Sunday, November 29, 2009

Non-Laughter Reviews: LITERARY FICTION

by Mahbod Seraji
Literary Fiction
Penguin, 2009

Apprentice Writer's first guest review! Her guest reviewer is none other than Mr. Apprentice Writer. He was chosen for this distinguished post for two reasons: 1. it is still November, and AW is in a last-days-of-Nanowrimo frenzy, and 2. Mr. AW was born in Tehran. Presumably not on a rooftop, but close enough that his interpretation of the novel could have more depth than that of his spouse.

A little context: AW won a copy of this novel during Book Blogger Appreciation Week from the wonderful 'Literary Escapism' site. She showed it to Mr. AW, who at first made no particular reaction. For the Gentle Reader's information, Mr. AW is NOT a leisure reader. Apart from what he is required to read for professional reasons or child homework support reasons, his reading material is pretty much exclusively formed by the newspaper and the odd technical manual. Novels do not come into play. Imagine AW's astonishment when he finished this book within a very few days after beginning it.

Here is what he said:

"I was ready to find flaws in the author's accuracy of descriptions but all the little details of everyday life sound authentic. From the way the teenaged boys talk to each other, to the description of the houses, to the expectations people had of each other. It was amazing how well written the story was, given that the author only left Iran at age 19.

I think this is a worthwhile book not just because it tells a good story in a well-written way, but because it can help people from other countries to get a better picture of what life in Iran was like, as opposed to all the terrible news footage that forms many Western viewers' picture of Iranians. I also think that it shows that love, and relationships between boys and girls/men and women, are quite different in other places than how things work in the West.

I read the story in three days and would immediately have started the next by the same author if it had been published."

Learn more about the author and the book here.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Library Writer in Residence Programs

Any Gentle Readers out there also aspiring writers?

Apprentice Writer's suggestion of the day for you:

Investigate whether your public library runs a Writer-in-Residence program.

The Toronto Public Library does, and the current author holding the position is Deborah Cooke, also writing as Claire Cross, also writing as Claire Delacroix. Her oeuvre includes historical romance, chicklit, paranormal, fantasy, and dystopia. Her residence program includes panel discussions with industry experts to which the public is invited, blogging about various topics related to publication, and perhaps most enticing for us amateur scribblers, a manuscript critique opportunity (first fifity pages).

The author currently holding the position for the Richmond Hill Public Library is Barry Dempster, whose oeuvre includes poetry, short stories, and novels. His residence program includes a series of workshops, and also the tempting manuscript critique opportunity (first ten pages and synopsis).

Apprentice Writer had the good fortune to have her manuscript excerpt accepted for critique by Ms. Cooke, and spent an excellently helpful hour in the resident writer's library office, high above the North York public performance space and beneath Mel's Bells (an inside joke for Torontonians - Mel Lastman was a mayor of North York, a Toronto burb, and the library is in the same tower as the former North York City Hall which is crowned by a bell tower). Ms. Cooke provided a large amount of micro- and meta- comments about Apprentice Writer's manuscript, and the question of what to do with it now that it's complete. The most memorable of which was "This is good," and "You are not wasting your time," to AW's great relief.

Apprentice Writer now has renewed energy to work through another revision, and see the many-times-read words with fresh eyes. More importantly, she has completed (!) her query letter for sending out into the cold, harsh world of publication reality. Report forthcoming.

If you'd like the opportunity to speak with a Toronto-based author, editor, and/or literary agent, consider attending the public lecture tomorrow night. For info as well as a link to Ms. Cooke's blog, click here.

For info on the Richmond Hill program, click here.

At best, you could receive specific, helpful input on your work. At least, you would spend time with authors -who remain, in AW's opinion, some of the smartest and most interesting people anywhere.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freshly Squeezed Drama, Second Helping

Uproar ongoing.

For those not following this modern economics/public relations/social media lesson tweet by tweet or post by post, here is the bare minimum of what took place further to events in Apprentice Writer's previous post.

The Boards of Directors of the romance writers, mystery writers, and science fiction writers groups were unanimous in making pubic their strong and swift rejection of Harlequin's decision to open an arm (variously described as self-publishing and vanity press, depending on the speaker) for writers whose work was not up to Harlequin's regular publication standards.

Some of these organizations implemented immediate consequences regarding future recognition of Harlequin authors, some extended a deadline by which they hoped to hear from Harlequin about steps it might take to modify the new venture.

Harlequin issued a statment in which it expressed surprise at the negative reaction, and subsequently announced its decision to remove the Harlequin name from the venture.

For some blogosphere commentators, this was acceptable.

For others, it was too little, too late, considering two ongoing sore spots: Harlequin's original plan to include a reference to the service in standard rejection letters, and Harlequin's original fee structure for the service which are described without exception as much higher than industry standards. As of this blogpost, Harlquin does not appear to have made further public statements regarding these aspects.

Perhaps further developments will be handled behind closed doors, now that the initial storm has passed. Or perhaps this week will see further steps and counter-steps reported in the media.

Until then, Apprentice Writer passes on the following thoughts, shared by people with a helpfully enhancing point of view:

- According to an author-friend with background in Fortune 500 companies: when a company is working on an innovation, everything is very hush-hush and it simply does not occur that input is invited as this would ruin the scoop. Rather, the company anticipates which groups might have concerns, prepares responses dealing with those concerns, and after it unveils its innovation, expects that those groups will approach them and thereby bring about a discussion to lead to mutual satisfactory solution for both. According to this business practice, Harlequin would have expected writer groups to approach and consult behind closed doors, in theory leading to a happy (or at least, tolerant) faces all around.

But the writer groups didn't play it that way. Whether or not that was a good thing is for each onlooker to decide. Apprentice Writer's highly unscientific survey says opinions seem pretty much fifty-fifty on this.

- According to a friend 'on the inside', it seems many layers of employees at Harlequin had no idea this was in the works. That may include editors, and certainly the company's published authors, of which those tied to the Harlequin Historicals line were arguably the hardest hit since their double H logo could be and was easily confused for the Harlequin Horizon one. Something they could have warned upper management about.

- According to L'esprit d'escalier, the breakdown of fees is worth a very close look. For anyone thinking of making the leap to publication and interested in specific figures of what it can take on the road to get there, this is essential reading. Really, Gentle Reader who is also an Aspiring Writer - go look at this.

- The single item EVERYONE agrees upon:

Holy jaw-dropping numbers, Batman! How did they come up with these figures???


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bored? Have some Drama, Freshly Squeezed!

Apprentice Writer's endurance march on wordcount has been sidetracked in the last few days by fireworks in Romanceland.

For those unaware: Harlequin Publishing, a giant in the industry, decided to open a separate arm for those aspiring writers whose manuscripts were deemed not good enough for Harlequin but who still wanted to see their book in print. Harlequin created the 'Harlequin Horizons' brand amid somewhat confusing information about what exactly the brand affiliation and author benefits would be, announced the imminent discontinuation of it's longtime editorial service-for-hire, and announced that rejection letters would commence inclusion of a notice about the new service.

Uproar ensued.

Apprentice Writer has neither the energy nor eloquence at this moment to uncross her eyes and wax poetic. Instead, some links for a crash course on Harlequinfail as it has been described:

For a comment thread about a lightyear long, with with some participants in favor but mostly not, take a look at Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

For an amusing comment on the comment thread, take a look at The Examiner.

For comments from a Harlequin lead hand, and discussion about the difference between self-publising and vanity press, take a look at Dear Author.

For an opinion from other press, take a look at the New Yorker.

For an opinion on what this means to authors and publishing in general, take a look at author Sherry Thomas.

And, if you have time for only one link which clearly breaks the nature of concerns down:

An excellently clarifying cross-section by author Jackie Kessler.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Laughter Reviews: NO WIND OF BLAME

Georgette Heyer

Classic Mystery

Sourcebooks, 2009

Host of country house party dies unnaturally; all present have reason to welcome this development.

Very pretty. Great chartreuse color, not overdone. Don't entirely comprehend the title but it is irrelevant, anyway; it is the famous author readers come for, and her name is understandably more prominent than the title. The cover girl looks like a quintessential flapper with her marcelled hair, sleeveless dress, and smoke-curling cigarette from the days when smoking was still considered sophisticated. The only surprise is that she holds it barehanded rather than in a cigarette holder or with elbow-length gloves.

What Works
This was Apprentice Writer's first Heyer mystery, and what fun it was. The assembled characters and how they bounce off each other were wonderful: Russian prince, disingenuous daughter, belligerent schemer, neglected wife, husband on a tight leash, noble admirer, sensible poor cousin, irate villager who refuses to accept supposed innate superiority of the rich and titled - all encountered by the mystery reader before, but all well done, and all deserving of the question 'Or is he/she?' following description of their surface persona. This means the question "Who had the motive and possibility to do the deed?" transforms into "Who of the plentiful supply of people with motive and possibility was the most likely?"

The country house, the grounds, the dower house tucked away out of sight, the household rituals and pets - all can be easily visualized. But it is the character descriptions and little bits of interaction between them that typify the story most and where it shines:

"Mrs. Carter stretched out a plump arm to the toast rack She was a large woman who had enjoyed, in her youth, the advantages of golden hair and a pink-and-white complexion. Time had committed some ravages with both these adjuncts...Artificial light was kinder to her than the daylight, but she never allowed this tiresome fact to worry her...she never put on her corsets until fortified by breakfast. (Her niece) had never been able to accustom herself to the sight of Ermyntrude's flowing sleeves trailing negligently across the butter dishes and occasionally dipping into her coffee..."

What reader could dislike a character called Ermyntrude? Certainly not this one.

"Vicky came in some little time after the tea table was spread. Mary had little patience for poses, but had too much humor not to appreciate the manner of this entrance. Vicky was sinuous in a teagown that swathed her limbs in folds of chiffon, and trailed behind her over the floor. She came in with her hand resting lightly on the neck of the dog, and paused for a moment, looking round with tragic vagueness. The dog, lacking histrionic talent, escaped from the imperceptible restraint of her hand to investigate the Prince."

Etc. If this type of description appeals to the Gentle Reader, by all means pick up this story. If it makes the Gentle Reader impatient and long to get on with the clues and crime instead of the crumpets, it may be that a different sort of mystery may be better for them. But for Apprentice Writer, the mix was right.

What Doesn't
The copyright of this book was registered in 1939, and reflects a bygone social system and language. Some readers may need more time than others to become accustomed to dialogue saturated with class consciousness and putdowns of varying subtlety aimed by almost everyone at almost everyone else, linked to focus on appearance, lack of it, wealth, lack of it, intelligence, lack of it, social ambition, lack of it, conformity to gender stereotypes, lack of it.... The Gentle Reader gets the picture.

Taken literally, it presents a picture of a world the modern reader (or perhaps, simply the non-British one) would find difficult to relate to. It is AW's understanding, however, that the author is known for her satirical skill; viewed in that light, the characters' relentless snippy comments towards others coupled with utter certainty of their own superiority becomes a very telling criticism of such attitudes, and thus in reality, a strength of the novel.

A most entertaining story for a rainy afternoon with a pot of tea. Great for fans of British house parties, Oscar Wile's zingers, and the era of Hercule Poirot.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Visualize This

Apprentice Writer is part ninja, part monkey, part stairmaster cyborg.
What on earth, you say?

AW will tell you.

Or more accurately, Chris Baty will tell you. The father of the global phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month (which outgrew the 'National' adjective many years ago) sends pep talks to the tens of thousands of participants at strategic times. The most recent such motivator urged lagging participants (that would be AW, not those credibility-challenged imbeciles whose wordcount bars changed color to signify 50k achieved on Day 2) to write in thousand word sprints, imagining a staircase of a thousand steps.

Adieu, Gentle Reader. AW has laced up her running shoes and is set for (keyboard) exercise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Peace on Earth

Today is Blog Blast for Peace Day in the blogosphere.

Bloggers from all over the world are sending their desire for peace into the universe today. Join us by visiting the hundreds of bloggers taking part in this beautiful event.

Just CLICK on Blog Blast for Peace and you will discover
a world where hope reigns,
hands reach across the globe in friendship
and voices rise in glorious harmony.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Austen Critique, via Contemporary Historical Author

Austen fever shows no signs of abating. Neo-Austen titles are not decreasing, and now go further than extrapolations on how characters fared after the original 'The End', or'What If? explorations different forks in the road (Apprentice Writer is currently reading one such, and will review shortly). Most recently buzzed about titles branched out into truly unexpected territory. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, anyone? Must a hostess observe regular etiquette when having afternoon tea with zombies?

Amid all this fanfare, Apprentice Writer was much entertained by a recent Austen description. It was offered by a historical character written by a contemporary author in a Victorian setting. Convoluted, but funny. Take a look:

"I went in search of Allessandro. I finally ran him to ground in the library, gamely working his way through 'Pride and Prejudice'. I nodded to the book. 'How are you enjoying Jane Austen?'

He waggled his hand from side to side. 'She is a little silly, I think.'

Now I was more certain than ever about my decision. I could not love a man who did not love Jane Austen. 'The great Duke of Wellington though her the greatest literary talent in all of England.'

He smiled politely. 'Perhaps she improves upon second reading."

Deanna Raybourn, 'Silent in the Sancturary', p. 497