“W” is for “Wooden Writing”

I have a confession to make.  I read Harlequin (and Mills and Boon) romances.

This is a relatively new habit for me. I’m the kind of person who reads the same writers over and over again because I find it so hard to pick up new ones.  I may have said this in a previous post, my memory being what it is, I’m not sure.  But when I’m in the library (buy books? moi? [laughing hysterically]) I look at title, cover, subject and author.  If the book at least looks intriguing, I’ll take it off the shelf and read the first half-dozen pages.  IF the writer manages to not make me 1) like a character or 2) wonder what’s going to happen next or 3) captivate me to the point of wanting to sit for a minute and read further, the book goes back on the shelf.

Well, one day, all of my putative books to borrow having let me down, I picked up this pink-covered book from the large print area. To this day I have NO idea why. It managed to pass the test.  In fact, I wound up quite enjoying it (even if I did have to restrain the impulse to climb into the book and slap the heroine silly — it’s a convention of romance novels that quite often either the hero or heroine needs an attitude adjustment in the worst way).  There were several other of these books in the same area and I took them out as an adjunct to my other “usual suspects” (Alan Gordon [recommend!], Dick Francis, Robert Heinlein, Janette Oke, etc.) and discovered that they weren’t all that bad.  I especially like the “Dante’s Inferno” series (Day LeClaire) and there are a couple of other writers who I’ve gotten into.

Where does wooden writing come into this?  Well, I’ve continued to read these books, and lately, I’ve been let down.  Not so much by the plots; I mean, there’s only so much you can do with the basic premise, assuming that you stick to the modern world and the Alpha Male/Feisty Female motif.  Of the last dozen, I actually read all the way through two.  Maybe one and a half.  The writers were clueless about realistic dialog (internal and external), exposition, even characters.  And the writing itself was just cardboard.  I wish I had one of the books here to show you examples, but you’ll be spared that.

Is it a surprise that romance novels don’t attain to Dostoyevskian heights? No, of course not.  However, I can think offhand of several writers (Sandra Marton, Barbara McMahon, Ms. LeClaire, above, Kim Lawrence) who manage to provide entertainment and keep me liking the story, characters and general feeling of their books enough that I not only read them through, I look for more books by the same people.  (And there is one writer, an [I think] Australian woman, whose books I would only pick up if I needed paper and kindling to start a fire.  She’s that bad — I honestly don’t understand why they keep publishing her.)  I should say, too, that I prefer the books where the physical relationship between the leads is hinted at or waits until a marital commitment is made. I’m not into sleaze and when it gets that way, an author either loses me completely or I skip half the book.  YMMV.

I realize that they crank so many books out that quality is likely less of a consideration than quantity. Still, I’ve not gone through so long a period (the books come out monthly) where things have been consistently so bad.  And that’s a shame.  Get your act together, Harlequin.


To ever start liking you …

Does whether or not you like a writer or singer determine if you listen to or read their stuff?

This question occurred to me a while back. I had a playlist on Rhapsody I wanted to share with a friend of mine. When I told her a particular artist was on it, she became quite indignant and said that she HATED this singer (personally and not musically, from what she said) and didn’t care to listen to him.

I thought that was interesting. Absent a conviction for a serious criminal offense or some REALLY nasty behavior on the part of a given artist, I’ve always put the merit of the art above whether I was interested in the performer or writer as a person. As an example, I think Harlan Ellison is a great writer. However, I have no interest in ever meeting with him or talking to him; for all that we’re both from Cleveland, I really don’t think I have much in common with him and I find his curmudgeon image annoying, frankly. That doesn’t stop me from picking up some of his stories and reading them from time to time.

Same with music: My whole generation grew up with people like Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, the Sex Pistols, etc., etc. Great musicians in most cases, but not necessarily someone you wanted to invite to dinner. (Yes, I know — a lot of it was stagecraft and not personality, but still …) I love U2, but I know Bono bugs a lot of people (“Okay, Edge, play the blues!”) and even if they might like the band’s music, they don’t listen to it for that very reason.

So. Should the artist transcend his/her work? Or should the work stand on its own merits, independent of the person who created it?

On Rhapsody: “Dreaming With a Broken Heart”, John Mayer

Tales of Brave (Percy) …

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian

I think it was Ray Bradbury who remarked that now that he was older he preferred reading children’s books.  I find myself doing the same thing.

A week or so ago, I was at Walmart and I saw a wall full of “adult” (not x-rated, but just written for grown-ups) books that held no interest for me at all.  Next to them was a series of books that looked intriguing.  I picked up the first one and took it home where I was instantly hooked.

The idea behind Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books is that the Greek Gods (and all the mythology that goes with them) are real, still with us and hidden from us ordinary mortals by a “Mist”.  Percy Jackson (real name: Perseus) is a 12-year-old misfit who is about to get thrown out of another school.  One of his teachers thinks he has promise and on a field trip to a museum in Manhattan, gives him a rather unusual pen, which comes in handy (as it turns into a sword) when the math teacher on the trip suddenly turns into one of the Furies and tries to kill Percy.

As the story progresses, we find out that among their other long-time habits, the Greek Gods (and goddesses) are still mating with mortals, and creating demigods (known in this series as “Half-Bloods’).  Percy is told by his (mortal) mother that he is one, although not who his father is.  His best friend Grover, from school, turns out to be a satyr, assigned to guard Percy, who is an unusually strong half-blood and he is escorted to Half-Blood Hill, a camp for demigods and goddesses.

If you’re familiar with classic children’s fantasy lit, there are going to be some familiar elements in these books.  There is a prophecy, a wise teacher who wants to protect his charge, an intelligent female friend, a ‘professor’ who doesn’t much like children in general and Percy in particular (Potter much, Mr. Riordan?), a quest and a battle.  But that’s a little like saying the QEII is a boat, something like a canoe.  The concepts behind the books and the characters are their own selves and Percy is a lot of fun.  There’s a lot more humor in these books than in most similar works and lots of cultural references for us all to get.

I’ve read three of the books and plan to get the last two as soon as I can.  These books are addictive and very enjoyable and can be enjoyed by more than the young people they were mostly written for.

On Rhapsody: “Holding Back the Years”, Simply Red

Laugh, laugh … I thought I’d die …

funny pictures of cats with captions

Okay, so I don’t have whiskers or claws, but I’m in sympathy with my furry friend … I did one of my patented “I-don’t-know-why-I’m-picking-up-this-book” things a couple of months ago and came up with another book destined to become an old friend, and discovered a new author in the process.  And I laughed so much that I think people were avoiding me with those “uh-oh, watch out for the wacko” looks …

The book in question is called “Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French”, and the author is a British ex-pat resident in France for over 12 years, Stephen Clarke. Clarke is also the author of the (ahem) Merde series of novels.  (In case you don’t speak any French, merde in English is a word which rhymes with ‘spit’ and is frequently appended to the word ‘bull’.  Not to offend anyone or anything, yanno?)

Clarke went to France on business and wound up staying.  In the process he learned some valuable lessons about dealing with the French (in fairness, it sounds as though the French outside of Paris are not nearly so difficult to deal with as the Parisien variety, and it’s MOSTLY Paris he deals with in the book).  You learn about the best way NOT to get served in a Paris restaurant or store, how to get a French bureaucrat to help you with a problem (look pitiful and regretful and explain that they’re your only hope), that it will do no good to complain if you happen to run into second-hand smoke, about French business meeting etiquette, and best of all, some extremely funny phrase-book sections at the end of each chapter.

I rarely buy books any more — except for reference stuff — but this one’s on my list.  Not only is it eye-opening in a very acerbic, non-PC way I find refreshing, it’s knock-down, drag-out funny and if I ever do get to make that trip to Paris, it’s probably going to be in my hand or nearby the entire time.

Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’ …

Well, the Cavs made a move.  Glad they didn’t get Stoudemire, glad that Z can come back in 30 days (and I hope he does) and hoping Antawn Jamison turns out to be the missing piece the Cavaliers need to take it all the way to the next level.  

Movie recommendation:  I finally got to see the Gerard Depardieu “Cyrano de Bergerac” and, well, I’m in love with this movie and I don’t care who knows it.  I can’t believe Cyrano thought he was ugly, nose or no nose … 

Depardieu as Cyrano de Bergerac

Depardieu as Cyrano

If I were available, I’d go for this guy.  How could you not like someone with that much panache, that much style, such a large heart — far larger than his nose — and who really lived!  Truly a lovely movie and the Anthony Burgess-penned subtitles were great!  I have to see it again, so I can listen to the dialogue more.  Don’t be intimidated by the French language; it’s a very accessible movie even if all you can do is read the subtitles.  Hard to choose a “best scene”, but my favorite was the sequence where he insults himself and his nose … he does this one bit where he looks like an overawed child looking up at the L’Arc De Triomphe: “How much to tour the monument?”  I really liked that; I guess it’s a “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point” thing Your mileage may vary! 

In other news:  Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son and a pretty good writer on his own, has a new book out called “Horns”.  It’s my BOMC selection this month, and I’m really looking forward to getting it.  I liked “Heart Shaped Box” better than anything Stephen King’s put out lately — sorry, Steve.  The only one of his recent books that I even remotely liked was “Duma Key”.  I tried on “The Cell”, “Under the Dome” and “Lisey’s Story”, but no go.  I did at least finish “Lisey”, but as with “Duma”, the territory’s been explored already, and King’s issues with finishing his stories showed up very strongly, IMHO. 

I think the last thing of King’s I really liked was “Insomnia”.  I know that’s not a general favorite, even with King himself, but I really loved the characters and even if the plot dipped into Gunslinger territory (another non-starter for me) it didn’t keep me from enjoying it.  So we’ll see what Joe Hill’s new book has to offer!

It’s been a mystery and still they try to see …

Parisian Prodigal, by Alan Gordon
Hardcover, 336 pages
St. Martin’s Press
January 19, 2010

About five years or so ago, I was fumbling through the new mystery section at the library, looking for one of my favorite authors who was supposed to have a new book out.  I never did find that one; instead, I came across a book called An Antic Disposition.  Don’t ask me what it was about this book that made me pick it up, but I did and I’m glad I did.  It’s easily one of the best books I’ve ever read and is on my desert island list.

The thing is, I kind of came in mid-stream, so to speak.  Disposition was the fifth book in the Fools’ Guild series by author Alan Gordon.  Lucky me!  I got to go back and read the first four books and there have been three books since, counting the current entry in the series, The Parisian Prodigal.

The backstory on these books is that the medieval fool was far more than the 13th century equivalent of Jay Leno.  The conceit of the series is that the Fools were actually more like MI6 or the CIA — using their undoubted influence on their noble or royal masters to manipulate events and cause political change, hopefully for the better.  The hero of the series is one, Theophilos (his Guild name), who takes on several other names through the series as part of the missions he is sent on.  Along the way, he acquires a wife, Claudia, (who also becomes a fool), a daughter named Portia (I see speeches in her future which include the words “quality”, “mercy” and “strained”) and an apprentice named Helga, along with myriads of fellow fools, good and bad.  The current one is apparently a soulmate of Harpo Marx — a ‘mute by choice’ jester named Pelardit, who is one of my favorite characters in the series.

The past three books have been tied together.  They take place in and near Toulouse, where the Fool Family (as they are known) have settled in.  Theo is Chief Jester of Toulouse and has ensconced himself in the household of Count Raimon, presently ruling the city.  Raimon receives a visitor from Paris who claims to be his legitimate brother, born to his mother, who was cast off by his father and fled for Paris, as she was a member of the French royal family.

Raimon is naturally skeptical and indirectly sets Theo to discover who this newcomer really is.  Unfortunately, the voyage towards the facts includes a trip to a local bordel, where Raimon’s putative brother awakes next to the prostitute with whom he spent the night, to discover she has been stabbed to death.  With his dagger.  With the help of his family, Pelardit, and Sancho, one of Count Raimon’s men at arms, Theo (known as Tan Pierre in Toulouse) sets out to discover the truth of the matter.

These wonderful books are far more than mysteries.  I find myself learning new things about the era they are set in quite painlessly (even without meaning to! :)), laughing a lot — Theo, et al. are quite intelligently witty and best of all, not figuring out who the killer is by page 57.  Mr. Gordon has created a world and a group of people I have enjoyed getting to know.  I hope to continue to do so for some time to come.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that …

I have to recommend something I’ve found both very eye-opening and very helpful: http://eatthis.menshealth.com/home.

I do a lot more label reading on food, both in the grocery store and prior to those rare occasions that we eat out, but I still don’t know everything.  I used to “treat” myself twice a month at payday, eating at Great Steak Escape (or whatever they call themselves now).  I’d get a Turkey Philly (including the mayo and cheese), an order of their fries and a large (not diet) fresh lemonade, then I’d pat myself on the back for not eating at that place with the Golden Arches.

Well, after going through the “Eat This, Not That” site and book, I decided to do some sleuthing on the calorie content of GSE (from THEIR website) and found that my semi-monthly indulgence had almost as many calories in THAT ONE MEAL as I was supposed to eat for the day. 

Turkey Philly – 550 Calories
Lemonade – 233 Calories
Fries – 498 Calories

for a grand total of (drum roll, please!) – 1,281 Calories!

And I can safely say that I also ate breakfast and dinner that day.  So now I don’t eat there any more.

Anyway, the neat thing about “Eat This, Not That” is that they offer alternatives which are lower in calories, fat, sodium, etc. than the thing they’re warning you against.  It’s worth checking out.