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.....