Thursday, August 27, 2009

Non-Laughter Reviews: STILL ALICE

by Lisa Genova
Contemporary Fiction

Brilliant psycholinguistics professor develops early-onset Alzheimers disease.

Eyecatching blue butterfly-on-white-background design; is relevant to content.

What Works
This wonderful, heartbreaking novel is an astonishingly quick read. Partly because the reader urgently wants to know what happens next despite the clarity with which Alice goes downhill, partly because of the author's skill at deciding what was necessary for the story and paring everything else away. Every scene depicts something significant about how the heroine figures out something is wrong and deals with it, and every scene is free of padding. What remains is an amazing tale about the way Alice comes to terms with what is happening to her, and how those around her - spouse, children, friends, colleagues - react.

As in real life when a devastating diagnosis rips calm, orderly lives apart, not everyone demonstrates patience or support. Whether due to embarrassment, fear of own mortality, or personal grief, there are those who choose to withdraw so as not to deal with the stricken person, abandoning them to lonliness on top of all the other difficutlies enfolding their life. Alice's insistence on seeing herself as a person who happens to have Alzheimers, rather than primarily an Alzheimers patient, is a lesson readers would be able to apply to many other situations when interacting with people trying to wrest control of their lives back from intrusive and lethal companions.

What Doesn't
The only thing Apprentice Writer can think of is the real possibility that readers will cheat themselves of this book due to fear of upsetting subject matter. AW knows whereof she speaks; she would not have read this had it not been chosen by her book club. It is not a pretty thought to imagine not recognizing one's loved ones, not being competent to do one's job, not being able to carry out fundamental personal grooming. Trying to avoid such uncomfortable reality will do nothing to keep it away, however, if that is what is written in one's genetic future. What might help, on the other hand, is to learn from how others have dealt with the situation, and taking a page from their book about appreciating what one has while one has it.

A marvellous, non-preachy story meticulously researched and written by a neuroscientist. Remarkably, it manages to end on a hopeful note. Scads of discussion topics for book clubs. HIGHLY RECOMMEND

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Laughter Reviews #28 - KEEPER - "WHAT HAPPENS IN LONDON"

By Julia Quinn

Historical Romance

Upper-class Regency Londoners and new neighbors develop a relationship by virtue of being able to see into each other's rooms.

Clever title. Art doesn't say much about content but is blessedly free of manchests.

What Works
Apprentice Writer originally intended to stay away from this story, given how it is about characters introduced in 'The Secret Diary of Miss Miranda Cheever' which was her first Quinn DNF. But the buzz about 'London' was so consistently positive she gave the first 20 pages a shot - and was completely sucked in. The story is delightful fun, hero and heroine both likable and believable (unlike 'Cheever').

There is a secondary character with 'hero of the next book' written all over him (which AW doesn't mind) and another who seems at first to be heading into villain territory but ends up somewhere else (which AW really likes). There is the heroine's habit of composing mental lists of all topics under the sun (it becomes a matter of great reader anticipation to guess what the next might be). There is excellent satire of gothic novels ("....pecked to death by pigeons...." AW will say no more.) And there is the remarkable feat of having the funniest scene in the whole book populated by three men rather than hero and heroine, as might be expected in a romance. On a more serious note, there is poignant description of how alcoholism can cause damage across generations.

What Doesn't
The heroine's family seems remarkably casual about her interactions. More than once, AW wondered where her parents/brother were and whether their non-protective approach was perhaps supposed to show they considered her on the shelf and not in such need of sheltering, given how thoroughly the hero took over functions that normally would have been carried out by relatives.

Whatever the reason, AW was willing to suspend disbelief since it all carried the story forward.

Altogether, a wonderful addition to the Quinn oevre, and a keeper on AW's shelf.

But does it make you laugh? Yes, yes, yes!
Was the gentle reader not paying attention above? "....Pecked to death by pigeons..."! There's more where that came from. Including a tuba. Go read and laugh for yourself.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Laughter Reviews #27 KEEPER - "A LONG WAY DOWN"

by Nick Hornby
Contemporary Fiction

Four Londoners intending suicide meet on the roof of an infamous building and make a pact to let some time go by before re-evaluating their goal.

What Works
Apprentice Writer has heard that when a reader begins analyzing how an author constructed the book, it is a bad thing since that is an indication the story didn't grab them in and pull them along. She begs to differ. The whole time she sped through this story, she kept thinking things like: "These four people, so wildly different from one another, have to have four different and equally believable reasons for contemplating suicide. How can the author possibly do that? Oh. But then they have to have believable reasons for coming back down from the roof, or there'd be no story. How? Oh. But of the four in the beginning, one or more are going to have to work up a new or intensified reason to go through with the deed, right? Oh...." Etc.
In short: Apprentice Writer was engrossed, convinced, and entertained (if that is the right word to use about a novel on suicide). And in case it has remained unclear from previous reviews - she is also the type of person who appreciates happy endings but really, really doesn't like it when they're overdone, with excessive ', shiny, Hollywood-ending ribbons' as one book club sister terms it. Without giving too much away of the four story endings involved, AW can say that they are not overdone. Which may, in fact, be one of the most powerful lessons of the book:

Somtimes, the difference between 'I can't go on' and 'Maybe I can' need not be huge. It might be as little as a minor shift in how one looks at something.

What Doesn't
Some readers may have difficulty with the amount of profanity involved (which in itself becomes a running gag). This is not AW's favorite thing, but she could see how it made sense for the particular characters involved, and was informed by the British members of the book club (for which she read this novel) that that is a regular part of the culture among some groups.

The story is written in first person, alternating between the four protagonists. AW thought it was a brilliant way of contrasting the characters, and she never got confused about which was which since their voices were so individual, however it is possible that some readers might not be pleased with the format.

Finally, some book club members were so alienated by the characters that they didn't bother finishing the story because they didn't care what happened to any of them. It is true that the author was unflinching in not 'prettifying' the characters; for AW this was actually a bold move, showing them in their unvarnished (non)glory, and she was fascinated with them until the end. YMMV.

In this reader's opinion, another bullseye for the author of 'About a Boy' (which she also greatly enjoyed). The fine print: would not recommend for readers under sixteen.

But does it make you laugh?
Though it must be admitted that much is black humor, the funny moments came fast and furious for this reader. It was a rare page that didn't have a noteworthy observation, character detail, or bit of dialogue that was witty, poignant, or sometimes even laugh-out-loud amusing. This is saying something, because AW went into this book with trepidation, suicide being a very touchy subject in her family so she was concerned that the subject matter might be treated flippantly or without due gravity. But though there are many (MANY!) irreverent moments, it is abundantly clear that the author has done a vast amount of thinking on this subject, and the results he weaves in to the story sometimes stay at the surface, sometimes dip further down, and sometimes go very deep indeed. Which one is which may well depend on the individual reader and the immediacy of their personal experience with the subject.

For this reader, the story did all she expects of a keeper read: delivered unique and memorable characters, developed the humor in a believable way, and provided a new way of looking at a real life issue. AW will certainly be searching out more from this author.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week, 2nd Edition

Book Blogger Appreciation Week was inaugurated last year by My Friend Amy, as a way to highlight and celebrate the online community of book bloggers. The event takes place again this September, with any interested book blogger invited to join. Amy got things rolling this year with a meme:

1) What was the highlight (something that happened, a post, an activity, etc.) of BBAW for you last year?

For Apprentice Writer, it was a delight to tour all sorts of hitherto unsuspected blogs out there, each entirely different from any other but all united in love of the written word. It was a lot of fun.

2) What is one new blog you discovered during BBAW last year?

AW loved finding blogs with creative names, such as Fashion Piranha, The Toasted Scimitar, The Tome Traveller, and others. She also loved finding blogs that reviewed according to her wide-ranging genres of interest: The Galaxy Express (sci-fi/fantasy with romantic elements) Scifi Guy (sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy), S. Krishna's Books (lit fic), Historical Fiction (self evident), etc.

3) What tips would you share to help others get the most out of their BBAW experience?

Set a goal of number of new-to-you blogs to visit per day (there is a list of participants at the main site) and remember to leave a comment! All of us share a love of feedback and connection - otherwise we wouldn't be doing this on the internetz, we'd be writing hardcopy notes to ourselves in reading journals and such.

Anyone who wants to participate - in the week, or in the meme - please do, and let AW know!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Page 1

Regular readers of this space know that Apprentice Writer has a special love for well-done first lines. Here the latest addition to her collection:

"Women have been dressing to entice men ever since Eve fashioned her first fig leaf. Adam was probably irritable after that business with the apple, so Eve would have done her best with some leaves and string."

Eloisa James, "When the Duke Returns"