Tuesday, December 30, 2008

So long, 20008

"As prisoner #18330-424 (Lord Conrad Black) might say, it's been a farrago of a year, a cornucopia of the diabolical, the excruciating, and the interminable.Worse than a Saturday afternoon at Ikea. That bad."

So says Lynda Hurst of The Toronto Star on the political/social landscape of the past twelve months. To wit:

Canadian politician Stephane Dion on sovereignity in the Arctic: "We cannot win against the Americans (or) the Russians. And we are too civilized to shoot the Danes."

Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi on Barack Obama: " (He is) handsome, young, and tanned."

American politician Sarah Palin on foreign policy during a television interview: "We must not, Charlie, blink, because, Charlie, as I've said, Charlie, before, John McCain has said that - and remember here, Charlie, we're talking about John McCain, who, Charlie, is John McCain and I won't be blinking, Charlie."

Words to ponder.

But the words usually pondered in this corner of cyberspace are those found between two covers, uttered by fictional characters. After twelve months of reading, which authors made AW glad to sacrifice sleep and punctuality? Whose characters, scenes and snippets of dialogue remained with her after weeks or months had passed? Who made her sigh with admiration and yes, a teensy bit of envy at the sheer level of beauty and consummate writerly skill contained in favorite sentences and paragraphs? From whom did she learn the most? In no particular order:

Sherry Thomas (historical) - both debut release ‘Private Arrangments’ and follow-up ‘Delicious’, for the excellent good fun of the secondary romance in PA and making the "food = so much more than mere physical nourishment" scenes so evocative that she had to get up and find something delectable to munch every time she read a chapter.

Bonus: one of the best author blog titles in cyberspace: ‘Plotters and Manipulators United’. (Runner-up for best author blog title: suspense writer Deanna Raybourne's 'Blog A-Go-Go')

Joanna Bourne (historical) – for making AW go back after the utterly unsuspected bombshell half way through ‘My Lady Spymaster’ to marvel at all the clues peppered throughout the text that she had missed.

Bonus: an interesting, readable author blog with helpful advice for the writerly inclined.

Meredith Duran (historical) – for not only setting a rip-roaring debut novel (‘Duke of Shadows’) in one of AW’s favorite settings (India) but doing so without falling into any of several common novel-in-South-Asia traps (discussed here http://apprentice-writer.blogspot.com/2008/04/inspiration-india.html).

Bonus: approaching the matter with such passion that the author will be conducting doctoral research in the sub-continent.

Sarah Monette (dark fantasy) – Quadruple threat: vivid, original, edgy, unpredictable writing. The first books of the ‘Doctrine of Labyrinths’ series blew AW away.

Bonus: reading the author’s livejournal makes you smarter, but not in an obnoxious way. Thoughts on Kafka, Freud, Jung alongside very funny observations about television’s ‘Crusoe’, comments on identity of applesauce, etc.

And, lest the Gentle Reader think AW condones gender exclusion:

Jasper Fforde (alternate reality) – The ‘Thursday Next’ and ‘Nursery Crime’ series are so creatively out of the box that the term ‘alternate reality’ is a hopelessly inadequate label.

Bonus: this author’s titles will never suffer from being slapped with an anonymous manchest on the cover (as foisted upon a number of his colleagues on this list).

Gentle Reader – What about you? Which authors made you happy to be a reader in the past year?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Genre-Hopping Lightning Reviews

Apprentice Writer's reviews have been thin on the ground lately. In the interests of playing catch-up to start the new year with a blank (or, at least, blanker) slate, some less than exhaustive thoughts:

THE VIRTU by Sarah Monette
Dark Fantasy

'The Virtu' is Book 2 of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series (Book 1, 'Melusine' glowingly reviewed here earlier). It continues where the first left off, with the dual protagonists on an island famed for its healing sorcerers, across the Empire from their magical city-home of Melusine. The story tells of their journey and what happens when they return to a place where many are, to put it mildly, unhappy with them. This very bare description (vague to avoid spoiling the gradual discovery of readers who have not read Book 1) can't begin to convey the deftness with which the author juggles first-person narration of the two heros, so very different from one another in background, personality, status, and skills, and how numerous details from the first book turn out to be puzzle pieces for the second rather than simple window-dressing.

Protagonists, secondary characters, plot, villains of various intensity and world-building are all rich and convincing. But the single most impressive element is that AW could never, ever predict what would happen next. She abandoned her usual practice of reading half a dozen stories at once to devour this one non-stop, and needs a break to breathe and digest all the amazingness before plunging into Book 3, 'The Mirador' (Book 4, the final installment, will be published mid2009 as 'Corambis').

Was the book flawless? No. The extreme power imbalance between the two heros was overdone (something that will hopefully even out in the next installment), there was a big logical break in one of the labyrinth scenes, and the almost complete lack of basic gratitude in this world became increasingly irritating: Felix not only solves an ancient puzzle but performs a monstrously huge act of magic that no one else could - and receives only a few bland notes of congratulation in recognition. Mildmay's streetsmarts and hardwon combat experience saves his entourage over and over yet he receives no acknowledgement and almost all characters feel free to continue to boss him around as a dull-witted thug. These annoyances weren't deal-breakers, though, and didn't stand in the way of the flying pace of the story.

DRIVEN by Eve Kenin

'Driven' is part of the 'Shomi' imprint of speculative fiction designed to appeal to youngish readers with cutting-edge, genre-bending themes and manga-type covers. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Siberian world with an all-controlling economic power that rules the transportation corridors, miserable have-nots clinging to the fringe of survival, rebels living in secret cells, ice pirates preying on everyone, and a few in-betweeners trying to negotiate their way among the rest. The heroine is one such, a trucker with special capacities trying to stay a step ahead of remnants from her difficult past. The hero (or is he a villain?) is equally mysterious. The flavor of this fun, quick read reminded AW a little of the also enjoyable 'Grimpsace' by Ann Aguirre.


This debut novel is tagged as urban fantasy romantic suspense girl power comedy. After that kind of buildup, AW expected a whole lot. Sadly, it went partially unfulfilled, leading to a question of whether the story may be the victim of its own cover promises.

Apart from the Tolkien oevre, AW has read very little elf-oriented literature, so she looked forward to this story. And in the end, it was the elf portions of the tale that were most interesting; their capabilities and limitations, traditions and adaptations to urban sprawl crowding out their natural woodland habitat (as though they are some kind of tall, long-haired raccoons).

The parts that didn't work so well for this reader included the relationship between the first-person heroine and the hero elf. He was intriguing, but it was never quite clear what drew him to her so powerfully. Perhaps the fact that she was his very first human contact was enough? Also, the only funny detected were the brief running gag bits related to a taxicab driver's mistaken impression that the heroine is a terrorist. Call her stringent, but AW believes that one running gag does not a comedy make. Finally, the suspense portion was tied to a fascinating rogue elf who didn't get nearly enough screen time. He was by far the most interesting character, and AW wished he had been explored more fully (as well as the hero's elf parents, not at all welcoming of a potential cross-ethnic daughter-in-law).

UNTOUCHED by Anna Campbell

AW very much wanted to like this book due to enthusiastic recommendation from a friend, and the author's likable online persona. It was not to be. This contributed to AW's long-held suspicion that she is simply not the audience for 'pure' romance.

The newly-widowed and destitute (but of very old and influential family) heroine is mistaken for a prostitute and kidnapped, taken to a remote estate and left bound on a table for the hero to discover. He has been imprisoned here for many years since childhood episodes of what was interpreted (and brutally treated) as madness, but may have been food-allergy related reactions. His evil uncle now controls the family fortune in his stead, and is naturally loath to give it all up for something as inconvenient as returned sanity. Yet he must keep his nephew alive or lose control to the hero's heir - hence the female companionship now provided. How the pair fall in love and overcome the odds to break out of their prison forms the rest of the story.

The premise was interesting, the hero sympathetic, the bond between the protagonists genuine, their ill treatment vivid. Yet the heroine felt increasingly irksome (culminating in a TSTL moment in the big crisis finale scene), AW skimmed longer and longer portions (including the lengthy, multiple love scenes), and matters reached the point where she was just plain not entertained enough to suspend disbelief on some points she would have let go under other circumstances (How did the hero manage to become a leading botanist if he was imprisoned and neglected from the age of thirteen? If he was able to have his scholarly articles published in scientific journals, why would he not have been able to figure out a way to communicate with outsiders about his situation? Why would the uncle have allowed him to own a dog that responds to his commands alone and can attack henchmen? If he is such a deadly marksman, why would he have not used that rock-throwing skill and his attack dog to escape the two jailers before? etc.)

Many other readers were pleased with this book, as well as the author's first, and count the days till the third is released at the end of this month. AW believes her reaction proves that if she is going to pick up a title with 'romance' in the tagline, she should make sure there are other ingredients in the mix (suspense? action-adventure? comedy?) to increase the chances of a no-holds-barred happy review.

Gentle Reader - Have you liked or loathed any of these titles? Please share.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Contemporary Fiction & Semantics

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books & Dear Author run an occasional 'Save Contemporary!' campaign whenever they come across a title they particularly love. At the moment, it's this one by Victoria Dahl. Apprentice Writer thought the sprout was clever and the book cover attractive - so here it is. Maybe she'll even get around to reading it.

But here is her question:

Can somebody explain the politics of labelling commercial fiction?

For this reader, confusion abounds.

- Chicklit, as a category, is reportedly dead. Apparently, no agent wants to represent it, no publisher wants to buy it.

- Does this mean there will be floods of 'humorous women's fiction' on the market? Consider: during a recent drop-off of non-keeper books at the used book store, AW was informed that chicklit wasn't moving, so the usual practice of 10% credit against printed retail price didn't apply. The UBS owner was unmoved by AW pointing out the 'Women's Fiction' label on spines in question; in her eyes it all came under the unprofitable chicklit umbrella.

-Does this in turn mean there will be floods of chicklit and women's fiction 'light' writers who will now label their work simply as 'contemporary'? Will new employment opportunities be created for page-count police, who confer security clearance of legitimate vs. fake contemporary writers according to how soon in the story the love interests meet, and what proportion of total word count is devoted to h/h interactions and love scenes?

Just asking.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Geographical Writing Procrastination

Do authors who live in tropical locations produce more books than those who live with winter?

Apprentice Writer spent an hour and half shovelling snow today. Fresh air, exercise, toddler playing alongside, fat, drifty snowflakes muffling sounds - all very picturesque, but there goes this morning's writing session. And this is only the start of the shovel-season.

E.E. Cummings thoughts on the matter:

The snow doesn't give a soft, white damn whom it touches.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Notable Quotes

Apprentice Writer adores when an author takes a familiar concept - in this case, dread of what is about to happen - and expresses it in a way she has never encountered before.

From THE VIRTU by Sarah Monette, (dark fantasy, Book 2 in a series)

"The future felt like a herd of buffalo stampeding straight at me, and all I wanted was to get out of the way."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Post Nanowrimo Blues/Celebration: TAG & NON-LAUGHTER REVIEW

The 1st of December. How Apprentice Writer has longed for and feared it. Ambivalent much? Yes indeedy.

November gone up in smoke, thirty days that never ended at the same time as they screamed past. Did AW reach her goal of 50K? She did not. But it doesn't matter: all but one chapter of her WIP is now locked and loaded on the hard drive. This is very, very good. Almost on to the terrifying part of the process called Sending your Baby out to Languish on Slush Piles Everywhere. Fun, fun, fun!

To distract herself, AW is catching up on neglected cyberlandia responsibilities:

1. Bookworm Meme
Passed on by Julia at 'A Piece of My Mind':

Open the nearest book to page 46. Write out the fifth sentence on that page, and also the next two to five sentences. The closest book, not the coolest, or the one you think will sound the best. THE CLOSEST.

From DELICIOUS , by Sherry Thomas:

"The chocolate custard sat on a small table, glossy, serene, entirely indifferent to his laughable internal struggle. He dug in the tip of a spoon, destroying its smooth surface - and released a coil of rich, dusky odor.

Chocolate. He'd never had chocolate before he came to live at Fairleigh Park, but when he was seven someone had given him a shred of paper that had once been wrapped around a piece of imported chocolate. He'd pressed the wrapper to his nose and inhaled as deeply as his lungs allowed, dreaming of chocolate enough to bury him. Her custard smelled like that, a good smell made mythical by fervid imagination and true hunger."

A perfect little capsule of a reason why AW adores Sherry Thomas.

Any gentle readers who feel inspired to play - please let AW know of your excerpt!

2. Non Laughter Reviews:

DARK NEEDS AT NIGHT'S EDGE (Book 3: Immortals After Dark)

Kresley Cole

Vampire warrior of the superbad variety is drawn back from insanity by a jazz age ghost trapped in her New Orleans mansion.

Generic and (to this reader) uninteresting. Must be thankful for small mercies of obligatory manchest at least having a head attached, and some sort of trenchcoat around the edges.

Why Read
Won in a raffle and had encountered a fair amount of praise for this author and series.

What Worked
The author has created a fascinating urban fantastical world, comprising so many races with complex ties to one another that the story doesn't even begin until the reader has thumbed through a multipage glossary. Built great anticipation for what would happen.

Current conventional wisdom as it that when a novel contains (or is all about) a romantic element, there must be a powerful reason for the intended couple to be kept apart so they can fight to overcome the obstacle for their Happily Ever After. In this case, the challenge is a whopper: he is vampire assassin, so far-gone in self contempt due to being turned into what he hates most (he had dedicated his pre-turned life to fighting against vampires in his native Estonia) that he is in near-constant states of rage. His condition and murderous rampages have deteriorated to the point that his three brothers, also all vampires (of the not-so-superbad variety) stage an intervention and capture him for a sort of detox program and also to hide him from all the paranormal beings who want him dead. It takes place in the ghost Neomi's abandoned mansion, and he is, of course, the only one in the eighty years since her murder at the hands of a spurned fiance to be able to see her. The gradual way these two physically and emotionally wounded souls form an attachment to each other was the main strength of this book. Believable and touching. How will suicidal hero and incorporeal heroine manage to get togehter? They do, of course, but the manner leads straight into:

What Doesn't
Up to the moment that Neomi investigates how to get her bod back, the tone of the book was dramatic, melancholy, with a sort of light historical touch feel. The change in pace with the introduction of witches etc. who arrive to grant Neomi's wish was shocking to the point of offputting, due to the strong emphasis placed on humorous contrast (wording of their business card, manner of speech, etc.).

This may seem an odd thing for a comedy writer to complain about, especially since some of these aspects really were funny. Gentle Reader, imagine how strange it felt for AW to object to successful humor insertion. But it was just too jarring, broke the previous mood completely, and created curiosity about the new kickass (literally) characters which was then - insult to injury - not even satisfied. Here are all these marvelous, unique, unpredictable female characters - given hardly any attention. It was maddening, with the only possible consolation to imagine that their stories might be explained more fully in other installments of the series.

Apart from lack of exploitation of the paranormal raw material, AW's main difficulty with the rest of the book had to do with target audience; the story is so strongly focused on maintaining the narrative tension between the two main characters that other elements are sacrificed. For readers whose main goal in reading is the emotional rush, this probably doesn't matter. For readers like AW, it does. Conrad's brothers are captured; he allows weeks upon weeks to go by without a single attempt to find them,only taking action when he wants their help to rescue Neomi. After becoming corporeal and leaving her prison for the first time, Neomi goes to a huge, festive paranormal gathering (yay!) which has barely begun to be descibed before events transpire that send her straight back home (boo!) and she doesn't mind. Not one scene is devoted to Naomi walking around New Orleans thinking about how it has changed in 8 decades, and what little description there is of how her transformation feels (an interesting experience, one would think) is exclusively devoted to how it relates to Conrad (especially puzzling due to Neomi's repeated condemnation of her mother spending her life oriented to the man who abandoned her). This focus goes so far as to make things miraculously disappear: in a climactic, claustrophobic scene, Neomie's fear goes into overdrive when insects find their way in to her imprisoned spot. Yet when Conrad releases her, the talk is all of flowing hair and rose petals. What did she do, eat them?

This is an author who does not lack in imagination or storytelling verve. In this reader's view, some more balance would have made the story much more satifying and complete.