Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Looking Back: 2010 Entertainment

It is The Law! in Bloglandia that bloggers must create end of year lists. If you don't, they send your posts off to black holes in cyberspace and give all your contact information to spammers and trolls. Or something.

Being an upstanding and lawabiding cybercitizen, here Apprentice Writer's EOY list in no particular order.

Most Enjoyable Historical Debut: Rose Lerner, 'In For a Penny'. Sympathetic characters that not only grow but do so believably, and a plot that refreshingly is as much about the group of people surrounding the two main characters as it is about those characters themselves. Ominously, Ms. Lerner is a Dorchester author and will see her follow-up book distributed as ebook only rather than print. Hopefully she has gained enough presence not to suffer unduly from Dorchester's 'reorganization'.

Most Disappointing Junior Movie: Toy Story 3. Way too much tension for the target demographic, too few laughs, this was Disney/Pixar making a grab for the 3D cash cow.

Book that Started Well But Could Have Been So Much More: Audrey Niffenegger, 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. A Ph.D. who doesn't toss aside his more snoozeworthy dissertation subject when the real thing comes along? An undertaker with no curiosity about Very Odd requests? A cemetary bigwig who witnesses something Impossible and says only 'How improper!' (or something to that effect) and that's it? Suspension of disbelief broken to the degree that the book was finished purely for the sake of finding out what happened to infinitely more appealing subplot characters.

Most Enjoyable Movie Seen This Year but Released Last: Sherlock Holmes.
RDJ and Jude Law in top form - come on! What's not to like?

Most Thoughtful Movie Seen This Year but Released Last: Up in the Air

Book that Managed to Live Up to Its Hype: Kathrynn Stockett, 'The Help'

Most Ongoing Guilty Reality TV Pleasures: Top Chef, Next Iron Chef, Amazing Race, So You ThinkYou Can Dance (US & Canada)

Most Missing-in-Action-in-Canada Guilty Reality TV Pleasure: Project Runway

Most Eagerly Anticipated Books Released This Year But Inexplicably Haven't Gotten Around to Yet (AKA longest Category Title, AKA Most Grammatically Incorrect Category Title):
Dark Road to Darjeeling, Deanna Raybourn (historical mystery, Book 4 in a series)
The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook (steampunk, Book 1 in a series)
Lightborn, Alison Sinclair (dark fantasy, Book 2 in a trilogy)
Towers of Midnight, Brandon Sanderson & Robert Jordan (high fantasy, Book 13 and second-to-last in a series)
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson (literary fiction, standalone)

Worst Movie: For a long time, the most likely contender was From Paris with Love , which offended cinematically and geopolitically in equal measure. John Travolta channels old Schwarzenegger movies by shooting wildly all over the place while in various forms of motion and having pretty much every bullet hit a target while scads of adversaries miss every time despite dispensing a revolution's worth of ammo. More oddly, EVERY SINGLE ONE of the vast quantities of people he kills are members of visible minority groups. Considering how often parts of Paris have burned due to racial tensions in recent years, this was an astonishingly unfortunate visual image. Does France really need cinematic entertainment that sends the message that visible minorities are criminal scum that deserve eradication by over-the-hill megalomaniacs?
Apprentice Writer thinks not.

Then along came Baby on Board. This utter waste of celluloid was mean-spirited, distasteful, and most of all 100% unfunny. AW is entirely unfamiliar with Jerry O'Connell's previous work (who, by the way, wins this year's award for Worst Haircut for a Male Character) and had only seen 'Bowfinger' (which she really enjoyed) of Heather Graham's work, so she can't tell if this film is representative. But she has been a fan of John Corbett's since his 'Northern Exposure' days and was sorely disappointed to see him as, perhaps, the biggest culprit in this execrable mess. Mr. Corbett - what has happened to you??

Most Unexpectedly Fun Movie: 'Killers'. After the drudgery of 'The Ugly Truth' (Katherine Heigl and Gerrard Butler have NO chemistry), 'The Bounty Hunter' (Jennifer Aniston and Gerrard Butler have NO chemistry), and 'Love Happens' (Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhard have NO chemistry), AW was not expecting a whole lot from this Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher vehicle but she actually really liked it. Maybe the problem with the others was Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston?

Most Promising Book Currently Reading: Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jamesin. Holy Gripping Storyline, Batman - this fantasy gives new meaning to the terms 'multi-layered' and 'don't treat the reader like s/he has no intelligence'. Beautifully written, but wow do you ever have to pay attention to what's going on. And it's book 1 of a trilogy, so if the beginning momentum holds up, it looks to be a promising start to the new reading year!


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Non-Laughter Review: BENEATH THE 13 MOONS

by Kathryne Kennedy
Sourcebooks Casablanca
December 2010 (reissue)

Premise: On an aquatic planet ruled by access to a narcotic root, individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum have an opportunity to increase their own paranormal talents and influence their whole society if they co-operate.

Cover: Title - Intriguingly worded, accurate of content, and displayed in a lovely purple cartouche with cool font. Art - Sourcebooks' love affair with the nekkid anonymous manchest continues. Though Apprentice Writer despises this fixture of romance covers, honesty compels her to state it gives the potential reader fair warning of what to find in these pages, including the mullet wafting in the breeze. AW personally wished that more of the gorgeous background had been visible. She would have loved for the bakers dozen of moons (obscured by the chest), and the partially submerged trees backlit by diffuse sunlight (obscured by various text bytes), to be shown in full on the back cover or maybe in a stepback. Overall: representative of content.

What Works: Would-be writers are often instructed to start their stories with a 'hook'; situation so fascinating or action so gripping that the reader can't help but read on to find out more and get 'sucked' into the story. This novel takes that advice to heart, opening with a woman so desperate to save her village from a killer fever that has struck down her lifemate and child that she risks all to kidnap a healer only to realize that he is heir to the royal throne and she will likely die en route from overdose of the narcotic she uses to enhance her powers to 'See' through the waters. Definitely not a boring opener or ho-hum stakes.

Even better: the world is marvelous. Thirteen moons that exert different types of tidal pull on the waters, villages and palaces alike built in trees, amazing plant life ( including some you can crawl into with interesting results) and animals, aboriginal beings who can mindmerge and be seen or invisible at will, an entire society built around a controlled substance (much like the spice in the classic 'Dune' series)... A lot of imagination went into creating the setting for the story. It reminded AW a bit of Pandora from the recent movie 'Avatar', if the trees had been surrounded by water and the indigenous people less blue.

What Doesn't:
'But AW,' says the Gentle Reader, 'after that kind of intro, what could possibly have not worked?'

Sadly, multiple aspects. Nothing about this book was average for AW; she kept shooting back and forth between elements she loved that those she unloved. Such as:


- Pacing. After a rocketing start with high stakes kidnapping (hooray!), the two main characters proceed to spend most of the next 100 pages in a boat feeling physically attracted to one another and covering this with verbal sniping (boo!).

- Writing. One of the most fun and creative things about sci/fi and fantasy is the opportunity to create variations in language and expressions to go along with invented worlds. Here, there were scenes in a remote smuggler village (yay!) where the inhabitants say things like 'sexy', 'get it?', and 'boyfriend' that tore this reader out of the story (boo!). There were instances of cliche, both in word choice (people 'tense' and 'freeze' a lot, garments 'fit like second skins', the hero frequently 'threw back his head', etc.) and in genre stereotype, such as the heroine thinking during a life-or-death pursuit situation how much the hero's eye color and hair swishing make her presumed-to-be-lost sexual desire reawaken. There was one (presumably unintentional) comical instance when the frequent romance genre use of 'paling' of a character's face to signify emotion shown rather than told was applied to an animal. This would have been OK except that his skin is covered in scales.

- Character Development. It's nice when there is some, and when it is roughly equivalent if there is more than one main character. In this case, the reader starts off with pleasant sense of curious anticipation about how the author will bring together a woman who is fiercely independent, resourceful, and talented but poor (yay!) with a man who is fiercely proud, privileged, talented, but not entirely closed-minded (double yay!). In practice, far too much space is taken up with the character's growth stalled at thinking/saying to/about each other that one is a 'water rat' and one is 'arrogant' (boo!).

The hero does start to come around and show notable improvement through his association with her and others of her background, but the heroine took far too long to make not enough mental/emotional progress for this reader. It made what was interpreted as independent spirit and fortitude early in the story look more like pig-headedness and reverse snobbism as the novel progressed. Frex: when the hero says he loves her, she thinks and tells him with absolute conviction that he has no idea what love is - without ever having inquired about his previous romantic involvements. Or, for that matter, non-romantic love experiences. It made her endless accusations to him of arrogance sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

- Internal Logic. The conflict between the main characters hinges on the impossibility of their relationship, given her pariah status and his princeliness. Yet when he arranges their wedding within a day after returning to the palace (royal wedding and true love: hooray!) there is no peep of protest, including from his parents, who promptly disappear again from the remainder of the book (boo!). Wildlings (born outside the royal family with unusual powers) are supposedly 'hunted' as the heroine's mother was, yet the heroine is almost entirely ignored by the palace dwelllers. The hero supposedly has enemies at court, yet after a very long time of doing nothing while the heroine is in proximity, they suddenly make their move through her at a highly unlikely time when she is not, that seems calculated purely to emphasize the romantic connection. Etc.

- Sacrifice of other elements to serve the romance. This was the aspect AW had most trouble with because she so yearned for more description of the fantastical world. For the first time ever, a member of the royal family spends time in a hardscrabble swamp village (hooray!) Yet rather than experiencing it through his eyes, it is summarized as '...these past few weeks, hunting and working with your people, I've come to realize they're my people too' (Boo!) The heroine has succeeded in bringing a healer, thus saving the village from mass deaths, yet apart from her immediate in-law family, there is neither reaction from anyone else, nor interest on the heroine's part on how others have fared under the hero's treatment. The only non-family villagers mentioned are two women who remain nameless, who serve solely to make the heroine jealous of the attention he bestows on them. The couple travel to the palace (hooray!) where the heroine has precisely zero curiosity in what the prince does or where he goes all day (boo!). She learns the aboriginal people and animals have astonishing unsuspected knowledge and powers of the mind, but categorically dismisses their efforts to make contact with her because she doesn't like their encouragement of her relationship with the hero, etc.


AW was desperate for more page time devoted to worldbuilding and less time to the push-pull (literal and figurative) between main characters. The gentle reader may ask: Can a satisfying balance between the two be achieved? Yes! For excellent examples of believable emotion with richly detailed worlds, take a look at Ann Aguirre's sci-fi 'Sirantha Jax' series, Alison Sinclair's dark fantasy 'Darkborn' series, Ilona Andrews urban fantasy 'Kate Daniels' series and rural fantasy 'Edge' series, and the queen of them all: Sarah Monett's dark fantasy 'Doctrine of Labyrinths' series. All excellent at providing relationship-building and believable alternate settings in equal measure.

Overall: Rather than fantasy romance, which was what she had expected, AW would describe this novel as Romance, capital 'R', with some fantasy elements.

Consequently, 'pure' romance fans would probably find it more to their liking than this reader, who struggled with unfulfilled expectations about what fantasy novels entail, and with the cover quote that promised '.....will give adult lovers of Harry Potter the fix they've been missing.'

The only thing that could be considered reminiscent of the Potter world were the rare occasions Harry and Lord Voldemort connected with each other's minds for brief flashes of time. But that occured in such a different way that it is a tremendous stretch to compare the two, meaning AW is at a loss to understand why the Potter parallel was even drawn.

She will, however, watch 'Avatar' again, and imagine how the movie could have been enhanced if the Pandoran trees had been in a swamp with treecats and narwhals, subject to the tidal pull of thirteen moons, if the antagonistic groups had socioeconomic rather than ethnic differences, and so on and on.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Austen Love

Thursday December 16th is Jane Austen's 235th birthday.

Well not exactly, but the rate at which Austen-inspired paranormal tales seem to be flying off the shelves these days, once can almost imagine it in a literal, undead sense in addition to the anniversary sense.

Whether the Gentle Reader prefers Jane in her original author persona, as a sleuth, or possibly a vampire slayer, every taste can be satisfied on Thursday.

For the classically inclined, Sourcebooks is offering free ebooks of Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, Sense & Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park for one day (Thursday, natch).

For the experimentally inclined,there are free ebooks of ten Austen variations, also on Thursday.

Because everyone can use a little more of Mr. Darcy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Challenges in the New Year

We've arrived in the season.

Of cookies and snow-shoveling related back injuries, you ask?

Of 'Best Books of Read in the Past Year' and 'Best Books to Read in the New Year', Apprentice Writer answers.

In this vein, two Reading Challenges the Gentle Reader may be interested in

'The Women of Science Fiction', hosted by Dreams and Speculation, features a female-authored novel each month, with participants choosing whether to go along with one month's choice or all twelve and the end-of-month online discussion for each one. When AW checked, 115 bloggers were already signed up.


'The Women of Fantasy', hosted by Jawas Read Too! , likewise features a female-authored novel each month, with participants choosing whether to go along with one month's choise or up to all twelve and the end-of-month online discussion for each one. When AW checked, 96 bloggers were already signed up.

AW herself applauds the Dreamer's and Jawa's aim to stimulate interest in these authors' work but will not take part in all 12x2 dual reads/chats. This is because, no matter how stellar the grouped novels may be, trial and error has shown her that she does not do well with reading too long in any one genre. She needs to mix things up to retain her interest. She will, however, unbend enough to add a few more of the tasty-looking featured titles to her TBR.

Gentle Reader, what about you? Any interesting lists or challenges floating around your corner of cyberspace?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yes, Please

First Impression: Ho Hum
Second Impression: Where have you been all my life??????????

One supposes the happy bookcase owner would have to select very heavy books else they'll all go flying whenever the secret chamber is revealed....