Saturday, June 28, 2008

Laughter Reviews #19 - Keeper

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



Secret agent seeks to obtain sensitive material from British divorcee expatriate turned notorious Venetian courtesan.

What Works
First off, the setting. Apprentice Writer adores Italy, so unfolding the story in the superlatively romantic city of Venice guarantees boatloads (hee!) of reader goodwill without a single word having been read. Gondolas, opera, art, famous landmarks, steadily recurring snippets of Italian - all these atmospheric ingredients were splendidly applied to the story (though oddly and to AW's dismay, the Italian obsession with cuisine wasn't. Not one gelato to be seen.)

Second, the trademark Chase verbal & emotional sparring between hero and heroine was in full force, to convincing and amusing effect. This was especially fun on occasions when genre stereotypes were reversed:

" '...I'm a jewel thief! Have you any idea what it does to me to see you give away a fortune in gems?' 'I have a good idea now,' she said. 'It's as good as an opera.' The look he flashed her must have been the kind his Italian ancestors had bestowed on inconvenient spouses, moments before issuing the orders for poisoning or strangling. 'You're beautiful when you're angry,' she said."

"She'd fainted because she was not used to running. 'Have you ever run in stays?' Francesca said to James. 'Oh, why do I ask you? You're a man. Of course you have.' (note: this is especially funny because of a preceding scene where James has impersonated Francesca to smoke out a villain and is very proud of not having ruined her gown by bleeding on it or falling in the canal)"

"...She stormed out of the room. To her displeasure, Cordier didn't follow her...Magny looked at the door through which she'd dramatically exited. 'Are you not going to chase her, fall on your knees, vow undying devotion?...' 'No' (said James.) 'Well then, would you like a drink?' 'Yes.' "

What Doesn't
Should authors remain figures shrouded in mystery? Or reach out to fans by means other than manuscripts to communicate on a more 'regular person' level?

AW doesn't know the answer, but in this case, an insight to creative process shared by the novelist may have had unitended effects. In her tour of blogland to promote this title, Ms. Chase mentioned that the seed was planted while watching James Bond make a building collapse into a canal in Venice. Which is certainly interesting (AW for example watched that same scene and has no completed manuscript to show for it), but she closed the book feeling vaguely let down by the hero. This was not really his fault, poor thing, since he does engage in swift and decisive action where required and has a talent for seduction, thievery, and being in costume - all without question Bondish.

And yet. Somehow, it didn't feel enough. If AW had been expecting a simple jewel thief, she may have been utterly content with the story, but the 007 association raised the bar (though it is true that car chases, insane gadgety inventions, and footchases through a volcano or down a ski-slope would be a tad difficult to pull off in 19th century Venice.)

Also, the inclusion of a single scene taking place in England in the POV of the primary villain was puzzling. Why just this one (since what happens to this character later in the story is told entirely at a distance, on the level of a newspaper report)? Why point out the presence in that scene of an accomplice when the only other mention that character receives is to note her absence from the villain's side later on? Odd, but then AW is not a multi-published literary icon. She will have to trust that there are sound reasons for these manuscriptal decisions, which may, perhaps, be revealed with the next Chase installment.

Highly enjoyable, but even the charms of English/Italian James 'For My Country' Cordier could not shake the status of AW's favorite Chase hero. Rupert 'Mr. Impossible' Carsington's place in her heart remains secure (see previous Keeper review.)

But does it make you laugh? YES
YSW is not a romantic comedy per se, and contains many a dramatic and/or highly emotional moment. But the moments that are lighter are so entertaining that AW can unreservedly recommend this book for readers who need a lift to their spirits.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bookbuilding: New Chapter Lures

Getting a reader to make it all the way through a book involves a whole series of challenges.

First, the cover has to be attractive enough (or come with enough word-of-mouth/blog buzz) to make a potential reader pick it up.

Next, it has to pass the Glance at Back Cover Blurb test.

Then, once actually cracked open, it must pass the First Paragraphs test (and for some PRs, the Final Sentence test.)

If the book has suvived this rigorous series of auditions, there is a good chance the PR will take it home.

But! It doesn't stop there. The book has to be strong enough to make the PR keep picking the book up after every time she/he stops reading to go do other things. Sometimes, even for lifelong, devoted readers, a whole great big book with never-ending words can become daunting, and turn the situation into a DNF from sheer exhaustion.

Some authors counteract this by giving each new chapter a catchy title. More power to them; Apprentice Writer has a hard enough time coming up with catchy book titles, let alone a few dozen more for chapters.

An alternative, handy little device called the EPIGRAPH.
Those little snippets of something or other that can head a new chapter. Apprentice Writer loves them, because they give a little taste of the topic in the upcoming chapter, because they often let the author show a different point of view or style than in the regular content which adds interesting contrast with the bulk of the wriring, and because they help ease the reader into the new subdivision.

There are as many potential ways to do this as there are writers.

One of the most common methods is to include a QUOTE This is Apprentice Writer's preferred method, along with definitions for new word creations:
"Greenager (n) : an ecologically conscious adolescent."

Jennifer Vandever used authentic quotes from the correspondence of Charlotte Bronte in 'The Bronte Project', going a step further by making each chapter title a phrase from that quote:
"It is painful to be dependent on the small stimulus letters give." C. Bronte to E. Nussey, 1850

Another popular method is to offer tips in the manner of an ADVICE COLUMNIST:
Eileen Rendahl , 'Unbridaled'
"Chloe's Guide for Runaway Brides: Don't pamper yourself in the days after your unwedding. Keep busy. Try a home improvement project. It's not like you have to keep that manicure nice for anything."

Cara Lockwood, 'I Did (But I Wouldn't Now)'
"Reason #2 to Divorce a Rock Star: He looks better in leather pants than you do."

Jennifer Crusie, 'Agnes and the Hitman', did this also with cooking advice and table manners.

In 'The Raven Prince', Elizabeth Hoyt unfolds a FAIRY TALE with parallels to the main story.

In 'Unpredictable', Eileen Cook began each chapter with a HOROCOPE.

In 'Confessions of a Serial Dater', Michelle Cunnah lists protagonist CONFESSIONS:
"Sometimes I wish I were a turtle. Amongst many other fine qualities, turtles can breathe through their asses, which would be a pretty handy fail-safe ability to possess..."

And the most successful epigraph gambit of them all may possibly be in Julia Quinn's 'The Duke and I', where each chapter opened with a tidbit of upper class GOSSIP taken from the scandalsheets written under the pen name of Lady Whistledown. Originally created as a means for Ms. Quinn to provide background information for the reader without having the novel characters engage in tedious long conversations about past history, Lady Whistledown took on a life or her own as readers tried to guess which of the novel characters the mysterious Lady really was. This reached the point that two followup volumes bear the Whistledown name in the anthology titles.

Gentle Reader, what other types of epigraphs have you encountered? And if you write: do you use them or not?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hero Potential

A high percentage of Apprentice Writer's family members are glued to the TV today, by turn is agony and ecstasy on the whim of a soccer ball.

The Eurocup 2008 quarterfinals continue, with ludicrously fit, passionate men filling up the screen in a dozen camera angles including straight-from-the-top, UFO view) being ludicrously fit and passionate. The crowds in the stands are somewhat less fit but no less passionate. Or colorful, for that matter, since having a costume/wig/chest coloration lively enough to warrant notice by the cameras can liven up a long, long game.

Makes AW wonder: any fiction out there with soccer as a backdrop? She herself knows of none, whereas American style football makes an appearance in many a contemporary novel.

Gentle Readers,what say you? Do you know of such a book, or any other that features a different type of sport? (Apprentice Writer herself considers pondering on this subject sufficent exercise for the day).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Laughter Reviews #18 - Keeper

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

Loretta Chase

Brilliant linguist teams up with disgraced aristocrat to rescue abducted brother among pyramids.

What Works
Just about everything. Daphne starts out with a triple handicap including her status as highly sheltered young woman, scholar who must use her brother as a front and feign constant ignorance due to lack of acceptance of female academic expertise, and with low self-esteem due to being systematically undermined by her late, much older husband. Her re-education starts with a bang almost from page 1, when her brother is kidnapped and she must not only figure out how to negotiate the foreign world of Egypt and the stifling world of British societal structures on her own but set out in her brother's pursuit while staying a step ahead of antiquities thieves, unwelcome admirers, poisonous snakes...

Such a unique and appealling heroine needs an equally unique hero. Sent to Egypt as a last resort by a father who effortlessly directs decisionmaking of the British nation but is at wit's end about what to do with his hellion son, we first meet Rupert as he observes Egyptian soldiers tormenting a defenceless local citizen. Rupert's assessment of the unsportsmanlike odds is enough to merrily fling himself into the melee, leading to a spell in chains in a dungeon. It is here that the two encounter one another, in what is arguably one of the funniest and unique first meetings between characters destined to be a couple.

"...’That man is an idiot.’
'Yes, madam, but he’s all we’ve got’ said Beechey.
‘I may be stupid,’ Rupert said, ‘but I’m irresistibly attractive.’
‘Good grief, conceited too’ she muttered.
‘And being a great, dumb ox’ he went on, ‘I’m wonderfully easy to manage.’
‘He’s cheerful, madam’ Beechey said, ‘Is it not remarkable how he’s kept up his spirits in this vile place?’
Obligingly, Rupert began to whistle.
‘Obviously he doesn’t know any better,’ she said."

The gradual flowering of Daphne and Rupert's relationship in the quiet moments between desert jaunts, target practice, donkey communication, Daphne teaching Rupert Arabic, assasination attempts, pyramid secret tunnels etc. etc. is a joy to behold. Rupert treats Daphne as a person of intelligence as well as a desirable woman, ultmately leading to her acceptance that she is not unnatural. Daphne expects Rupert to be sensitive to and respectful of the people and culture around him, leading Rupert (who due to size and propensity to 'break heads', has always been labelled the dumb ox he describes himself) to exercise his insight, consideration, and leadership qualities. From the moment they meet, there is never any question they'll end up together; how they get to their happily-ever-after through a maze of whizzing bullets, hieroglyphs and rope ladders is a huge amount of fun.

What Doesn't
The lurid cover.

Apprentice Writer would never have thought that Egypt could be as appealling as in Elizabeth Peters' wonderful "Peabody" series. But Daphne and Rupert are neck and neck with Amelia and Emerson in charm, smarts, chemistry, and derring-do.

She will admit to being a little worried about how the British/Egyptian interaction would be handled, partly (as regular Gentle Readers know) because Apprentice Writer is somewhat sensitive about this issue in general, partly because of wording in a previous work by this author. Lord of Scoundrels is rightfully considered by many a masterpiece of this genre. Apprentice Writer enjoyed the humorous interactions between hero and heroine very much (the way the shooting incident plays out is peerless), but due to emotional neglect/abuse during his childhood, the hero experiences frequent doubts about his worthiness, including a feeling he shouldn't lay his "...blackamoor hands" on his wife's fair skin (he is of English/Italian descent). The components making up the hero's distorted self-image and how these are brought into healing reallignment are complex and should in fairness not be reduced to this one phrase; but even so, having the hero link his feeling of unworthiness with darker skintone tore this reader unhappily out of the story.

To Apprentice Writer's relief, there were no such jarring word choices in 'Mr. Impossible'. There was a moment when it seemed matters might be skating close to the edge of paternalistic views, in a scene where Rupert declares to a bemused Daphne that he needs to take certain actions in regard to two servants because he is '...the father'. But the Egyptians in question are in fact minors, and for Rupert to take action on their behalf in the absence of parents of their own is a positive thing. Other characters the hero and heroine encounter all seem to be judged by their own merits and flaws rather than sweeping generalizations.

"Mr. Impossible" actually contains more dramatic than comedic moments, but the quality of the funny bits is so good that they stuck in this reader's mind long after the book was closed. This story has a place of honor on Apprentic Writer's Keeper Shelf.

It also raises high hopes for the author's most recent release,
Your Scandolous Ways,
on shelves now. Apprentice Writer is one chapter in, and so far, the buzz of '1800's James Bond in Venice' is justified and delicious.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Score One for the Goldfish!

Last night, for the first time in her life, Apprentice Writer received a call from Alaska.

Not recognizing the telephone area code, she almost didn't pick up for fear of yet another sneaky telemarketer. Happily, though, she did, and had the pleasure of speaking with a lovely woman named Carolyn Ellis.

Carolyn had called to say that Apprentice Writer won the Alaskan Break Up Writing Contest.

Apprentice Writer made her repeat it three times.

She was understandably (she thinks) confused due to background noise of teething toddler, toothbrushing schoolaged sons getting ready for bed, dull crowd roar from the televised Eurocup soccer match between Switzerland and Turkey (who, BTW, also won), and, most important, her understanding that writers are supposed to enter contests for 3-5 years before starting to final and win. Or something like that.

But no, Carolyn insisted that Apprentice Writers ten-page scene of how the heroine from CUPID AND A TOOLBELT discovers her fiance in flagrante delicto and proceeds to break up with him in a very unusual manner, in which said goldfish has a starring role, was chosen from all entries to be sent to agent Laurie McLean of the Larsen Pomoda Literary Agency for a reading.

Apprentice Writer is in shock. And awe.

Whatever may become of the agent reading, this moment is pretty darn sweet. Do all writers crave external validation? From people not obliged by closeness with the writer to provide it?

Gentle Reader, if you have a sweet validation story - please share.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Julia Quinn / Eloisa James Benefit Auction

Julia Quinn and Eloisa James are authors who hardly need introduction. They are enduring stars in the historical romance sky, who maintain a joint bulletin board with lively reader discussions, and have now decided to direct their popularity towards a deserving cause.

For the month of June, they are hosting an AUCTION to benefit the recently bereaved family of a board member. Many goodies are available, from Advanced Reading Copies of upcoming releases, to autographed copies of bestselling books, to entire series, to items of special interest to writers.

For more information, go here:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Two mega-buzz accompanied releases of recent months were Ann Aguirre's GRIMSPACE and Meredith Duran's DUKE OF SHADOWS.

Mega buzz generates storms of reviews; there are many, many traditional reviews in print and cyberspace for gentle readers who care to peruse them. Apprentice Writer proposes something different: twin reviews. Why? First, she came upon one by recommendation from the other. When authors heap high praise on other authors, it's often worth paying attention. Second, she read them at the same time. Third, there are some remarkable parallels, despite one being a sci-fi suspense type story, and one a historical romance. Fourth - who's going to stop her? That's the beauty of having your own blog!

Sole survivor of a spectacular and politically far-reaching spaceship crash joins renegades intent on toppling the monopoly of a big-brother type galaxy conglomerate.

Sole survivor of a spectacular shipwreck arrives in India on the eve of politically far-reaching native uprisings intent on toppling British occupation and joins those caught in the crossfire, trying to suvive.

Typical 'butt-kicking heroine' type cover in blue tones with female figure sporting long hair, pants, midriff-baring top, and tatoos. There are countless such covers, but still, would probably have attracted Apprentice Writer's attention enough during a bookstore meander to pick it up.

Yet another in a sea of headless, bare-chested male torsos. One would think there is an unbelievably huge swell of people who hope to become thoracic surgeons, judging by the gross tonnage of freshly waxed, anonymous manchests in the aisles. Apprentice Writer would never have picked it up without word-of-mouth. The gold tones and minaret in the background are nice, though.

March is a mercenary with psychic abilities which brought him to the brink of insanity before he learned to control them. Unsurprisingly in such a person, he is physically and emotionally hardened. Due to loss and innate character, he is not in the habit of getting close to anyone - yet, perhaps to atone for earlier actions, routinely puts himself at risk so as to protect those more vulnerable. He mirrors the heroine in being emotionally guarded and not backing down from a fight. A satisying hero; AW's favorite moment with him was during his interaction with a newborn of a non-humanoid alien species.

Julian is of mixed English and Indian descent and as such, forever caught between two worlds, neither fully ignored nor fully accepted by either group. He receives a lot of attention from women attracted to his great looks, a lot of derision from men threatened by his influence and unwilling to accept the warnings he offers in regard to Indian anger prior to the uprising, and rebuffs from both sides of his family. Outright hate and racial bigotry from the cousin who would have inherited the ducal title and holdings did Julian not exist (no one who reads romance will be surprised to learn that this person is the heroine's fiance), and requests to keep his distance from the Indian relatives with whom he spent part of his childhood but who now find it difficult to have a British member amid rocketing anti-British sentiment in their community. He mirrors the heroine in being more or less socially adrift. A satisfying hero; AW's favorite moment with him was any in which he interacted with the heroine.

Sirantha (known as Jax) is struggling to keep things together, with no clear memory of the catastrophic events that claimed the lives of so many, fearful that she may indeed somehow be partially to blame, and certain of an unpleasant fate in some form or another with her employer determined to make her the scapegoat. When a stranger appears to break her out of the facility and off the planet for his own reaons, she takes the opportunity and runs with it. Which pretty much characterizes the action for the remainder of the story, in a whirlwind of action-adventure with a side of romance and frequent stirrings of self-examination thrown in.

Emmaline was supposed to have arrived in India as a sheltered heiress, accompanied by loving parents, feted by the British community as the fiancee of aristocrat and Indian Army officer Marcus. Instead, she arrives traumatized by physical hardship and emotional loss, and is subjected to the moralistic suspicions of a community refusing to believe that the sailors who rescued her left her untouched. An artist, she is curious about her new surroundings and immediately drawn to the local people and colorful marketplace, but soon learns that she is to remain solely with her compatriots in 'safe' places. Feeling increasingly stifled, she is also disillusioned about her fiance, and decides to return home. Then the country explodes with uprisings. How she reacts - immediately while her life is in peril, and later when her sanity is - forms the rest of a compelling story.

Jax spends a whole lot of time reflecting on how people don't like her and she doesn't blame them. Yes, her thoughts are distorted by grief and fear that she may be culpable, and yes, the story is told first-person so a fair amount of rumination is part of the package, but the frequency of her bemoaning how unlikable she is and being surprised when someone is halfways decent towards her got old fast.

Emma spends a lot of time reflecting on how Julian disappointed her by not seeking her out again as promised following the uprisings. Yes, she has genuine (if falsely understood) reasons for thinking this and yes, his apparent abandonment so soon after the loss of her parents and break from her fiance is an almost fatal blow. But - hello? - he didn't leave her to go to the races or a poker game. He left to try and use his unique position to prevent massive bloodshed and save his family. By contrast, Emma spends no time at all reflecting on the fate of other individuals whose personal actions led to her survival. While literally in the midst of fighting for one's life, this is understandable. But four years later, she still has given no apparent thought to the Maharajah who opened his small Kingdom as a place of refuge to British women, to the crown princess who orchestrated her escape from murderous sepoys, to the detachment of Indian soldiers who remained loyal to the Raj and escorted her to safety across the hazardous countryside. All of them may have had a lethally steep price to pay for choice not to hand her over to the mob. If Apprentice Writer recalls correctly (remember: she flew through these books) Emma does not even bother to ask Julian the fate of his family when they meet again, so wrapped up is she in his link solely to her. To be fair, she does agonize over the fate of some others, and is truly saddened when she does learn of his family. Also, her behaviour is in keeping with a spoiled single child upbringing. But it aggravated AW so she chose to mention it (see: 'my blog, I can do what I want' above.)

One of the most appealling aspects of sci-fi (at least, those examples with which AW is familiar) is that the human characters no longer make distinctions among themselves. They're all from New Terra or Old Earth or wherever, and that's that. No continental/appearance/ligual distinctions. If there is conflict, it is usually with other life-forms, but even so, there is usually a marked degree of shipboard- and planetside integration of species. 'Grimspace' takes the concept a step further by reflecting on relationships with species that are not humanoid. The team lands on a planet whose dominant life-form is perhaps best described as amphibian. Events cause Jax to ponder whether she somehow values such life less than humanoid life, and criticizes herself for projecting humanoid thoughts where they may be inappropriate. It was a fascinating and thoughful jaunt into new territory, and one this reader hopes the author will continue to explore.

Whether she wishes it so or not, Emmaline's world by contrast is tragically defined by distinctions of 'us' and 'them'. Regular readers of this space know that AW has marked thoughts on the topic of novels set in India; she was delighted to find that the author avoided potential pitfalls by the simple but brilliant strategy of having characters with heroic and villainous traits distributed among Brits as well as Indians, and by having Emmaline be a true artist. This ties back to Apprentice Writer's philosophy that art, music, and food are the ultimate uniting forces of humanity, in the sense of her belief that a 'true' artist will find inspiration in the landscape, architecture and people of whatever place they find themselves, a 'true' gourmet will always be interested in new tastes and cooking techniques, and a 'true' musician will always be interested in new sounds and instruments.

Ms. Aguirre maintains a lively internet presence, came up with an excellent marketing strategy for this, her debut novel (in the form of an entertaining quiz helping readers identify with key characters as well as a great prizes in a word-of-blog contest), and without intending to do so nevertheless slaps slow-producing Apprentice Writer in the face by working on and completing multiple manuscripts per year despite having small children.

Ms. Duran maintains no internet prescene that AW could detect, came up with an excellent marketing strategy for this, her debut novel (in the form of winning's first chapter contest and thus securing a contract), and without intendind to do so nevertheless slaps slow-producing Apprentice Writer in the face by dashing off this novel for a little light relief in between completing her Ph.D. (shades of Diana Gabaldon.)

Jax, alone with her thoughts in a locked cell, grieving the death of her pilot and life partner, dreading the return of the sadistic conglomerate interogator determined to force a confession of guilt out of her. Emmaline, alone with her thoughts on the endless sea, grieving the loss of her beloved parents, dreading the ease with which she might choose to let herself slip under the waves but also the reception she might receive in straitlaced British India should she survive.

Both of these stories grabbed this reader by the throat from the opening paragraphs and never let go. Absolutely gripping. Apprentice Writer has no hesitation in recommending both for readers who want an intense, thought-provoking story with memorable main characters.
Being emotionally wrung out (in a good way!), she will now recuperate with something on the lighter side, and restore her balance with a hit of funny. Bring on the chicklit.