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.