Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NonLaughter Reviews #2

A departure from the regular focus on humorous content for a look at a different genre.

Contemporary Romance

Ex-spouses work together to launch an inn while the issues that drove them apart simmer.

What Works
The protagonists in historical romances are often too good to be true; the most beautiful, elegant, charming, fashionable, etc. if women, the tallest, most goodlooking, best fencers/riders/marksmen if men - so as to lend a more make-believe, fairytale quality to the writing perhaps. The hero Gabe and heroine Alice in this book are not flawless. They are real people, with weaknesses and mental baggage galore to overcome. They do so in a genuine manner, a little at a time, taking some missteps along the way. The fact that they keep on trying in the face of discouragement makes the reader like and sympathize with them.

This volume is the first of a series, subtitled “The Mitchells of Riverview Inn”. The other Mitchells introduced so far include charming, single-father Patrick and ex-cop turned carpenter/troubled teen supervisor brother Michael, both appealing characters and both carrying different sorts of emotional scars. Brief hints at how they were damaged and what it will take to heal leave the reader itching to find out more.

What Doesn't
This story is categorized as a ‘Super Romance’, with tagline reading ‘where life and love weave together in emotional and unforgettable ways’. For readers searching for a highly emotional story, this novel delivers in spades.

Readers who want lots of action, changes of pace and setting, and subplots for secondary characters may not be satisfied. Except for a scene apiece at beginning and end of the story which take place in Alice's town, the book unfolds almost entirely indoors at the inn. The focus is on primary characters' emotional growth - secondary characters appear exclusively in support of that development. The circumstances that force the protagonists together - Gabe's investment in his inn and Alice's work as an executive chef - serve the same purpose, meaning that apart from prep work for a wedding there is little text focused on actual hotel/culinary elements. Readers hoping for the literary version of 'Iron Chef' will need to look elsewhere.

Let Apprentice Writer be clear: it is not that these types of elements should be included and are lacking; it is that this story (and, she assumes, this imprint) is for readers searching for a particular type of reading experience, and those who want a different kind should look elsewhere.

Unlike many who can quote the ins and outs of each imprint and subgenre in the vast and powerful empire that is Harlequin publishing, Apprentice Writer has had very little exposure to the Big H. This may be the result of inborn contrariness; the sheer chunk of bookstore real estate these titles occupy usually triggers something in her to walk in another direction. Probably for similar reasons, Apprentice Writer has likewise (gasp!) never read a Nora Roberts title.

As is often the case when one finally tries something new after a long period of not dong so, Apprentice Writer wonders why she took so long. The heart of this story paints a multi-layered picture of how a couple live with the longterm effects of infertility. Having friends who dealt with that form of heartbreak, it seemed to this reader that the description was senstive without descending into bleakness. Perhaps this type of balancing act is the strength of the authors writing in this particular category.

Usually, the final question is But does it make you laugh?
Today, the final question is But does it make you feel? YES
The feelings depicted surge and ebb in a natural, convincing way, drawing the reader in to the characters’ anger, resentment, determination, and hope. Gentle Readers in the mood to experience powerful emotions that are resolved in a believable, non-premature way will get the cathartic release they desire, without having to fear for the Happily Ever After (this being Harlequin, after all).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #12

Time for another book review with the focus: funny or not?

Romantic Suspense

Hitman attempts to protect food writer newly embroiled in an old feud and a current mystery.

What Works
Agnes is a fantastic heroine. Fully living up to the 'Cranky Agnes' name under which she writes her food column, yet effortlessly able to gain the reader's sympathy and admiration. She is smart but vulnerable, passionate but cleareyed, ruthless when necessary but tenderhearted towards underdogs of all species. She responds to life's challenges and disappointments by perfecting her culinary skills and developing an oddly logical etiquette to go along with them (e.g. shoving a bride's face into the wedding cake displays equal disrespect for person and pastry; it is bad manners to yell or shoot at a person while they are eating your food; combatants will find it more difficult to be belligerent with one another once they have shared a meal at the same table, etc.). She attracts men to her side but keeps discovering she has committed to the wrong one and is trying very hard to believe that there isn't something wrong with her. Whether or not she will be able to overcome her pattern keeps pages turning to the end.

To put it mildly, the pace is fast. The first guy with a gun shows up by paragraph seven or so - and matters only accelerate from there. There is no space whatsover for boredom to develop, neither plotwise nor due to too much time spent on any one character, seeing as how the action charges up, down, sideways, and through a cast of thousands. (OK, dozens, but in a novel that amounts to the same thing). This is all the more remarkable given that most scenes take place in the heroine's home, and only rarely shift elsewhere - but those are especially explosive (mostly literally). This book is the polar opposite of the type newbie writers are warned against in which characters go to sleep at the end of a chapter, making the reader do so as well. 'Agnes' readers (at least, this one) will find it very difficult to put the book down, what with the likelihood that the very next paragraph will contain a smoking gun, or melancholy flamingo, or fatally revealed trapdoor, or beleaguered bride simultaneously outwitting a domineering mother and controlling mother-in-law, or a bayou booby-trap, or...

What Doesn't
Not only were there numerous current characters to keep track of, but many backstory ones as well, on top of which the authors chose to include a character with a double name plus nickname (why? why?). For the second half of the book Apprentice Writer couldn't be bothered to leaf back and remind herself who secondary and tertiary people were anymore; if the context surrounding them made sense, great, if not, no big loss since other characters/plot developments could be trusted to come along in no time.

Not all descriptions or timing sequences/coincidences made sense. There were two highly aggravating red herrings. Some character actions either had no normal consequences (e.g. the deliberate 'disappearance' of a highly placed government official, without any apparent followup), were incongruous with established character behaviour (e.g. the person cited as Agnes' culinary inspiration and teacher), or weren't logical (e.g. Agnes is under huge time pressure to pull off a wedding for the girl she thinks of like a daughter, yet despite seeming to have nothing else occupying her time the bride herself never lifts a finger to help nor does it occur to anyone to ask her). Despite the heftiness of the story, some questions remained unexplained.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Apprentice Writer dashed through the whole novel in such a breathless whirlwind that (except for the red herrings) these rough spots only became clear after the fact, during reflection on how to approach this review.

The authors each enjoyed highly successful published careers before teaming up. Apprentice Writer is unaware of their motivation for doing so; are they a couple? Did some type of creative writing exercise take on extended life of its own? Did they get tired of trying to make topposite-gender characters sound authentic and decided to leave them up to an unimpeachable source?

Whatever the answer, it seems to be working. Apprentice Writer became so engrossed in the story that she was late picking up junior apprentice writers #1 & #2, evilly scapegoating the innocent junior apprentice writer #3 to excuse her own tardiness.

There comes a moment in most Crusie novels when the protagonist says something unexpected that reveals their basic outlook and sets them apart from the remaining characters. In this book, that particular scene encapsulates the whole relationship between hero and heroine: the hitman (who by now has developed feelings for Agnes beyond the usual Person-who-must-be-protected-from-random-assasins type) is informed that she has been detained by police due to suspicion that she may have attempted to murder her backstabbing fiance. A regular love interest might respond with shock, worry, or even concern about his own future health. Our hero says "That's my girl!" and proceeds to make plans to break her out of jail.

But does it make you laugh? YES!
Agnes and her methods of solving dilemmas - culinary, romantic, organizational, and murderous - are unique and unforgettably entertaining. Apprentice Writer hopes this is not the last readers will learn about her way with a frying pan.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Word Dares

Mouse Potato (n) : a person as attached to their computer as a couch potato is to their couch.

Word smith: unknown

Apprentice Writer gives it a spin:
"Ella knew she had a bad case of mouse-potatoitis the day she spent more time vaccuuming her keyboard than her carpet."

What's your spin?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #11

Time for a tandem book review, with the focus: funny or not?





The lengthy titles are self-explanatory. Though ‘Momstown’ is directed at stay-at-home moms regardless of offspring age, and ‘Girlfriend’ is directed at moms whose offspring are no longer tiny but not yet out of school regardless of maternal work status, the content of these non-fiction volumes overlaps enough for comparative review.

What Works
Apparently, modern moms are a group in dire need of advice. These guides are only two of many strategy collections in print, broadcast and online which provide pointers on ‘having it all’ for women feeling the pressure of expectations to excel in multiple arenas. Ground covered includes such topics as making peace with a body that will never go back to pre-pregnancy dimensions, accepting that there simply aren’t sufficient hours in the day to be superparent/supercareerwoman/supercommunityperson all at once, carving out intimacy with one’s spouse amid eternal junior needs and desires, and the constant battle with guilt about practically everything. These concerns are so common that authors in the field are virtually guaranteed to find an audience that responds to their particular approach among the vast audience of stressed women out there.

What Doesn’t
Many common-sense elements considered necessary towards the goal of a balanced mom life (including sensible nutrition, reasonable exercise, therapeutic effect of pursuing a rewarding hobby, benefits of keeping up with friends, being understanding with one’s mate, etc.) are contained in both books. How they differ is in presentation and strategy style.

The Girlfriend Guide (which was preceded by the Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, Baby’s First Year, and Toddlerhood), takes a predictably friendly, lowkey approach, grouping stories about what worked and what didn’t for the author and her acquaintances around each key issue. This is skillfully done, in a manner which appears laidback and nonjudgmental, acknowledging slip-ups amid good intentions in a way that takes the pressure off and also demonstrates how the slip-ups often really aren’t worth stressing about in the long run. Girlfriend often ends chapters with a top-ten list of do’s and don’ts, but these are either firmly tongue-in-cheek (e.g. “Top Ten Fashion Items Mothers Don’t Need: 10. Different little matching bags for her outfits. We must pack to survive, as well as keep our arms free to pick up little people or to hold their hands while crossing streets. 9. Pierced belly buttons to show off under our shortie tees. 8. Shortie tees…) or else (and this is essential) - outline a general principle and trust that the reader has the intelligence to figure out how/whether to apply to her personal life. The basic underlying message is that some Girlfriends will arrive sooner and some later at the insight that we will never, ever get our groove back if what we mean is our life exactly as it was before arrival of the juniors, but that with a positive attitude, flexibility, and a few concessions to biology and time management, the new groove we create for ourselves can be equally good.

The Momstown Guide, by contrast, attacks the same material with a take-charge, semi-bootcamp, business-management trainee kind of way. Momstown promotes a ten week Program outlining a concrete action plan with invented terminology applied at regular intervals. Besides the ‘Momstown’ label, the term ‘gal’ (Getting a Life) pops up a lot, involving ‘gal truths’, a ‘gal mantra’, a ‘gal identity’, ‘gal shopping’ ‘three core values of galdom’ and ‘gal starter tools’. The first such tool is making a gal commitment to yourself, the second is making your bed.

When Apprentice Writer first encountered the latter ‘tool’, she thought it was some kind of metaphor. And in a way it is, symbolizing (as any Gentle Reader can guess) starting off your day feeling good about a completed project and restoration of order. Up to that point, no argument, but it started to break down with the statement “…even if you think you know how to make your bed, follow our basic instructions…” and the almost painfully broken down step-by-step directions (#4: “Make hospital bed corners on the sides”). Matters only grew worse with a testimonial from a mom described as “making her bed every day for the past six months” who reported that she “…used to avoid going into my bedroom because the bed was not made.”

Apprentice Writer likes to believe that she makes sincere efforts to avoid criticizing other women and what works for them. This statement was a severe test of her commitment. All she could think was “What tremendous good luck that this book was written, or that poor woman would still be avoiding her bedroom because nobody else told her to make her bed!” In the chapter on getting organized, a list of tips on how to keep clutter under control includes the statement “If your dishwasher is full, run it”. Wow. Running your dishwasher when it is full. What a brilliant idea. Another tip states “As soon as you make doctor appointments for your kids or you, write them down”, another “Shower after making your bed” and “Put some effort into your eyebrows.”

To be fair, not all Momstown suggestions are so patronizing or doggedly concrete, and in general the information presented can be useful. But do moms really need to spend their meager slivers of free time reading such self-evident ‘advice’? Even if Apprentice Writer were of a mindset that found this type of guide useful (and according to the Momstown authors, they have many newsletter subscribers, online visitors, and radio listeners who have made the Program work for them), she would fear re-aggravating an old repetitive strain injury. Life in Momstown involves copious writing; gals commit to keeping a thrice-weekly diary, carrying a gal organizer (calendar [broken down to fifteen minute increments], grocery list, appointment book, etc), a schedule, a running task list, an anti-clutter list, an exercise log, a dream log, a financial goals list, a spending plan, and a daily fifteen-minute financial check-in on top of daily homework sessions designed to mentally or physically address various lifestyle or home organization topics.

Apprentice Writer completely acknowledges her lack of correct galitude (real term from text) when she admits that the extreme variety, number and specificity of instructions to be carried out on the Momstown Program do not, in fact, help her feel as though she is getting more in control of her life. On the contrary, the Program requirements make her feel even more tense and swamped with Things To Do. For moms who are invigorated by this approach – you have Apprentice Writer’s admiration.

“Every person is unique.”
“Certain experiences linked to modern motherhood are very common.”

Each of these statements is true; the Girlfriend’s Guide leans towards the first, trusting in positive attitude, tolerance through ability to see the humor in situations, and the reader’s intelligence to apply concepts to her individual circumstances as the qualities which will ultimately help women get their groove back and feel satisfied with their life. The Momstown Guide leans towards the second statement, convinced that determination, time management, and environmental control via strict adherence to specific types of behaviour will ultimately help women “get it all” and makeover their life.

The question is not which approach is right or wrong, but which works better with the reader’s personality.

But does it make you laugh? YES (in a good way) / YES (in not such a good way)
The Girlfriend’s Guide uses wry self-awareness, real-life humorous situations, and not-taking-itself too seriously as an effective vehicle for getting it’s more thoughtful points across. By describing real women’s successes and shortfalls the message given is about how the motivation, effort, and encouragement of other girlfriends (and girlfriends-in-training) are a more powerful means of grooving than end results or unattainable perfection.

The Momstown Guide uses a Program with a capital P, that has ‘serious’ dripping from every page. Testimonials and advice collections are presented so earnestly that it seems the authors really don’t perceive how unintentionally funny some of the text can be.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Page 1

Today, a variation of our regular Page 1 feature: an example of something Apprentice Writer thought worked well, what had no strong reaction, and what turned off.

"Many people pray for tedium", Genova Smith's mother had often said to her as a girl if she complained that she was bored. It had not convinced her then, and didn't now.
Jo Beverley, 'Winter Fire'

"Hannah Ross had never seen such a long table in all her life."
Nikki Rivers, 'Finding Mr. Perfect'

"Valerian Fitzhugh stood before the narrow window he had pushed open in the vain hope that some of the stale, dank air trapped within the small room might be so accomodating as to exchange places with a refreshing modicum of the cooler, damp breeze coming in off the moonit Arno. Both the river that divided the city and the lofty dome of the catterale di Santa Maria del Fiore were vaguely visible from Fitzhugh's vantage point, though that particular attribute could not be thought to serve..." etc, etc.
Kasey Michaels, 'The Chaotic Miss Crispino'

Does the Gentle Reader care to share any examples?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #10

Welcome to December.
Time for a seasonal book review, with the focus: funny or not?


An angel’s efforts to carry out an assigned miracle go wrong.

What Works
The action takes place in a small, isolated, not particularly wealthy town of the kind where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business, every character is ‘colorful’, tree- and animal life abound, and resourcefulness is second nature (fans of the Alaskan TV series ‘Northern Exposure’ will recognize the type). All of these factors are relevant to the comic manner in which the novel’s climax plays out.

The author writes each main character with memorable flaws which turn out to be strengths as circumstances change. The town sheriff secretly growing a crop of marijuana (for a good cause), the former martial arts actress who goes off her antipsychotic medication (also), the visiting pilot who impulsively helps conceal a freshly dead body (ditto), the lovesick biologist who comes up with noble uses for lasagna (more of the same) – Apprentice Writer cannot recall another comedic novel which takes such care and deceptively slow speed setting all necessary pieces in place before winding up for the frenetically paced big finish. At the end, the reader is out of breath from tension release.

Several animal characters play small but key roles. The one that leaves a lasting impression is giant Micronesian fruit bat Roberto, for his fashion sense, dramatic timing, and what may or may not be ability to speak. Bats typically only make appearances in vampire novels, and then usually as anonymous window dressing. To have one appear against type in an angel novel, and have lines and toss in a significant childhood memory for good measure, was inspired.

The bane of aspiring writers everywhere (or perhaps, only this one) is critics who hunger to slap down the faintest sign of so-called backstory dump at the beginning of the novel, based on the belief that reader willingness to continue with the story is increased if they know only the stingiest scraps about what happened to the characters before it began (or something like that; Apprentice Writer doesn’t claim to be impartial in this regard). In this case, the author has come up with a creative way to avoid infodumping at the start yet provide insight into earlier developments. He omits chapter 13, and instead provides descriptions of telling childhood snapshots from various characters’ family photo albums. This brings the narrative pace briefly to a halt, but illuminates the relevant characters’ typical adult behavior.

What Doesn’t
The author’s brand of humor is pronounced and consistent to the end; readers will immediately be either attracted or repelled. The good thing about this is that those who don’t appreciate it will know so in a matter of paragraphs, and thus need not waste their time.

The title makes clear that the content touches on religious themes, which include a celestial being, miracles, and nature of life after death. Readers with a finely-tuned sacred threshold will need to judge whether to venture in or leave the book untouched. Should it make a difference to such evaluation, readers can note that although at times expressed in unorthodox fashion, a number of characters’ conversation, thoughts and acts do reveal that they have faith.

The book is very much written from a man’s point of view. A fair amount of interaction is devoted to competition between male characters no matter what other pressing issues claim attention, and to what lengths men will go for even a slight chance of hooking up with someone. In one scene, three characters have a serious conversation while an unknown woman sits coincidentally between them and they stare at her chest, described as ‘sweatercakes’, ‘wooly mounds of intrigue’, ‘speakerphones’, and ‘waiting for an answer from the d├ęcolletage oracle’. In another, a group of women exercise at ‘Bulges’, and after witnessing part of a marital dispute that ends in altercation, decide as one that the husband is in the wrong and whip out their phones simultaneously to report him. In a third, a dumped man sees his ex at a party and rhetorically asks his friend to confirm that she looks good. The friend considers “…the heels, the stockings, the makeup, the hair, the lines of her suit, her nose, her hips - and felt like he was looking at a sports car that he could not afford, would not know how to drive, and he could only envision himself entangled in the wreckage of, wrapped around a telephone pole. ‘Her lipstick matches her shoes’, Theo said by way of not really answering his friend.”

But does it make you laugh? YES!
Christopher’s Moore’s sense of humor may be warped, but it is abundant and original. Who else would describe over-enthusiastic Christmas decoration as making “….the little chapel (resemble) the nest of a color-blind Ewok (where) guests would be in danger of being asphyxiated in a festive dungeon of holiday bondage”? The angel suffers from lack of authority with droll results, and parts of the final battle are hysterically funny. Make no mistake: “hysterical” is an adjective Apprentice Writer keeps under lock and key, and allows out only on very rare occasions. Here, it is justified. She will never again assume that Christmas carols are necessarily motivated by simple joy in the season.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nanowrimo - Half Way

Surfacing for a gasp of air at the half-way point of National Novel Writing Month (or, in the case of Apprentice Writer, National Finishing a Work In Progress Month), to give a lightning report.

No, Apprentice Writer has not achieved the 25,000 fresh words that should be safely stored on computer chip by now.
Yes, despite the above, Apprentice Writer is excited due to breaking through a wall on some sticky scenes that have plagued her for months.
Yes, Apprentice Writer continues to encourage aspiring writers to participate in the global writing frenzy, even if they likewise own a six-month-old infant conspiring to prevent them from crossing the 50K finish line by deliberately timing their first bout of teething with November.
No, unlike many peers, Apprentice Writer has not given her work to her husband to review for a man's perspective on the behaviour/speech of the male characters.

But husbands are useful to the writer in other ways. A number of Mr. Apprentice Writer's ideas and remarks have made their way into the WsIP. Today, this exchange resulted in a remark for the ages:

Apprentice Writer: "I'm on a chapter where the heroine gets on a plane for a surprise visit to her fiance. The beginning quote I'm using is 'Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.' "
Mr. Apprentice Writer: "No, they get run over by tractors."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Significance of Today and Tomorrow

For a very large number of people in North America, the signficance of October 31 is the opportunity to flaunt good dental health. Junior apprentice writer #1 will do so as a pirate (known for poor oral hygiene), junior apprentice writer #3 will do so as a bumblebee (known for production of an oral hygiene impairing substance), and junior apprentice writer #2 will do so as Thomas the Tank Engine (oral hygiene status unknown).

For a smaller number of people, the signficance of this date is 'National Knock Knock Joke Day'. Why this form of humor deserves such attention is a question for sociologists to answer; to mark the occasion, Apprentice Writer has built the phenomenon into one of her works-in-progress.

And for yet another group of people, the significance of this date is 'Listen to Your Inner Critic Day'. Apprentice Writer is uncertain of origins; is this day supposed to create awareness of or in people with impulse control problems? Theatre review aspirations? Psychotherapists?

However this day came to be, it has meaning for authors. An inner critic can be a valuable safety belt, leading the writer to trim words, thoughts, characters which muddy a story or slow it down, leaving only the best parts of a first draft alive. In this way, Apprentice Writer will spend today ruthlessly weeding seven chapters before sending them on to the pruning shears of a critique partner.

But there is another side to the inner critic. It can morph into an out-of-control tyrant, harassing the writer into the belief that nothing he/she has written is fit for reader eyes. How many brilliant creations have been killed by artists with overly harsh inner critics? During her first viewing of 'Shakespeare in Love', Apprentice Writer actually shouted 'No!!!' at the cinema screen when the lead character (after passionately writing all night) tosses the finished pages onto a bonfire in disappointment. Granted, he was disappointed by his girlfriend rather than his words on that particular occasion, and granted, the movie is a fictionalization of his life, but the principle remains: even the best authors can be plagued by self-doubt.

So if writers are sometimes their own harshest critics, making many a worthwhile manuscript stall indefinitely or die altogether, what can be done?

Ignore the inner critic.

This is the basic principle behind National Novel Writing Month.
The now global writing race runs from tomorrow to the end of November, with participants declared 'winners' if they achieve 50,000 words. This is next to impossible to accomplish if one weighs every word and punctuation mark. So the aim is to turn one's inner critic completely off, and just write whatever the creative juices provide without any judgement whatsoever, NOT STOPPING to go back and delete or even read again what one has produced until the very end. For many, once the madness is over, there is much lopping off of paragraphs and pages. But for some, there is an astonished recognition that this insane quantity-over-quality approach actually produced something fresh and viable. A concept, a character, a setting, a turn of phrase that wouldn't have come to life any other way.

The possibility is addictive, and keeps tens of thousands of writers of all ages and genres coming back every November. That, and the endless entertainment to be found chatting with like-minded participants the world over on the message boards.

Apprentice Writer will throw her hat into the ring, with the goal of finishing a first draft. It means self-discipline, dedication, and a good supply of Halloween loot filched from junior apprentice writers' stash.

It also means this blog will need to amuse itself until December.

Gentle Readers: if you don't nano - see you on the other side.
If you do - ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Word Dares

This week's new word creation:

Connectile Dysfunction (noun) : inability to connect. Most commonly associated with cell phones and laptop computers with Wifi cards.
Word Smith: unknown Source:

Finally, a dysfunction truly free of gender-preference. Men and women enjoy it equally.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #9

Time for another book review, with the focus: funny or not?



Screenwriter muses about life and lessons learned.

What Works
The author’s style flows easily. Engaging, warm, funny and mildly self-deprecating (such as her analysis of why she was the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House at whom JFK never made a pass) in a way to which many a reader will be able to relate. It’s not that her life has been all sunshine and roses; there are references to a failed engagement, two divorces, mother succumbing to cancer, the horrific death of a dear friend. But these realities are touched upon lightly, within the larger context of other more ‘regular’ topics of day-to-day life. The author has clearly grasped one of the basic principles of getting one’s message across effectively – that a serious point is more easily understood and accepted by the audience in the form of humor rather than angry / bitter / solemn / pious preaching. The piece ‘Serial Monogamy’, for example, isn’t a heavy-handed rant about the perils of romance (as Apprentice Writer dreaded, judging from the title), but a description of how the author fell in and out of infatuation (cooking-wise) with a series of celebrity chefs and cookbook authors.

What Doesn't
Not every essay is as sharp or relevant as the titular piece, and some references may be lost on readers who don’t share generation-tied experiences with the author. But these are minor quibbles, and shouldn’t be held against the overall calibre and charm of this collection of memoirish thoughts.

One would expect the co-author of such mega-hits as ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘You’ve Got Mail’ to be able to deliver a funny line or two. The author does not disappoint.
From the title essay: ‘Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck. Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old...What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks? One of my biggest regrets…is that I didn’t spend my youth staring lovingly at my neck.'
From ‘I Hate My Purse’: ‘Evening bags, for reasons that are obscure unless you’re a Marxist, cost even more than regular bags.’
From ‘Serial Monogamy’: ‘…two historic events occurred: the birth control pill had been invented, and the first Julia Child cookbook was published. As a result, everyone was having sex, and when the sex was over, you cooked something.’ And: ‘…this was right around the time endive was discovered, which was followed by arugula, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three M’s – mesclun, mache, and microgreens – and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the last forty years from the point of view of lettuce.’

But does it make you laugh? YES!
Gentle Readers feeling age creeping up on them or just plain having a bad day can do themselves a favor by spending some time in the head of someone who has been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale with style and wit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Notable Quotes

On the occasion of junior apprentice writer #3's very first cold, here this thought:

"Everyone thinks I'm a hypochondriac.
It makes me sick."
Tony Randall as Felix Unger, in "The Odd Couple"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #8

For a change, we depart from the world of publishing to broadcasting.

DVD, Seasons 1 & 2

Competent, ethical, common-sensical middle son is forced to run the family business, deal with his jailed father's charges of fraud and 'light treason', and manage family members who share none of his qualities.

What Works
Pretty much everything. The casting of each part is spot-on, without a flat performance in the bunch. Michael Cera as the sweet teen, Jessica Walter as the alcoholic non-maternal socialite mother, Jeffrey Tambor as the ethically challenged father, and Jason Bateman as the straight man and nominal central character are especially brilliant - but really, all the main characters are superb.

The guest star choices are inspired, with celebrities gleefully poking fun at themselves. Liza Minelli (cast as the mother's chief rival in more ways than one) grumbling "Everyone thinks he's Sinatra!"at a lacklustre karaoke performance, Henry Winkler (cast as the hopelessly incompetent family lawyer) whipping out his comb to repeat his iconic Fonzie mirror image gesture, Julia Louis Dreyfuss (cast as a trial lawyer pretending to be blind) channelling Elayne's extreme pragmatism and abrasiveness, Charlize Theron (cast as a beautiful, developmentally delayed British woman) whose overprotective uncle comments she was lucky to have enough money for surgery as the camera cuts to a 'Before' shot which is really a movie still from Theron's comparatively overweight, underattractive character in 'Monster' - all are priceless.

Jokes become running gags throughout the season and are suddenly given a new twist (the secretary who keeps flashing her surgically enhanced breasts at the unwilling Michael while saying 'This is the last time you'll ever see these!' and the brother-in-law suddenly being inspired to do the same but with the exclamation 'And you'll be seeing more of these!'). There is simultaneously an exquisite attention to detail (in an episode about people acting like sheep, a group of employees board a bus simply because it is there; the bus side carries the caption 'Church of the Good Shepherd'), and a cheerful refusal to explain basic background (Why does Gob go everywhere by Segway? Why is there next to no information about Michael's deceased wife? How in the world did clueless but lovely fashionista /cause supporter Lindsey meet much less marry the dorky and forever bumbling Dr. Tobias Funke? Why was daughter Maybee given a name synonymous with 'perhaps'? This question is highlighted even more during an episode when Maybee and her cousin have a conversation at their school in front of a poster exhorting students to vote for 'Surely', Maybee's altar ego.)

The writing is unpredictable and irreverent, taking skillful shots at such topics as car culture, Spanish language soap operas, the Hollywood industry, alopecia, detox programs, fundraisers, nudity in media, and even the war in Iraq (via spoofs of the pursuit and underground discovery of Saddam Hussein) to name but a few. The relationship between show creators and viewers is constantly tweaked - no more so than when the series was threatened with cancellation and the Bluth family's efforts to prevent their company going under become a transparent, cheeky vehicle for the show's efforts to keep itself going, to the extent of a 'savethebluths' website address being flashed on the screen and a very funny discussion among family members about which other networks might offer refuge.

What Doesn't
The only thing Apprentice Writer can criticize in this series is the fact that the public, and therefore the broadcasting powers-that-be, decided to pass on its continued brilliance and cancelled the show after only three seasons. Apprentice Writer chooses to see the silver lining of this cloud; having gone out in a blaze of glory, 'Arrested Development' won't suffer the indignity of jumping the shark (Ha! another Fonzie reference!) and deterioration from genius to mediocrity (Twin Peaks, anyone?).

Rather than sameness-overload and resulting boredom, watching the episodes back to back intensifies the humorous edge and makes the running gags more apparent.

But does it make you laugh? YES, YES, YES!
This series is a satiric treat. Don't deny yourself the pleasure of a highly entertaining weekend, and many happy repeat viewings.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Banned Books Week

Today concludes Banned Books Week.

The American Library Association compiles lists of books most often targeted for complaints about content. Frequently, the reasons why someone decided to lodge a complaint are easyto spot: sensitive topics such as sex (even if sometimes only the possibility of is implied), euthenasia, substance abuse, killings, different forms of families, etc. Sometimes the reasons are more difficult to figure out. A number of books including youthful protagonists, for example, seem to be controversial because of a perception that showing young people thinking for themselves might foster disrespect for authority figures. The travelling cartoon wanderer of 'Where's Waldo?' makes the list (possibly due to a miniscule exposed breast in a fantastically overcrowded beach scene), as does a picture book by the author of the charming 'Little Bear' books (apparently because the preschool-aged hero dreams that he falls out of his pyjamas and becomes coated in cake batter, and is shown briefly unclothed in between).

This week, rather than evaluate a book for humorous content, Apprentice Writer analyzed a young adult book with a more serious theme; 'Julie of the Wolves' by Jean Craighead George. First published in 1972, this Newberry Award Winner follows a 13-year-old Native girl lost in the Alaskan tundra as she attempts to make contact with a wolf clan in order to survive. The review is posted at . The book touches on themes such as conservation, cultural change, childhood marriage, sexual assault, and alcoholism, and continues to stir strong feelings. Should Gentle Readers have come across this book, during their childhood or as adult readers, Apprentice Writer would be interested to know of your thoughts.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Word Dares

In a follow-up to the previous post, the definition of a freshly created and evocative word comes to us straight from it's inventor.

Pencil Face (noun) : "a person with a long face, a pointed nose, a yellow pall, and an implicated lack of humor"

Word Smith: Lani Diane Rich Source: 'Time Off for Good Behavior'

Usually Apprentice Writer takes a stab at writing a sentence applying the new creation, and dares Gentle Readers to do so as well in the comments. This week, the original will stand instead:
" ...the defense lawyer representing the sleazeballs..was definitely not Mother Teresa. Instead, he was a pencil-faced guy, the kind who couldn't smile without sneering just a little. The sort of guy..demanding that the Salvation Army volunteer stop ringing that damn bell and write him a receipt."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

New Release

Gentle Readers who have followed ramblings on this blog since the beginning will recall that Lani Diane Rich holds a special place in Apprentice Writer's heart. She actually achieved what many a November writer dreams of by getting the novel she began and completed during National Novel Writing Month published. She then went on to write full-time, and took the time to respond to Apprentice Writer's newbie questions on the NaNoWriMo message boards to point her in the direction of what has become her writing group, and was an engaging speaker during one of the group's monthly meetings, talking about 'How to Remain Professional While Working in Your Pyjamas'. Anyone familiar with Lani will be unsurprised to learn that she gave this talk while, yes, wearing her pyjamas. (For people who worry about such things, no need for alarm: a robe and bunny slippers were involved as well.)

But all this and $5 will buy you a latte. The question for readers of this blog is: are her novels funny? Of three novels read from two months to a couple of years back, Apprentice Writer recalls the following:

Time Off For Good Behavior
About a unique single woman with anger management issues who learns to tackle her problems in a way that doesn't involve legal consequences. This novel contained the new word creation 'pencil face', which Apprentice Writer still isn't sure the meaning of but nevertheless loves. The story builds well and is emotionally satisfying. But is it funny? Yes, in a wry, women's fiction sort of way.

Maybe Baby
About a couple who reunite to thwart crime involving an endearlingly odd rare bird. The premise is original, the characters unusual and likable, the story had good tension and was very entertaining. But was it funny? Yes, in a zany caper kind of way.

The Comeback Kiss
About a prodigal son who returns to his hometown to rectify a longago wrong and is drawn into solving arson cases. The main character was a secondary one in Maybe Baby, and it was lovely to get to read his own story. In the 'uh-oh' department, there is a rekindling romance scene which curls toes - unfortunately, with disgust rather than heat. The hero spent the evening in a smoky pool hall, next morning before he has showered or brushed teeth or eaten but not before he has had a cigarette, the heroine turns up and they kiss. Shudder-inducing even now. Still, the mix of characters and pacing keep the pages flying. But is it funny? Yes, based on a lot of the quirky characters' behaviour and manner of speech.

Why is Apprentice Writer taking the Gentle Reader on this trip down memory lane?

On October 1, Lani's latest novel, Crazy in Love will be released. Ever the innovator, she invited her readers to blog about it. Dilemma: blog helter-skelter like a rabid fangirl, regardless of how the actual book turns out? Or maintain integrity and avoid accusations of bias by waiting to form a full opinion?

Apprentice Writer chose the golden mean. Based on a 3 out of 3 rating history in previous books, and an excerpt of the new novel at, it looks like Crazy in Love will be another winner, humor-wise. Lani is especially adept at doing 'quirky', and so far, it looks like Flynn and Freya (sisters introduced in the first chapter) will get a high rating on the Quirk-O-Meter. Also, Apprentice Writer is fascinated by the names chosen; alliteration is always good in her book (helps to remember which characters belong in the same family), and how is it that one is named for the Nordic goddess of something-or-other, while the second is named for the Irish somebody of something-or-other? Maybe they are half sisters.

These questions and more can be answered at your local or virtual bookstore on Monday.

Taming the Time Beast

Apprentice Writer has spent the last few days musing rather than writing. An involuntary choice, dictated by junior apprentice writer #3 deciding to thrust an adorable little finger adorned with adorable little razor sharp fingernail into the maternal eye, gouging out a chunk of cornea and creating an instant three-day spell of blindness (since it turns out that muscle movements of the healthy eye create spasming agony in the injured one, forcing both closed). Emergency room staff and referred ophtamologist weren't impressed, responding with something like 'If I had a dime for every time a baby....oh, wait. I do.'

The results of this enforced period of non-keyboarding include a humbling respect for the competence of seeing-impaired people, many extreme promises to make better use of computer time in future, and reflection on how some people are gifted with the skill to see time as a friend, rather than an enemy. The Gentle Reader surely knows many such people; the mom who has an hour to spare before the kids need to be picked up and bakes a cake rather than frittering it away; the dad who has half an hour between arrival at home and dinner and who waters the garden rather than channelsurfing; the teens featured in newspaper reports every June as top high school mark scorers who all manage to squeeze in regular sports/music/volunteer activities between homework.

Apprentice Writer suspects this type of productivity will never be linked to her name. For her, time is a snarling beast that ferociously resists being tamed, with the taming efforts leading to such exhaustion she needs a relaxing break before getting down to the work of manuscript writing. This, despite writing goddessess such as Nora Roberts stating flat out that everyone can find an hour a day to write (equating to a book a year), or Suzanne Brockmann stating flat out that one year she wrote ten books, by taking the manuscripts with her everywhere and writing in five-minute chunks, or Maya Angelou stating flat out that when an idea or phrase struck her, she would stop to write it down no matter what else was going on so as not to 'lose' it, leading to a memorable situation in which her toddler spilled juice on the paper she was using and she wrote around the spill rather than interrupt her train of thought.

Apprentice Writer cannot argue with the obvious success of these authors' strategies. Yet somehow, she can always find a valid reason why it wouldn't work for her. One uninterrupted hour per day? With a four-month-old who catnaps 20 minutes at a stretch max, impossible. Writing in five-minute chunks? Can't do it, need a long mental warm-up period to get into the writing zone. Ignore small children and household chaos? Whenever Apprentice Writer tried it turned around and bit her, resulting in such joys as a kitchen fire, 911 accidentally called, gobs of vaseline rubbed onto furniture and walls, granola bars stuffed into VCR slots, an entire box of goldfish crackers dumped from balcony onto driveway to 'feed the birds', etc.,etc.,etc.

Because of these (admittedly self-imposed) restrictions, Apprentice Writer is in awe of writers who let nothing stop them. Mega-author Robert Jordan is one astonishing example. His fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, spans thousands of pages, follows multiple main characters in intricately interwoven plotlines, and features many dozens of secondary charaters. It would be impossible to expect such a huge story to be flawless in every writing dimension; but even the fiercest of critics cannot deny the sheer scope of Jordan's imagination. Or, in terms of the topic at hand, his extraordinary ability to put time to good use.

But even this has its dangers; Jordan spoke of additional prequels for the Wheel of Time series once the final volume was done, as well as detailed plans for a whole new series. Readers will never enter that world; Jordan ascended his personal Dragonmount two weeks ago, succumbing to illness at age 58. Amid the relief that he is spared further pain, and profound sympathy for his family, there is sharp disbelief: can it really be after all these years, all those books, all those epic battles, heros, heroines, cultures, and villains - will readers never get to find out how all the loose ends get tied or live out the 'End of the World' showdown building since page 1?

It is to break a fan's heart.

Gentle Reader: fear not. Given her history, Apprentice Writer feels on safe ground solemnly swearing that she is up to no, sorry, that's Harry Potter....that she will never leave her fans dangling without an ending to a 12-part novel series. Having thus neatly turned her lack of writing productivity into a virtue, she will now go bake that cake, water that garden, and supervise homework. And give a final salute to Jordan: may he continue bringing joy by weaving his tales, wherever he may now be.

Monday, September 24, 2007

National Punctuation Day


A day to celebrate all those little squiggles and wiggles that give greater depth and clarity and meaning to written communication!

Go ahead - visit to learn about the true differences between a hyphen and a dash, enjoy some incorrectly punctuated signs in the photo gallery, cook the official meatloaf of punctuation day (seriously), order a t-shirt or coffee mug with excellent slogans to support the educational cause. Apprentice Writer's favorites:

"A semicolon is not a surgical procedure" , and

"An ellipsis is not when the moon moves in front of the sun"

One can't help but admire the zeal of founder Jeff Rubin, a former newspaperman. He not only got National Punctuation Day recognized, but went on to create a superb educational program that tours grade schools; aiming to get kids excited about correct punctuation in a fun way, it features himself as a caped crusader. To paraphrase a film critic of The Full Monty, (who remarked that the willingness of a group of highly average guys to humiliate themselves by going starkers to financially support their families showed true nobility), doesn't a man who is neither vampire nor opera singer yet who dons a cape in a good cause deserve respect and support?

In this spirit, Apprentice Writer will spend the day striving to use all possible punctuation forms. So far, ? ! ( ) , ; : - " " down, [ ] ... -- to go.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Book Marketing 101

How the marketing and publicity process for Apprentice Writer's books will look still remains in the realm of fantasy, rather than reality.

Apprentice Writer pictures a book signing in a prominent location of a flagship store, with flattering lighting , a complimentary Montblanc fountain pen, a private back room to mentally prepare (aided by chilled Perrier and grilled panini) and recuperate (aided by a pot of Darjeeling and fresh biscotti), and eager readers clutching their freshly purchased copies lined up around the block, waiting for their turn to heap praise upon her and gasp in admiration at the witty and unique dedications she will inscribe in their tomes before being whisked off in a limosine to a boutique hotel suite. (This fantasy can go on indefinitely, but the Gentle Reader gets the point.)

Imagine Apprentice Writer's dismay when she recently came across a notice about the upcoming local appearance of mega-author Diana Gabaldon. For the uninitiated, Ms. Gabaldon completed her Ph.D. on seabirds or some such before penning the wildly successful time-travel novel Outlander "....just for fun." This evolved into a lengthy, ongoing series and was then joined by an ongoing historical crime series, both with publication numbers to drive other writers insane with lust.

One might ask what kind of book promotion extravaganza would be fitting for such a publishing sensation. And the answer is:

A weekend appearance at the Ajax branch of Costco..

No doubt Ajax has its charms. Never having been to this suburb east of Toronto, Apprentice Writer only knows of its proximity to Lake Ontario and a nuclear reactor. But Costco? Really? This is the best pre-published writers can hope for? It just doesn't seem right.

Apprentice Writer cannot imagine the hordes of actors who recently descended upon downtown Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival tolerating an appearance venue where they are crowded into a corner between barrels of mustard and stacks of tampons, bathed in neon light, drowned out by elevator music, interrupted by public address system requests for aisle cleanup, and given a toothpick-speared fragment of sausage for refreshment. Even B-and C-list actors insist upon a red carpet, designer clothing, visits to the haute-goody-bag tent, and time spent at chic restaurants and stores in exchange for promoting their films.

Why can't writing superstars get such treatment? Are authors as a group too modest and self-effacing? Have repeated rejections on the road to publication scarred them for life? But then - don't actors experience equally fierce rejections at casting calls?

It is a mystery. What does seem clear is that Ms. Gabaldon will meet her public with her trademark grace, regardless of her surroundings. By means of strategically dangled bribes for the junior apprentice writers, Apprentice Writer hopes to attend and learn a little something of real professional conduct.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Page 1

A remarkable first line, leading the reader to look at something familiar in a slightly different light forever after.

"Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe."

Christopher Moore, 'The Stupidest Angel'

Monday, September 17, 2007

Notable Quotes

From the business world:

"It was a crime of passion. Not a disgruntled employee. Everyone here is extremely gruntled."

Steve Carell as Michael Scott, in 'The Office'

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Ghostwriting

It seems the debate on whether or not Shakespeare truly was the nimble wordsmith history believed has gained another layer. Today's edition of The Toronto Star reports that a coalition of well-regarded people who make their living in the movie/theatre/writing industry have added their names and clout to the 'We're sure he was a perfectly decent fellow but not the real brain behind all those famous plays' camp.

As an aspiring author, Apprentice Writer can certainly empathize with the injustice of toiling away and having someone else snatch the critical glory and cold hard dollars (or pence, as the case may be). But the controversy took place in the middle of the last millenium. Apprentice Writer has not quite grasped why the veracity of Shakespeare's authordom has become such a burning question (apart from the nice-to-have-history-written-accurately aspect). Nor has she any clue about this period of English history. Is it possible that someone in the Shakespeare family is still earning royalties, and these are now being contested by the 'real' author's descendents? Is there really convincing evidence that some other creative genius was cheated of his (her?) centuries in the sun? And if so: how would this affect casting for Shakespeare in Love, Part Deux?

Perhaps some Gentle Readers are more knowledgable and can provide insight. In the meantime, Monty Python's interpretation (also from today's issue of The Toronto Star, via

GAME SHOW HOST: Good evening and welcome to Stake Your Claim. First this evening we have Mr. Norman Voles of Gravesend, who claims he wrote all Shakespeare's works. Mr. Voles, I understand you claim that you wrote all those plays normally attributed to Shakespeare.

VOLES: That is correct. I wrote all his plays and my wife and I wrote his sonnets.

GSH: Mr. Voles, these plays are known to have been performed in the early 17th century. How old are you, Mr. Voles?

V: 43.

GSH: Well, how is it possible for you to have written plays performed over 300 years before you were born?

V: Ah, well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.

GSH: Ah!

V: There's no possible way of answering that argument, I'm afraid. I was only hoping you wouldn't make that particular point, but I can see you're more than a match for me!

GSH: Next we have Mr. Bill Wymiss, who claims to have built the Taj Mahal.

Wymiss: No.

GSH: I'm sorry?

W: No. No.

GSH: I thought you cl...

W: Well I did, but I can see I won't last a minute with you.

GSH: Next...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #7

Here another review with the focus: funny or not, and why?


Careerwoman approaching forty takes a hard look at artificial rejuvenation from a personal and business point of view.

What works
The oneliners. Witty quips come so fast and (often literally) furious from beginning to end that the top of Apprentice Writers copy was splayed to double the width of the bottom from all the corners turned down to mark especially good ones.

Heroine introducing herself: 'This morning (I) got my antihistamine and spermicide sprays confused. I now have a vagina that can breathe more freely and nostrils I can safely have sex in for at least six hours.'

On husband changing from idealist to conservative businessman: 'When did I first notice he was turning into the sort of bloke who wore pinstriped condoms?'

Model sister on Forty: 'A terrible age. Too old to lambada, too young to die.' and: 'Turning forty is the major cause of old age.' and: 'Whoever says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop.'

On preparation to surprise spouse with new lingerie, etc. (summarized): 'Due to breastfeeding, my boobs were like day-old party balloons with all the air leaked out. A pelt of pubic growth sprouted from each leg hole (so) I took to my pubes with a pair of kids' project scissors (until) my spiky rear resembled a sea creature disturbed in a rock pool, preparing to attack. My thighs were spilling over (the) stocking tops like lava from a flesh volcano. I tore off the nylons (exposing) acres of of white flesh. While the kids yapped around me, demanding to know why their fingers and nostrils had to be kept apart when they so obviously fitted and whether sneezes were really your soul trying to escape, I slapped (on some old tanning lotion). Forty minutes or so later...I looked as if I was wearing a tangerine wet suit...I took to my body with a pot improvement. By the time I gave up on my attempt (to insert ben-wa balls) I was so depleted with exhaustion that I had to eat the banana-flavored erecto gel. With the sound of my husband's key grating in the lock, I leapt onto the bed to lie sensuously among pillows that I now noticed were splattered with squashed chicken nuggets...I seemed to have hirsute toenails. Oh, God! My pube trimmings had fallen into the wet nail polish and dried there...Dry of mouth, I licked my lips - only to discover I was still wearing mustache bleach. Dry-retching from the poisonous taste...I gawked into the bedside mirror to see the bleach...had turned my top lip albino. It neoned out at me from my reflection...Bloody hell! I also had a stress pimple erupting on my nose. Now there's a good look - wrinkles and pimples...'

It is a rare page that doesn't contain a wry assessment from one character or another's perspective.

What doesn't
The oneliners. The author's outstanding talent with incisive, stinging remarks comes at a price; in this case, character development, dialogue, and plausibility all seemed to suffer the more the story unfolded. The way the characters spoke with one another and sometimes acted , the sitations in which they were placed, the time frame in which characters were supposed to achieve and revert from certain mindsets - all these elements seemed occasionally fake (pun intended and appropriate). The children often seemed curiously absent from the action and from the characters' thoughts, to the point that Apprentice Writer is undecided about whether the novel is more accurately described as momlit or chicklit.

So long as she thrives in her job as news correspondent and feels secure in her marriage to reconstructive surgeon Hugo, Lizzie is certain that her model sister Victoria's ferocious pursuit of youthful beauty is misguided. But when she is fired to make way for someone more eye-appealling, and suspicions that her spouse is having an affair with a starlet known for the size of her chest instead of IQ mount, Lizzie's conviction wavers.

In an age when cosmetic surgery and chemical procedures are rampant, this book asks some tough questions. Where does the pressure to look young no matter the physical, emotional and financial cost come from? Why do so many more women than men feel compelled to drastically 'improve' themselves? And what happens when a woman who is confident that intelligence and wit outshine youth and big breasts is put to the test?

There are no simple answers. The story of how Lizzie, Victoria, and Hugo arrive at different conclusions has rough spots, but it is without a doubt thought-provoking.

But does it make you laugh? ABSOLUTELY.
Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. If one accepts this, and concentrates on what he/she does well rather than throwing the baby out with the weak dialogue/ one-note characters/ implausible situations bathwater, it makes one's reading life much more enjoyable.

This author's skill at distilling large-scale observations down to smart, amusing, bite-sized chunks is extraordinary. Apprentice Writer will seek out Lette's backlist without delay.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Word Dares

Today's word is one of those creations so obvious in hindsight that multitudes of readers will ask themseves why they didn't think of it before. Apprentice Writer predicts it will sweep the net.

BLOGATUS (noun) : blog + hiatus

Wordsmith: Wylie Kinson Source: Wylie's Words,

Go ahead, give it a spin. Apprentice Writer's: "Still being a new and relatively undiscovered blogger, Ella worried that if she took a blogatus her trickle of semi-regular readers would dry up - never to return."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #6


Two former Londoners develop a friendship and work partnership in response to personal problems and boredom with village life.

What Works
Faced with the sudden, extreme realization that the economic and emotional stability of their families rests on their shoulders, some people might be tempted to retreat into chronic depression or substance abuse. Izzy and Maddy have no time for such luxuries; when it becomes clear that they don't know their husbands as well as they thought and like it or not must become chief providers, they roll up their sleeves and get on with it. The co-operation, creativity, and sheer grit with which they climb a steeper than usual learning curve is convincing and has the reader cheering for them to succeed.

What Doesn't
There is a disconcerting vein of casual contempt that marks the attitude of various groups towards one another, with little or no attempts to investigate whether an individual actually fits the preconceived label he/she has been slapped with. Izzy and Maddy haven't a shadow of a doubt that they are superior to the village populace based solely on their status as ex-Londoners. At their first meeting, Izzy is desperate to disassociate herself from the village women so as not to be '.....dismissed as one of them' by the newly arrived Maddy. For the village women, it is likewise self-understood that Izzy is beneath them due to her lack of wealth, and that they must ingratiate themselves with Maddy due to her apparent possession of it. Maddy seems to accept the fawning as her due, and when her circumstances change, is certain that the former fawners will no longer consider her worth their time.

Although there are some glimmers of openness to change in this behaviour on the part of the heroines by the end of the story, such pervasive class-based preconceptions seem outdated and thoughtlessly self-involved.

Apprentice writer is a closet Anglophile. Television series 'Coupling' and the original 'The Office', various home improvement shows copied by American broadcasters, 'Snatch', Rupert Everett, Alan Rickman, Ali G, the Scottish designers - these are a few of the wildly entertaining things that make her want to spend summer holidays in a thatched period cottage, drinking tea, wearing hats like in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and extending her vocabulary (so far she has managed to figure out that 'snog' means kiss, 'bog' means toilet, 'gobsmacked' means surprised and 'twee' is not a compliment).

This is all to say that she views a new-to-her Brit author and/or story set in Britain with happy anticipation, and will forgive weaknesses (up to a certain point) so long as stories do a good job of transporting her to another world. This one tells a convincing tale of sisters doing it for themselves, for the sake of their children.

But does it make you laugh? NO - but not its fault
Even though Apprentice Writer didn't laugh a single time, she does not blame the authors (Annie Ashworth + Meg Sanders = Annie Sanders) because it seems evident that they never intended this as a lighthearted romp. It is women's fiction, deceptively packaged as comedy. From the quote describing it as 'hilarious', to the three synonymous-with-luxury brand names mentioned, to the cartoons depicting the eponymous high-heeled shoes on one side and a cafe scene with rubber boots on the other (until the advent of crocs, there was surely no form of footwear less stylish or more susceptible to humor than the lowly rubber boot), and even to the choice of font for titles - everything about the book's cover seems calculated to make the casual browser think the story is funny chicklit. It is not - and the resulting non-fulfilment of expectations could well cause some readers to unfairly hold this against what is otherwise a reasonably well-written and entertaining story. As it is, in future Apprentice Writer will view books published by Orion with some suspicion.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Page 1

This week's notable first line:

"Will Scarlet hated trees."

Carrie Lofty, 'Redeeming Will Scarlet'

This first line has a number of things going for it: brief, unequivocal, and deceptively unremarkable until one makes the connection between the the subject and the place he spent much of his time (Sherwood Forest).

Altogether, a brilliant first line.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Notable Quotes

Today, some animal philosophy:

"Quotes don't have to be accurate to be famous!"

Bucky Katt, via Darby Conly, 'Get Fuzzy'

Monday, August 27, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #5

Time for another review with the focus: funny or not?


Shopping addict faces threats to her marriage, her home, her employment, and the reality that advanced pregnancy involves severe biological facts.

What Works
This is the fifth installment in the hugely popular 'Shopaholic' series. Apprentice Writer is one of many, many readers who have followed Becky Bloomwood Brandon from her start as a chronically cash-strapped brand name lover in London whose every effort to overcome her problem goes disastrously wrong. She and true love Luke subsequently move to New York where she lands her dream job as personal shopper at retail mecca Barney's, make convoluted efforts to please all parties when they marry, return to Britain, and discover a long-lost sister who is Becky's polar opposite in the consumerism department.

Much of what propelled the series to household-name status is still here; Becky's short-sighted habit of leaping out of the frying pan into the fire (the opening line reads "O.K. Don't Panic."), the flair with which she manages to find a way out of her self-created messes, her unshakeable loyalty to family and friends even under trying circumstances.

In classic chicklit style, the shopaholic books are written in the first person. By breaking up the chapters with samples of Becky's correspondence with bank managers, financial advisors and suchlike, the author has found a clever way of sharing other viewpoints while adding another layer of insight to her heroine's character. The horror of the investment specialist who encouraged her to invest in gold, and who is forced to specify that he meant bullion when she interprets his advice as encouragement to buy jewellry from the Tiffany catalogue, is almost tangible. Numerous such incidents make it very difficult to believe that Becky used to be a financial journalist, yet she is once again vindicated in one of her more unusual investment decisions.


What Doesn't
There is a pivotal moment in the first Shopaholic book when the heroine realizes the futility of trying to solve her woes with retail therapy. Such a moment was desperately needed here.

Mentally, Becky is right back where she started all those books ago. It seems as if her chief reason for being happy with her pregnancy is because it justifies exercising her credit cards more frenetically than ever. When Luke is shocked at the exorbitant price tags of items she has chosen, she either fumes that he just doesn't 'get it', or chastises him for not wanting the best for their child. Becky won't rest until she is accepted as a patient by an 'It' obstetrician, because she wants the cosmetics-filled goody-bag and reasoning that since the doctor's other patients are A-list celebrities, this makes Becky A-list as well - medical qualifications and professional skill being an afterthought. She hopes the success of Luke's latest business venture will translate into purchase of an island, since she has always felt "left out" due to not owning one. Showing a perspective typical of the whole book, Becky's first impression of a Baby Exhibition is: "....I can't stop looking around at everyone's prams and changing bags and baby outfits." In other words, the babies and parents themseves are invisible - she sees only their belongings.

This extreme materialism is so off-putting that when the villainess is driven to question Luke why he married Becky, considering she has no depth and cares only about clothes, the reader can't help but sympathize. Luke does well as replies go, but by this point Becky has all but run out of reader goodwill. She is only redeemed by speculation that this behaviour may be how she deals with stress about impending labour and delivery, and by the fact that she genuinely loves the sprog who duly arrives and is truly touched when friends offer home-made shower gifts for the mom-to-be who has already bought all of London.

In other places, descriptions of a nursing mother drinking and of Becky's hope that her baby will be a 'party girl' were surprising. Apprentice Writer gives the benefit of the doubt; perhaps in Britain, nutritional guidelines for lactating women and the surfeit of images of famous party girls in a revolving door of papparazzi wet-dream behavior / rehab / jail / begin again are different than in North America.


As always, Becky manages to deliver creative solutions to her dilemmas. Yet the satisfied feeling that should accompany the ending falls flat because of a glaringly missed opportunity. Becky comes across the Vogue magazine article featuring herself as a yummy mummy, showing her (soon-to-be) palatial home with his'n'her nurseries, a shoe room, etc., etc. and the quote, "I have five prams. I don't think that's too many, do you?"

At this point in the story, the Brandons have actually lost the chance to purchase that house and have already sold their previous home. But they have also been offered the use of a friend's castle, have moved in with her parents who provide oodles of emotional and practical support, have saved Becky's place of employment, put Luke's business back on ethical footing, vanquished the villainess, recommitted to their marriage, and brought a beautiful baby into the world without any damage to mother or child.

Does Becky take a moment to ponder her tremendous good fortune in all these priceless possessions? Does she develop some insight into her equation of ownership with self-esteem, or the over-the-top excess that marked her fixation with the house? She does not. Instead, she promises the baby to find another, even better (read: bigger) house.

But does it make you laugh? YES
Exasperating though she can be, Becky still has the power to amuse.

But the danger signs that she might turn into Momzilla (judging her own and other's offspring according to clothes and chicness of birthday parties, thinking the she and the child are failures if they don't get into a celebrity preschool, turning her baby into a mini-me version of her hyper-spending self) are sprinkled all over this text. If Becky really does go on to become a parody of her former not-so-shallow-as-others-assume persona, Shopaholic and Apprentice Writer will finallybe forced to part ways.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Word Dares

Time for another new creation, and the weekly invitation for the Gentle Reader to give it a test drive in the comments.

Love Quadrangle noun
Word Smith: Bonnie Staring

UPDATE - our intrepid word smith has provided a definition and the original sentence in the comments! Give it a look!

Apprentice Writer gives it a spin:
"Ella knew she had no hope of ever forming a corner of a love quadrangle. Not only did she lack the necessary time management skills, but she had failed geometry at school."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #4

Time for another book review with the focus: funny or not?


Bounty hunter resolves love life problems of four clients on the eve of Valentines Day while pondering three male candidates of her own.

What Works
The author's trademark breezy, amusing style is on full display in this slice of life of enduring heroine Stephanie Plum. The main point of this so-called 'between-the-numbers-novel' seems to be to create the basis for a love quadrangle (credit alert: this excellent new word courtesy of Bonnie Staring, word smith). The new addition on Ms. Plum's arguably already overpopulated romance radar is mystery man Diesel - dangerously appealing and in some way Unmentionable.

The unmentionableness of various characters becomes a bit of a running gag. The reader is never informed what this really entails (it is, after all, unmentionable) but appears to involve odd talents. The character who comes closest to being a villain, for example, can inflict hives - but it's not entirely under his control so he mistakenly gives them to himself. During an early scene, Diesel describes a female character as '....only mildly Unmentionable.' In a book market currently teeming with fantasy and paranormal characters who are not only all-powerful but more often than not physically perfect, having (somewhat) paranormal characters with highly ordinary physical appearance and wielding decidedly low-level skills is a refreshing change.

What Doesn't
If one is looking for a quick, frothy beach read meant to provide a pleasant hour without any literary aspirations, then this book is a success. If one is looking for believable plot development and character growth, then it is a disappointment. All the client love dilemmas are resolved with remarkable ease. The supposed villain, Beaner, is set up at the start as much more of a sinister character than he actually turns out to be. Stephanie and Diesel are both precisely the same at the end as they were in the beginning.

In terms of humor, what works least for one reader may be exactly what works best for another. Apprentice Writer has not read any other Plum books, but she has read a few of the author's single-title romantic comedies. They seem to share certain characteristics: a) quirky sidekicks designed to lend an air of sweet (but not nauseating) 'wanting-to-do-the-right-thing'ness to the heroine by comparison, b) an animal designed to lend an air of hijinks, c) an eccentric elderly lady, designed to lend an air of slapstick by acting against stereotype. Each could be quickly slotted into place as they appeared here - Lula, a former prostitute with a penchant for donuts, hears that the first single candidate for whom they must find a match is 42 and divorced. When Lula asks if she wouldn't just be satisfied with '...some nasty, sweaty sex' for which Lula would be able to supply the candidates, Stephanie replies '...I think it has to be true love.' Bob the dog has a ridiculous appetite. And Grandma Mazur has had her lips plumped, plans to get butt implants because they are on sale, and immediately ditches her afternoon plans when she finds out she can watch porn for educational purposes with her granddaughter instead. Check, check, check.
It's not that these characters don't fit the plot or aren't funny; they do, and are. It's more a sense that the story is following a familiar pattern. For some, this is a defect. For legion Grandma Mazur fans, it's a comfort.

Capable, workman-like effort by this reliable author.

But does it make you laugh? YES
In Apprentice Writer's case, this meant smiles rather than outright chuckles. But smile she did, every few pages or so throughout the book - not a self-understood reading experience for her at all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Great Beginnings

Today the first installment in a new regular feature: excellent first lines. Those memorable initial words so uniquely strung together that they can almost stand alone. Some capture the imagination because they are so well written; some, because they provide a startling insight on a common experience; yet others outline a scenario the reader will never encounter but to which they are thrilled to act as spectator. All hook the reader's attention so strongly that it becomes impossible not to continue down the page.

Today's candidate falls in the middle group - probably a lot of women have had vaguely similar feelings on the subject, but somehow this character manages to crystalize the concept.

"Men are like shoes. Some fit better than others. And sometimes you go out shopping and there's nothing you like."
Stephanie Plum, via Janet Evanovich, PLUM LOVIN'

As a reader, what are some of your favorite first lines? If you are a writer, of which first line are you especially proud?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Writing Barriers

Apprentice Writer recently attended a meeting where published authors shared a little about how they decided to pursue writing professionally, as well as their best and worst steps along the way. Unsurprisingly, one of the common themes had to do with regret at how long it took to overcome lack of confidence, and to keep going despite the persistent feeling that their work wasn't good enough to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of publishing.

Self-confidence is a tricky thing. What is the proportion of writers who really have talent but don't think they do so their work remains invisible in a desk drawer somewhere, vs. those who are no good but believe they are the next J.K. Rowling and send their work to every contest and agent under the sun? Impossible to tell.

An aggrieved viewer once asked why the obligatory British judge of a hugely popular televised singing contest couldn't simply tell singing hopefuls something like 'no, thanks', why he had to go so far as to shred their soul with negativity. The answer given by a fellow judge was evasive; Apprentice Writer believes that the first reason for the soul-shredding necessity is, obviously, to keep up high show ratings. Does ANYBODY care what the wishy-washy, feel-good judge thinks about the performers? Not even the performers themselves. They're just waiting for the opinion that counts - that of the soul-shredder. Why? Because if the soul-shredder deems them good, then they can have some confidence that they really are. Whereas if Wishy-Washy says they are good, they can't tell if it's true or if she just thinks their ego is bruised and they need some stroking.

The second reason why the soul-shredding habit developed is probably because of a simple wish to save time. Talent reality shows provide fresh proof with each new season of the astonishing number of contestants who are so bad that they cannot even aspire to become mediocre singers, let alone passable, yet who rant and rave and rail at the camera that they are, in fact, the best. This delusion is so extreme, and also so widespread, that it makes sense for people who have to listen to untold hours of auditions to use all weapons at their disposal to stop the deluded from returning and trying again - and again, and again.... In these cases, the soul-shredding can almost be seen as altruism - a kindly attempt to prevent that contestant from wasting effort and perhaps money in directions that are doomed to fail.

Apprentice Writer sees herself as somewhere in the middle of the heap. Confident enough in her writing to continue pursuing it, yet uncertain enough that outside validation is sought and not considered self-understood.

In a salute to those who keep on keeping on despite their self-doubts, consider this:

"I have an inferiority complex - but it's not a very good one."
Steven Wright

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Word Dares

Time for the weekly dose of word-level creativity! Today's candidate is:

'the saggy underside of the upper arm, commonly found on ageing adults.'
Word Smith: Jeannette Page Source: 'Wanted Words 2', Jane Farrow (Ed.)

Apprentice Writer's stab at application:
"Ella wasn't a gym devotee by nature. But she chose to live in a climate which allowed sleeveless tops year-round, so the shuddering vision of future armajello guaranteed her regular dates with the hand weights."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #3

Given the abundance of regular reviews on the web, Apprentice Writer provides capsule reviews with the focus: Funny? Or not? (Be warned: AW is difficult to please.)


Single mom is forced to deal with life as a 'Turnblood' (fresh vampire).

What Works
Original premise. Apprentice Writer never got into the Buffy phenomenon, so her vision of the vampire world is still made up of elegant, sultry adults drifting about remote castles and slaking various lusts by candelight, with nary an underage person in sight. Tossing children and everyday life chores into the mix is an imaginative new take on the genre; the juxtaposition of vast new vampiric abilities vs. plain old parental frustration in the face of offspring defiance (as evoked by the title) promises mondo fun.

One of the most believable and thoughful aspects of the book is how the heroine, Jessica, deals with the emotional baggage generated by her husband's infidelity and subsequent death, forced as she is to confront the Other Woman on a new level.

Also, Apprentice Writer was pleasantly surprised to find some unexpected layers of complexity beyond the simple 'I want to bite you/But I don't want to be bitten' storylines of classic movies. This novel touches on vampire origins, propagation, disease, government, anarchists, and cross-paranormal-species relations - in other words, lots of room for interesting developments.

What Doesn't
Several rough spots in the text seemed to point to an inexperienced author (or, perhaps, copy editor) such as a scene in the beginning when Jessica leaves a room where the hero, Patrick, is calm, naked, and chained to a wall, and when she encounters a rampaging hairy beast soon after immediately assumes it is he. Huh?

Jessica repeatedly refers to her need to toss a coin into the 'cussing jar' as monitored by her daughter, yet judgmentally labels a rival as 'crude' when she uses similar language. The hypocricy seems unintentional, rather than a deliberate indication for the reader of Jessica's human flaws. In the same way, when displeased with something, various characters refer to how the offending situation "sucks"; but without any of the irony that should go along with that particlar verb in a story where blood extraction is the primary pastime.

In a TSTL moment, security guards have been stationed inside and out of Jessica's home after she was brutally mauled twice. In classic teenage slasher movie error, she then leaves by herself, without telling anyone her destination (the security guard outside actually waves at her as she flies off) and - surprise, surprise - she is attacked again.

Stylistically, there is this remarkable paragraph:
"I watched in awe as Nara faded into nothingness. The vampires who still encircled us, watching the action in silent regard, dispersed. It was eerie to watch the undead walk out of a cemetary - almost like I was stuck in one of those Sci Fi channel movies Jenny liked to watch."
So sad when book advances don't even cover the cost of a thesaurus.

A look at the author's website, though, reveals that she is no newbie but multi-published in different genres - one of which is erotica. Perhaps this is why Jessica's first encounter with Patrick involves her waking after her first, life-changing bite to find herself dentally attached to his inner thigh, cheek pressed against his naked groin. Call it old-fashioned, but Apprentice Writer believes it is simple good manners to know someone's name before squishing your face against their genitalia.

Then there is the issue of bond between the male and female leads. Why Jessica is attracted to Patrick is not hard to understand; he is written as an highly appealing character, both inside and out. The reverse, however, remains fuzzy even beyond their HEA. At one point, Jessica asks Patrick if he really loves her or if he just thinks he should because she has inherited a family heirloom meant for his soulmate. It is a valid question; beyond the soul-mate prophecy and the fact that Jessica's children seemed to remind him of his own, long-lost offspring, there didn't appear to be a clear reason why Patrick was drawn to Jessica more than many another crabby woman he might have encountered over the millenia.

The author deserves much credit for imagination and writing about fascinating aspects of the vampire world beyond the basic love angle. This is as much of a tease as a good point though, given how this is yet another first book which all but cattle-prods the reader into buying the next in the series because so frustratingly little explanation of elements is given here.
Apprentice Writer will grudgingly admit that authors must be smart about making a living and publishing more than once per year, and that sometimes detail must be sacrificed in order to move the action along. But it seems like missing the whole point when the painstaking effort of creating an entire society is made only to skimp on description. Surely fantasy/paranormal authors should be afforded a little more latitude than usual in this regard.

But does it make you laugh? NOT ENOUGH
There are some amusing one-liners, and a humorous scene with a father-in-law. Otherwise, snarkiness frequently seems to be confused with funny. What seems especially lacking is humor related to housewifery and kids, given the book's title. Jessica's interactions with her children are mostly non-existant in the beginning (this is explained as Patrick making arrangements for their care while their mother gets used to the first few days of night-living), and then mostly angst-ridden for the remainder. This is understandable in light of the plot, but leaves this reader feeling cheated given the apron/cupcake cover art and "hilarious", "funniest", "fun, fun read!" cover quotes. Although the book has its strengths, humor-wise it fails to deliver as promised.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #2

With the abundance of regular review sites on the web, the Apprentice Writer takes a different approach: sorting books into cyberpiles of 'funny', 'not', and 'comedy keepers'. Be forewarned: Apprentice Writer is hard to please.


Determined British spinster travels to Egypt and becomes embroiled in archaeological mystery.

What Works
Everything. This book is a total delight; from the exotic setting, to the heroine (busybody and know-it-all Amelia Peabody), to the hero (hot-tempered Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson, Amelia's equal in brains and stubbornness), to the secondary characters (damsel-with-a-past Evelyn and Emerson's younger brother Walter), to the mystery development and resolution. The clash between fusty Victorian era social etiquette and the non-stop action, not to mention how various parties pursue one another romantically, is delicious.

What Doesn't
The only quibble AW can come up with is that this book is so excellent that the follow-up adventures of Amelia and Co. (of which there are quite a few) may not always manage to reach as high on the performance bar as the original. But it isn't fair to hold that against this gem of a story.

Of the many bullseyes this book hits, the one that may be the most remarkable is in how deftly the author avoids the trap that many another author with settings in different countries falls into: making implied (and sometimes, overt) statements of the relative superiority/inferiority of the different cultures or religions involved in the plot. How many novels divide heros and villains strictly along ethnic lines? How many stories involve abusive treatment that is acceptable when confined to one group, yet outrageous when extended to another? The first time AW actually flung a book against the wall was when the supposed hero in a bodice-ripper whose title is long forgotten worked himself into a rage because the villain raped his mother. Obviously, it wasn't hard to understand that he would find the act itself upsetting. The problem was that he focussed on how she traced her lineage back to Spanish royalty, and wasn't merely a Mexican peasant - the implication being that raping peasants and/or Mexicans is less of a crime than raping artistocrats and/or Spaniards.
By having heros and villains distributed among Brits and Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, women and men, Peters' novels make the useful general point that it is wise to judge individuals according to their own characters and capacities rather than tired old generalizations, and the comedy writing point that you can get quite a bit of mileage out of characters acting counter to pre-conceived notions.

But does it make you laugh? YES, YES, YES!!!

For the comedy-starved, this Crocodile is a banquet. Dive right in and enjoy, knowing that the feast continues with many more Amelia/Emerson stories to come in this wonderful series.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Waiting for Godot - or Recognition, Whichever Comes First

Feeling down-hearted because of failure to achieve recognition among your writing peers?

Fear not! Apprentice Writer has the ideal solution: seek recognition for your writing in the non-writing world!

AW was strolling a suburban mall, and wandered into LuLuLemon (=yogawear) during customer appreciation day. The appreciation seemed to consist mostly of balloons and (irony much?) cupcakes. They were also running a contest asking customers to write what they liked best about the store. A quick glance at the ballot box showed a lot of entries simply listed a word or phrase. AW wrote a couple of sentences and voila!

The manager called today to say AW had won the outfit of her choice, and enthused about the excellent answer. Truth be told, this was somewhat embarrassing as AW had dashed it off without too much Deep Thought.

In terms of Big Pictureness, this may not be like having your book appear on the New York Times bestseller list. Still, it felt pretty darn good. Until the moment, that is, that AW was informed that her freshly post-partum self would be photographed for the critical perusal of customers viewing the store's community noticeboards (which, incidentally, had been the subject of the winning entry).

Now AW will have to practice how best to hold Very Cute Baby over the most strategic area to avoid too heinous a photo - because really: have you seen those yoga hardbodies????

On the other hand, Very Cute Baby offers extremely limited strategic camoflage, still being quite tiny. Perhaps AW should try and extend the deal by surrendering to a highly unflattering 'before' photo and aiming for another, smaller-sized outfit in a future 'after' shot.....

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