Saturday, March 27, 2010

Multi-Genre Lightning Reviews: HISTORICAL

Soulless, by Gail Carriger
Historical Paranormal Comedy, 2009

One of the most hotly anticipated debuts of last year, 'Soulless' made many a reader's top-10 list but Apprentice Writer would have read it on strength of fantabulous cover alone. Turns out, the story was well worth it, despite a couple of stumbles in the pacing and repetition departments and the headscratcher of a supposedly super-educated heroine not knowing the correct plural of 'octopus'. But no matter: the word best used to sum up here is 'Rollicking!', and AW will definitely continue with the story of Miss Tarabotti, paranormal heroine extraordinaire.

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
Fictionalized Biography, 2009

Read for book club, the cover would not have made AW pick this title up in the store but it was perfectly reflective of content. The author tells the story of her maternal grandmother's life in a believable, enthralling first-person voice. Born at a challenging time in an unforgiving environment (to a struggling family in west Texas during the Great Depression), she was astonishing in her determination (and extraordinary success!) at rising up to meet any and every challenge in her path. When she wasn't making AW feel like the wussiest princess ever to walk the earth she was truly inspirational.

Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig
Historical/Contemporary Romantic Suspense, 2005
The first of an extremely popular, light-hearted and botanically-named series, Apprentice Writer spied this gorgeously covered re-release and was inspired to take a look. Alas, though there was a lot she liked, this story suffered from crazy huge anticipation build-up. She kept thinking about how the historical hero didn't seem that competent a spy, how the historical heroine seemed just a little too immature, how the villain kept making very basic mistakes.... Based on what she did like, and in view of the fact that this was the debut effort, AW would take a look at the next in the series but it would need to work hard to make her work her way through what has become a lengthy series (with gorgeous covers, one and all).

What say you, Gentle Reader? Familiar with any of these titles?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Alan Bradley


Doubleday, 2009

Premise: Upper-class, neglected girl finds a dying man in her garden and takes up the case.

Cover: Title - Perplexing, until full quote is known ("Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie, Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?" from The Art of Cooking) and later when it is quoted to the heroine by the police inspector. Art - Striking but also perplexing, until one encounters the deceased bird with stamp adornment in the pages. Altogether, unusual and intriguing cover.

What Works: The most spectacularly unusual heroine this reader has encountered in a long time, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is by turns funny, whipsmart, terrifyingly precocious, and childlike. Over and over, she confounds everyone around her by thinking and performing far beyond any reasonable expectations one might have of a child. Mother deceased while she was an infant, father still immersed in grief such that his three daughters are more or less left entirely to their own devices, Flavia has adjusted to the realization that in her family, people only express affection through doing dreadful things to one another - and by loyally taking the fall for whomever may be threatened by others at any time. This includes the war-traumatized gardener, who 'loses' bits of shortterm memory and has retreated to plants due to ever-decreasing ability to deal with people.

Because of the family's elevated social position in their British village, her own unusualness resulting in lack of friendship opportunities with peers, and relatively large age difference to her older siblings, Flavia is a loner, bored out of her nimble mind and has become a self-taught chemistry prodigy. When she comes across a dying man, she is consequently delighted: Finally, something to do! Her sleuthing process takes many dips and turns, alternating between hilarious and frightening, but is never, ever dull.

Some excerpts that give a flavor of typical Flavia and show the author's flair for similes:

"I still shivered with joy whenever I thought of the rainy day that Chemistry had fallen into my life. I had been scaling the bookcases, pretending I was a noted Alpinist, when my foot slipped and a heavy book was knocked to the floor...within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning violet, and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning 'a stench'. These were the sorts of things I needed to know!..When I found that precise instructions were given for formulating (poisons) I was in seventh heaven...I tried to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren't a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better."

"Whenever I wanted to be alone...I would clamber up into the dim light of the (abandoned Rolls Royce) where I would sit for hours..surrounded by drooping plush upholstery and cracked, nibbled leather (filled with mouse nests)."

"I rechristened (the bicycle) Gladys..I found a booklet called Cycling for Women of all Ages, by Prunella Stack, the leader of the Women's League of Health and Beauty...Was there a companion booklet, Cycling for Men of All Ages, I wondered? And, if so, had it been written by the leader of the Men's League of Health and Handsomeness?"

"Ned stuck out his callused was like shaking hands with a pineapple."

"It was like a dirigible with the skin off..."

"...her hair looked like a hot air balloon."

"I made the Girl Guide three-eared bunny salute with my fingers. I did not tell him that I was technically no longer a member of that organization, and hadn't been since I was chucked out for manufacturing ferric hydroxide to earn my domestic service badge. No one seemed to care that it was the antidote for arsenic poisoning."

"Feely once gave Daffy and me (a piece of sisterly advice): 'If ever you're accosted by a man, kick him in the Casanovas and run like the blue blazes!' Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located. I'd have to think of something else."

"I found a dead body in the cucumber patch,' I told them. 'How very like you,' Ophelia said, and went on preening her eyebrows."

What Doesn't: Readers who have trouble with claustrophobia, or who are uncomfortable with children in dangerous situations, may want to sidestep this story. In case it makes them feel better, they can take note of the fact that this is the first book in a series; which demonstrates that at the end of this story, things have turned out alright for Flavia.

Overall: A wildly entertaining and unpredictable story; Apprentice Writer is impatiently waiting for her turn with the library's audiobook copy of the second in the series, the equally perplexingly named 'The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag'.

But does it make you laugh? YES!
If the gentle reader has not paid attention, he or she is urged to go look at the excerpts again.

Learn more about the author here.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Mailbox Monday

This is a meme Apprentice Writer has seen in various places in Bloglandia. She interprets it liberally enough to include titles that arrived in her house over the past week from all sources including the post.

When Will There Be Good News?

by Kate Atkinson, (Literary fiction)
Why Chosen: Won from 'The Distracted Musician'

The Serpent's Tale (Book 2, Mistress of the Art of Death)
by Ariana Franklin (Historical Mystery)
Why Chosen: Pounced on at the library after devouring Book 1.

Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde (Alternative Reality/Fantasy)
Why Chosen: Jasper Fforde's latest! 'Nuff said.

by Rob Thurman (Urban Fantasy)
Why Chosen: Have heard good buzz about the series so when saw Book 1 at used book store used credit from finished books to snatch it while had the chance.

Made to be Broken
by Kelley Armstrong (Thriller)
Why Chosen: Wanted to try out this mega-popular author but not big on werewolves and such, so thought to give a different genre a try.

Page After Page
by Heather Sellers (Reference)
Why Chosen: Good to self-educate with something technical once in a while.

What are you reading?


Thursday, March 11, 2010


This year, the only nominee Apprentice Writer saw before Oscar made his annual picks was 'Up' - a thoughtful, entertaining, unexpectedly sad movie but well worth watching - so instead of glee or outrage at who took home the little naked golden men, here a collection of one sentence dispatches on movies that had the word 'comedy' attached in some form or other.

In Bruges Misbilled as a comedy, but after getting over that this was a gripping, offbeat, terrifically well-acted film that creates a frenzy to visit Bruges and a suspicion that Colin Ferrell's eyebrows are angling for a thespian career of their own.

The Brothers Bloom The kind of film that shouts 'Quirky!', starts out funny and ends up melancholy, Adrian Brody has never looked more soulful nor Rachel Weisz more dowdy but they work well together, especially in the best scene of all: double vehicle accident judging.

Imagine That Memo to Eddie Murphy: Roping in Thomas Haden Church and playing loving dad to an impossibly cute little girl DOES NOT make everyone forget you had to be forced by court to provide support for your own child - it makes the epic #reallifefail more glaring, and underlines that 'Invictus' should probably remain unwatched by this viewer due to anticipation of spending the whole time in disbelief that IRL Morgan Freeman plays the icon of ethics, Nelson Mandela.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past Lacking interesting dialogue, convincing acting and with a take on a familiar concept that was supposed to be fresh but fell flat, this bit of celluloid is best appreciated as an opportunity to ogle Matthew McConaghey, Jennifer Garner, and newcomer Daniel Sunjata; no need to turn on the volume.

Little Miss Sunshine Finally saw this extraordinary film with the stellar Toni Colette and Greg Kinnear and an out of character but utterly convincing Steve Carrell, and can't say enough good things about how smart, uncontrived, and engrossing the whole thing is. Every character thrown into personal crisis but somehow managing to emerge somehow triumphant, brilliant metaphor of increasingly decrepit bus, bullseye criticism of child beauty pagents by making it so clear that a 'regular' child has no hope in such competition and by taking that philosophy to the extreme to show a slippery slope. Yes, this is more than one sentence, but this film deserves more, and this viewer urges anyone who hasn't seen it to do so.

And then come back and share whether you agree or not!


Saturday, March 6, 2010


Kristan Higgins
Contemporary Romance
HQN, 2010

Premise: Young widow seeks to put the past (in the form of her husband) and the present (in the form of a friend with benefits) behind her and find a new spouse.

Cover: This author's covers have become instantly recognizable, as much a part of her brand as her writing style. For the first time, the iconic headless couple are joined by a non-canine - a nice touch, that combines with the red accents to make for a contents-accurate and attractive cover (much, much better than the one for 'Catch of the Day', whose central-puppy-in-basket seemed to signal it was aimed at the tween set rather than an adult demographic). Now that a feline has broken through the doggie barrier, Apprentice Writer is burning with curiosity to see what kind of fauna will feature next - rodent? Reptile? Something with wings?

What Works: By making the heroine a widow, the author has done something courageous. "But Apprentice Writer," the gentle reader may say, "widows abound in Romancelandia. That's nothing new." True - but the literary widows AW encountered to date had either healed from their grief, never loved their husband to begin with (due to forced unions, decrepitude, or general incompatibility), or were married in name only. Lucy, by contrast, was madly in love with her husband, he with her, and continues to grieve though several years have passed since his death. She still blames herself for his fatal car accident, still watches her wedding video to feel him looking at her again, can't bring herself to visit the graveyard where he is buried, creates luscious professional-level desserts which she can't bring herself to eat, has a closet full of luxurious, stylish clothes which she can't bring herself to wear.

Moving a character from such an intense spot to a believable happy end with a new love interest in the space of one slim volume is an ambitious task. Help (of a sometimes questionable nature) along the way is provided by the secondary characters readers have come to love and expect from a Higgins story: a beloved pet (for the first time, a cat, and in a welcome development the heroine maintains affection within non-fanatical bounds), a helpful but very different-from-heroine friend, relatives who keep their eccentricity either up their sleeve or displayed for all to see, and the sights, sounds, and rituals of a small New England town.

In this story, it is the relatives who are most compelling; Lucy's mother and two aunts were likewise widowed young, and have all chosen to maintain that status. They also all work together, creating both a supportive atmosphere but also a lot of pressure to maintain the status quo - both personally, and business-wise. Lucy feels loved but stifled, and needs to find a way out. Or does she? The conversations where Lucy explores why the women wouldn't want to date again, and whether they ever learned secrets they didn't know about their hubands during their lifetimes, were perhaps the most interesting parts of the whole book. From the way parents sometimes treat their chidren, and the way people sometimes treat their sweethearts, Lucy learns two harsh facts: Sometimes love is not enough. And sometimes, love doesn't lead a person to put their own wishes aside, and do the upright thing. Disillusioning, perhaps, but realistic, and worth bearing in mind when one is tempted to spout platitudes about parents always loving all their children equally or love inevitably leading to a noble character. It doesn't always work that way.

Finally, it would not be a Higgins book without exploration of adult sibling dynamics. In this instance, Lucy's sister chooses to respond to premature death of her father, uncles, and brother-in-law by becoming an out-of-control safety freak with respect to her husband and newborn daughter. It was a massive relief when she finally got a (figurative) smack upside the head, from the correct person, alerting her to the very real possibility that her constant haranguing could cost her her marriage. Lucy's (figurative) smack upside the head was longer in coming, but also satisfying and delivered by the correct person. AW was also happy that the disconnect of one son of an Italian family being named Giacomo and the other Ethan was not only explained, but a part of the story.

What Doesn't: By nature of the content, this story doesn't have quite the same ebb and flow of humorous vs. serious moments as previous Higgins stories. Consequently, the pacing felt different than what this reader had come to expect. If she had approached this story as, say, a women's fiction novel, it would have felt completely right. As it was, it took a bit of reflection after the book was done to understand that the steady, consistent tone throughout was appropriate to the subject matter, and that the pacing for a romantic comedy would not have worked.

That being conceded - Lucy cries a lot. This makes sense, it being a story of a grieving widow and all, but that was something this reader had to actively remind herself of at times when her kneejerk reaction to more tears was 'Again?' Lucy also says 'Sorry' a lot. It reminded AW of recurring phrases or scenarios which prompt some reviewers to create drinking games. Since her beverage-while-reading choice is black tea, THE END arrived on a strongly caffeinated wave.

Overall: A thoughtful, emotion-laden entry into the author's canon delivering the trademark small-town atmosphere, close-knit but idiosyncratic family members, and love interest who is present all along but whom the heroine needs to see with new eyes.

Learn more about the author here.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thursday Health Promotion:

Laughter boosts the immune system.

This week on the topic: Overambition.