grating for this reader.

One of the traps only rare authors escape is the dreaded Overused Word. They are intensely irksome because they are much easier to spot in someone else's work than one's own. AW, for example, is only aware of two of her own OWs . She is certainly not going to share them here because Gentle Readers willl start toting up a tally every time she uses them. In this case, the word seemed to be 'groaned'. The heroine, the hero, the dog, other people - there was a whole lot of groaning going on. Phrases that also came up frequently included asking someone if they were crazy, and saying/thinking they will kill them. AW found the latter odd considering a scene with goombata (a word which AW learned from this book, which totally makes up for the overused word) actually threatening the heroine with guns. Call her crazy (can't resist the easy punchline!) but AW thinks that once the threat of someone being killed becomes real, the expression should be treated with a little more respect and accuracy, not tossed around with the meaning of "I'm not happy with you at this moment because of what you did and would appreciate it if you didn't do it again, thanks".

Finally, two points that crossed AW's personal, subjective line of 'A good idea taken so far it backfires.'

Rosalie doesn't like to do housework. We get it already. To (over)empasize the point by describing how the pair fall into a pattern of coming home from a long workday, whereupon Rosalie crashes while Nick 1. makes dinner 2. takes care of the dog (after taking Dave with him to work all day) 3. cleans the kitchen, while taking care of all the cleaning and groceries on weekends, was overkill. The sentence where Rosalie is described as '....almost always helping with the dishes....' was the wallbanger. Almost always? HELP with the dishes, in her own house? What the heck is this girl doing with herself while Nick does EVERYTHING? That's just as unfair as if the roles had been reversed. Made her not only slide down on the likability scale, but put the whole 'women are entitled to demanding careers' concept at risk because it was so easy to interpret the way they behaved as proof that it took a man's strength to deal with outside work and indoor chores, whereas the weak woman collapses.

- The secondary doctor character has a habit of dating women Nick breaks up with. He goes so far as to tell this to Rosalie, and how he regrets he might not be able to do so in her case due to his perception of Nick's feelings. Rosalie saw this as a compliment; AW saw examination of a patient as a doctor while anticipating future 'interactions' on a personal level as seriously squicky.

A generally well-written and entertaining story from a debut author, packaged in a confusing way.


Not really - but (probably?) not its fault.

If this book presented as 'Straight contemporary romance', AW would say: Mission Accomplished.
Since it presents as 'Light-hearted, comedic romp', AW thinks: Didn't deliver in that way. Having a dog that can push people over when it stands on them, and two carbon-copy executive assistants who feel close enough to their boss to chew them out, isn't enough to qualify as comedic, and the underlying serious issues among family and in the hero's history take it out of the realm of light-hearted romp.

This reader has no way of knowing how the author intended this manuscript. AW hopes readers will give the benefit of the doubt, and not hold possible misleading first impression against her.