Friday, April 25, 2008

Page 1

"We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of use who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen."

Joshus Ferris, 'Then We Came to the End'

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Non-Laughter Lightning Reviews

Realized today that four historical romances have been 'consumed' in recent weeks. Good opportunity for a little lightning 'compare and contrast' -

1. No Regrets, by Michelle Ann Young (19th century England and France) -
Premise: BBW (for the uninitiated: big beautiful woman) cannot believe her childhood friend is genuinely attracted to her, and enters into a sham marriage for a limited time with him.

2. An Honorable Rogue, by Carol Townend (Medieval Brittany and South English coast) -
Premise: Young widow travels to England during unsettled times to marry a knight but is secretly attracted to travelling minstrel/spy escort.

3. And Then He Kissed Her, by Laura Lee Guhrke (19th century England)-
Premise: Female secretary to aristocratic newspaperman has authorly ambitions that challenge him on multiple levels.

4. Let Sleeping Rogues Lie, by Sabrina Jeffries (19th century England) -
Premise: Naturalist schoolteacher seeking to vindicate father makes a deal with a rake in order to use his connections.

Cover art: 'Best' goes to 'No Regrets' - lovely partial face detail taken from a classical painting. Stands out in a sea of masculine pectorals. 'Most reminiscent of a pantyhose commercial' goes to 'Sleeping Rogues' - nice purple background, but emphasis on apparently freshly shaven legs.

Heroine and Hero who grow on reader after initial dull impression: Emmaline and Harry from 'And Then...' Things don't look so good for them, reader-interest wise in the beginning, with many pages devoted to etiquette books and newsprint, but by the end reasons for their initial stiffness on multiple levels is clear and engages reader sympathy. Thankfully, they've also learned to be more flexible, and the banter between them is enjoyable. Very satisfying ending.

Biggest Pet Peeve: Two authors undermine their credibility by not applying foreign language snippets correctly. In one instance, the heroine answers in the affirmative when asked if she speaks French, but she does so IN ITALIAN. Or possibly Spanish; either way, it's not French. (Actually, to make things even more complicated, it IS French - only for 'if' instead of 'yes'.) In the second instance, the term 'comme il faut' ('as is necessary or required') is used to mean the opposite.

Most interesting historical detail: Easily 'Honorable Rogue'. Though the story had too much space devoted to hero and heroine endlessly reliving an early kiss and being dismayed that they were attracted to one another (first half) and Could Never Be Together (second half) and not enough about actual story developments for Apprentice Writer's taste, reading about the details of daily life (architecture, clothing, food, social classes, professions, customs, names) in such a fresh time/place combination was fascinating. Let Apprentic Writer be clear: the imbalance of hero/heroine introspection and plot points is not an indication of weakness of the book; it is an indication that AW is clearly not part of the target demographic for this particular imprint. Harlequin demands that its writers operate within tight wordcount and outline boundaries, for the simple reason that it provides a specific product for specific readership. That the story managed to capture AW's interest despite not being that reader is a testament to the skill of this author.

Most unusual stimulant: Countless historicals include an element of alcohol abuse, a few refer to opium, hashish or other narcotics. This was the first AW ever encountered involving nitrous oxide. Even better, it wasn't just a background detail at a party for jaded, fashionable aristocrats, but a major plotpoint, apparently based on real historical events. So although AW felt that there was a whole lot of buildup compared to how much space the actual party occupied, she still gives the author major credit for writing about something unusual. Plus: finding a way to insert a rhinoceros in the plot is always good.

Most puzzling self-image: Much of 'No Regrets' heroine's internal conflict revolves around comparison of her generously proportioned self with the slender sylphs she see around her, which has a negative effect on her self-esteem and leads to her refusal to accept that the hero could find her desirable. Modern mass media aggressively promotes thinness as a feminine ideal, so the thinking behind such internal conflict is not hard to follow. But: in the story, except for herself ,there weren't any characters that seemed to look down on the heroine due to her shape. To the contrary - younger sisters loved and respected her, female characters she met offered friendship or saw her as a equal, multiple male characters wished to pursue her, a long-lost relative expressed no disappointment. So, while AW very much enjoyed reading about a different type of heroine, and wouldn't wish sizeist rejection on her just for the hell of it, there was some feeling of disconnect.

Most tiresome device for expressing emotion: It is a constant challenge for authors to convey the emotion their characters feel without naming it explicitly. AW understands and empathizes with the difficulty. Even so, the heroine's habit in 'Honorable Rogue' of speaking in a mini-stutter whenever she felt nervous was so frequent AW started counting number of pages in between ocurences. There has to be a better way.

All in all - each story offered something unusual and worth reading about.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bookbuilding - ANALYSIS

Today, our final field trip into the world of novelbuilding pitfalls.

After visits to the twin pitfalls of setting staticus and momentum mortus, and the twin pitfalls of cultura non-equus and non-persona, a look at


wherein a book's first chapter gives a wrong impression of what to expect. Example:

The Raven Prince, a historical romance by Elizabeth Hoyt, is the first in the 'Prince' trilogy which shot the author to the top of repeated 'Favorite Book of the Year' lists. This genre frequently features ideal heros and heroines in terms of physical attributes and personal accomplishments, presumably to intensify the fairy-tale quality of such stories. This pretty much always includes such feats of masculine manliness as the hero being the tallest, most handsome, best swordsman, best marksman, wealthiest stock market investor... The list goes on, and includes, perforce, best horseman.

So when the protagonists of this story meet by having him fall off his galloping horse at her feet it is unexpected - and funny. The hero's wounded pride is well written, and memorable. Even more so when touched upon again in a very amusing pseudo-interview the author conducts with the hero at the end of the book (AW assumes this was used elsewhere for publicity purposes):

"...Edward's responses to the Romance Hero Rule Book:
(snort) Well, that one is plain ludicrous. Who wants to read about pretty boys and macaronis, I ask you? A scar here and there lends a certain gravitas to a gentleman's countenance.
Libel, sirrah! I have never, EVER, fallen off my horse and I will meet in the field of honor anyone who dares say so. It is true that, upon occasion, I have been UNSEATED, but that could happen to any gentleman and is an entirely different matter.
I was not swearing. I merely called the beast a revolting lump of maggot-eaten hide, and - follow my reasoning closely here - the horse did not know what I was saying.
I did not actually start the brawl. Besides, what would you have me do when attacked by four men? Note: I did END the brawl.
I am not sure what you are getting at...
I do not have a temper and anyone who says so- (censored)
What kind of namby-pamby novels are we talking about here? I should think-
Ha! HA! I have you there! I will have you know that Anna found absolutely no fault with my lovemaking. In fact-
With that I have no argument."

The opening scene, especially when taken together with the publicity teaser, raises powerful hope that the ongoing story will be marked by similar-type humor. As it turns out, the story settles into and remains within more dramatic parameters. The writing is excellent and the story well worth reading, but doesn't return to that lighthearted initial tone. So while Apprentice Writer enjoyed the novel and can recommend it, she was perplexed about the author's decision to point a certain way with the groundwork and then go in another direction.

Another example of primus impressio falsus is the contemporary romantic suspense novel The Damsel in This Dress, by Marianne Stillings.

It opens flawlessly:

"Hold on while I get out my thesaurus: this review is going to require more words than my paltry vocabulary contains. Ah, here we go: junk, dross, rubbish, detritus (oh, that's a good one), baloney, claptrap, drivel... To continue would require more space than this column allows, so let me simply conclude by saying that 'Strike Three for Death', J. Soldier McKennit's latest so-called crime drama is a waste of time and money. The plot is ludicrous, the characters stereotypical, the writing amateurish. What less could one ask for?"

The heroine is a book reviewer, the hero a police officer-turned-author who heartily resents her reviews. The first chapter builds up their mutual dislike excellently and humorously, creating great anticipation for their first meeting at a writer's convention. The meeting scene worked, but from that point on, for Apprentice Writer, the story steadily deflated in humor and interest as the body count steadily climbed for no particularly good reason and it seemed as though the heroine was of the sort that expects the hero to be more in charge of getting things done than she herself. By the time the finale rolled around, this reader was more interested in what was going on in the subplot between the hero's brother and the heroine's friend than the primary pair.

It's possible that this was a reflection of the fact that this was the author's first book. There have been several since, and though Apprentice Writer has not had a chance to take a second look, based on the strength of this very funny first chapter, she still plans to do so.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Inspiration: INDIA

Full disclosure: Apprentice Writer is partly of Indian descent. As such, she enjoys 'collecting' novels with Indian settings or features - even while cringing every time she picks up a new one. Why this paradox?

There is something about the timelessness, exoticism, color and spice of the south Asian subcontinent that gives flight to the imagination of multitudes of novelists, within and without its borders. Therein lie two potential novelbuilding pitfalls:
Cultura Non-Equus + Non Persona.*

Some stories set in this region** involve overt or subtly negative portrayal of South Asian people and/or culture, contrasting with positive portrayal of the protagonists' culture. This can range from older texts supporting colonial mentality (i.e. "India is filled with backward heathens in desparate need of British enlightenment to save them from themselves"), to newer texts wherein South Asian characters range from non-existant, to window-dressing equivalent to furniture in a room, to stereotypically villainous or comical secondary characters at most. How many South Asian-set novels mention the landscape, weather, foliage and animals - but no indigenous people, with all the action taking place between, say, European or American characters? How many mention local characters solely to comment upon turbans or saris worn and curry eaten, without any description of their actual lives or families? How many only allow love interests to develop when Western characters encounter one another, with the unspoken rule that cross-cultural romance is out of the question?***

To be fair, balancing all these elements fairly against one another is a tricky business. Happily, there are many new and established novelists willing to wrestle with the issues in an intelligent, entertaining manner.

Specimens from Apprentice Writer's India collection:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (dramatic fiction): A beautifully written, wrenching book about living under a dictatorship and how there can be no excuse whatsoever to maintain the caste system. Not a light or easy read, but should be on the required reading list of anyone who strives for an informed world view.

The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye (historical action adventure): An epic novel set in colonial times, describing a fairytale bygone era and lovers trying to reach across a cultural divide.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (contemporary fiction): A doorstopper of a book telling an appealling tale of family relationships in modern India. The author skillfully makes all three suitors of the young heroine equally attractive; she chose well in the end but Apprentice Writer keenly felt the loss of the other two.

The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase (historical romanctic suspense): An entertaining novella of romantic and cultural intrigue.

Brick Lane**** by Monica Ali (contemporary dramatic fiction): Mirrors the struggle of a traditional young wife to adjust to modern London and the expectations of her co-expatriates there, with the struggle of her sister at home to surmount misogynistic attitudes. An eye-opening tale.

Bollywood Confidential and Goddess for Hire by Sonia Singh (chicklit): Both novels have great cover art, Indo-American heroines, and a modern chick-lit feel. Though Apprentice Writer didn't fully engage with either heroine or either novel resolution, she did like the author's imagination and new territory coverned. It was a refreshing change, and raises interest for the new imprint Harlequin will shortly launch in India.

The next specimen to be added to the collection:

DUKE OF SHADOWS, by Meredith Duran
This new historical romance release received mega buzz. Hopefully the story will live up to its impressive publicity, and - just as important - avoid CULTURA NON-EQUUS and NON PERSONA.

* (Apprentice Writer's Latin is next to non-existant. Apologies to Latinphiles everywhere.)
** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that this pitfall afflicts other geographies as well. African cultures and peoples are often especially hard done by in terms of non-cultura equus and non persona.)
*** (This does not mean to imply that stories set in India without prominent Indian characters, etc. automatically indicate a negative attitude. There could be all kinds of reasons to structure a story that way. But: the longer the story in such a setting without a significant Indian character(s), the greater the risk the author runs of giving such a perception.)
**** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that the protagonists of this book are from Bangladesh rather than India. She thinks the same principles apply.)