Book Review: Switched

Title: Switched

Author: Amanda Hocking

Genre: Paranormal Romance

Read: Jan 2, 2010

Summary: Easy read, but needs editing badly.

 

I’ve been doing research on publishing for the last year. I’ll have to write a separate post about the changing nature of the biz, it’s relationship to other publishing businesses (like video games), and the rise of the self published ebook author. But in any case, I stumbled upon this independent and self published author who is selling very well (mostly on Amazon) with no prior print history. I figured I’d check one out. Switched appears to be her best seller and she says on her blog that it’s her favorite.

This is a funny little paranormal romance about a girl whose mother hates her and thinks she’s a changeling — but she is. In fact she’s a troll. She’s then dragged off to her real mother. The first 25% is slightly “high school novel,” and the later 75% “fish out of water.”

Overall, I’m not sure what to make of the book. The first person voice was strangely engaging and I pounded through it easy in an afternoon. Still, it felt like a first (or maybe second draft), and it’s full of flaws.

According to her website the author has roughly ten novels, mostly written in 2010 and she pounds out the first drafts 2-4 weeks! I consider myself fast at 2,500-4,000 words a day of first draft, but I have to admire that kind of lightning pace. The book was short. Maybe 50-60k words and it could perhaps be classified as “engaging” but could’ve been “really fun read” with some real editing.

There is a crazy amount of “tell,” in this book. A lot of it buried in the overzealous volume of interior monologue. Characters are constantly attributed characteristics directly, without them being shown. Often, these characteristics are never shown. The protagonist gives the straight dope on things as she sees it, but this often feels more like how the author wants the reader to see it than how it really is. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of “show” in the book at all.

The author is a solid writer. The sentences themselves are well formed, but a lot of them needed to come out, or be trimmed down. Conversations are redundant. Dialog points are redundant. The author loves the words creepy and foxy. Really loves creepy. The important scenes feel drained of emotion as the excessive interior monologue and somewhat forced dialog rob the moments of any real drama. The more casual conversations feel better than the important ones. When there’s action it’s awkwardly blocked, so that you have to go back and reread lines sometimes to figure out what happened physically. The overall plot is pretty straightforward. The end was abrupt and unsatisfying too.

But still. I can’t say it didn’t have a certain charm. I enjoyed reading it, more than many published POCs (like for instance Personal Demons). The fantasy concept is decent and didn’t bug me.

Of course the novel only cost 99 cents! The writing is probably on par with Twilight (see my review HERE). Not that that’s high praise. It just needs a lot of revision. Some plot changes to increase drama, character tune-ups, and most of all line editing (see my detailed post on that HERE).

This is an Indy book. It’s professional, but it’s also the novel equivalent of a B movie. Written quickly, revised quickly, and sold cheaply. The author has enough talent to shoot higher.

Movie Review: Adventureland

Title: Adventureland

Director/Stars: Jesse Eisenberg (Actor), Kristen Stewart (Actor), Greg Mottola (Director)

Genre: Period (80s) Comedy Romance

Watched: Sept, 2010

Summary: Touching, funny. Great film.

 

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations going into this film. I knew it was by the same director as Superbad (great film) and starred Eisenberg and Stewart, and that’s about it. It’s a great film. The kind they rarely make anymore where it’s essentially a character movie woven around a romance. The script is great, the acting’s great, and the direction is great. It’s a funny movie, but not in the laugh a minute kind of way, but in a wry more or less real way.

Comedy varies across the spectrum of dark to realistic to slapstick to abstract. This is realistic. The humor is partially in the fact that these situations are real situations that we did or could have found ourselves in — and hence, it’s a kind of bittersweet humor. The tone is not so different than the excellent Freaks and Geeks TV show, and in fact there’s at least one actor in common (the excellent Martin Starr). They don’t make a lot of comedy romances like this anymore, the kind where there’s no gimmick, just real people, and hence real romance.

The plot is fairly incidental. We have the likable Eisenberg (playing on type, but great as a Geek who isn’t really shy) who has money troubles and needs to take a lousy summer job at a crappy Pittsburg theme park. Having grown up in the 80s this is exactly my generation (I’m perhaps 4 years younger than the characters) and the music and outfits are nostalgic and amusing. None of the people he meets are exactly stereotypes, and they have a delicate underwritten quality. The core that holds the film together is Eisenberg and Stewart (who proves she can do better with a script that isn’t terrible… I mean Twilight — CLICK FOR MY REVIEW). Not just the acting but the writing. He’s the kind of guy I could imagine being friends with, and she’s the kind of girl I could imagine having fallen for in college. There relationship feels real. This makes it sexy even though there isn’t much sex. And isn’t that one of the main things that fiction is about? Depicting real people. It seems all too often forgotten.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 1

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Creator: Joss Whedon

Genre: Comedic Teen Contemporary Fantasy

Watched: Winter 2004-05, Summer 2009, Winter 2010-11

Summary: Best TV show of all time.

 

As a diehard vampire fan I saw the movie version of Buffy when it came out. I hated it so much I used to mock it as my pre Twilight example of lame vampires. I have this requirement that vampires need to be menacing, even if comic (Fright Night) or romantic (Interview with the Vampire). The Buffy movie undead were just flaccid.

When the TV show debuted, I was in the midst of the busiest year of my life, the year of Crash Bandicoot 2, when I was in the office every single day (7 days a week) between New Years and September 8th. Besides, the movie had been dumb. So the show even became a punching bag of mine (although I hadn’t seen it at the time) used to illustrate Hollywood’s creative drought: Hey, they’d made a show based on a terrible movie that hadn’t even made much money.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Finally, in November of 2004, after having “retired” from Naughty Dog, my wife having insisted for years that the show was good, I succumbed and ordered the first season on DVD. Thus began an obsessive binge where I watched all seven seasons, plus five of Angel, back to back over the next three months. Generally I consumed three or more a day, including watching 18 episodes of season 3 in one continuous sitting (home Sunday with a cold). My only breaks were the week back east for Thanksgiving and three weeks we spent in Sicily (yum!). Four and a half years later I re-watched all seven Buffy seasons during the summer of 2009. It was almost as good the second time, and I appreciated it more.

Despite a significant cheese factor, and a first season that suffers from being overly episodic, the show is absolutely brilliant. If you aren’t a fan you probably think, “Buffy has these weird obsessive fans, but that kind of thing isn’t for me.”

It is.

I’ve never met anyone who’s sat down and started watching from the beginning who doesn’t absolutely love the show. But that’s just it, you have to start from the beginning. Fundamentally the show blends fantastic writing, really funny dialog, off-beat but likable characters, zany and intricate mythology, a creativity with the TV medium, and quirky humor with a kind of hidden dark realism found in only the best dramas. By disguising drama with humor and the supernatural the writers are able to get at real human issues without freaking out the network, and because they’ve created characters we care about, it all works.

The casting too is inspired. Sarah Michelle Gellar is perfect as Buffy. She may be cute, blonde, and perky, but she isn’t a typical airhead. She combines practical cleverness, toughness, and hidden vulnerability, with a strong sense of duty. Fundamentally the show is about the weight that rests on her narrow shoulders, and what it takes to bear it. The rest of the core team is great too. Alyson Hannigan‘s Willow is every geek’s fantasy, the shy computer nerd who learns to kick ass, Nicholas Brendon‘s Xander provides the token maleness with more humor than testosterone, and Anthony Stewart Head‘s Giles is pitch perfect as the stuffy older advisor with a dark past.

But it’s not just the premise that makes this show rock, but what the writers do with it. I’ll explain when I CONTINUE IN PART 2…

The whole post series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

Book and Movie Review: Twilight

TwilightTitle: Twilight

Author: Stephenie Meyer

Genre: YA Romantic Supernatural

Read: January 2008 and Oct 2010

Summary: Confused.

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Since I’m such a vampire fan, having seen or read vast untold volumes of the stuff, I thought I should put my formal two-cents in on the strange source material that spawned the Twilight phenomenon.

First the book. I read it before the movie came out. There was a lot of buzz about it already, and I was excited about it. Generally, things that are really popular have a kernel of quality about them, and I love vampires and teen heroines. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite TV series of all time — I will blog about it one of these days. So I started reading Twilight in the Vegas airport while waiting for a flight. Despite the clunky prose (more on that later) I was actually pretty engaged in a low key way during the first half. Then Edward revealed to Bella that he was a vampire (not that I didn’t know) and the whole thing went to shit. I had to force myself through most of the rest, and the ending left me baffled. “Wait, where’d the fight go?  What about the climax?”

Back to the writing: It’s really clunky. I won’t go into too much detail, this other blogger did. But let me say Meyer is the anti Cormac McCarthy (I’m in the middle of The Road right now). He eschews punctuation, she loves it. Every long improper sentence is peppered with a random assortment of commas and em-dashes. She adores the em-dash, using it in approximately 50% of sentences, and usually not for its proper purpose of offsetting a parenthetical. Maybe she felt she had too many commas (she does), and needed to replace some of them with em-dashes for the hell of it. Oh, and she loves certain words or word combinations, like “cold fingers” and uses them several times a page in places. And she clearly choses random synonyms from the thesaurus without being aware of the connotations of said words. For example: “His expression shifted instantly to chagrin.” Can the word be used that way? I don’t think so. But none of this really matters when reading the book, you adjust and just role with it. I guess if you’re 14 and haven’t read a lot you don’t notice to begin with.

The plot and content: Given what actually happens in the first book, it’s pretty long: 118,000 words. Not much really does happen. We have a LOT of words devoted again and again to how pretty Edward is and how much Bella loves him. This isn’t really SHOWN too much, or justified, but she sure TELLS us about it a lot. But again, the first half was okay. However, once the reveal came in, it gets really silly. Basically they go play this ridiculous baseball game and the Black Eyed Peas (oops, I mean the evil vampires) walk onto the field, sniff Bella, and decide the most important thing in the world is to sink their fangs into her blood. There is no real attempt to sell anything in this plot, to provide any believable reasons, it just happens. You couldn’t possibly have more one dimensional villains – although they do compliment the one dimensional heros nicely. Then my all time biggest gripe, we close in on the unbelievable “final” confrontation of the book and Bella gets knocked unconscious (she is after all the narrator) and we miss the whole thing. It’s told to us by Edward after we know it came out okay so as to minimize tension. I had the feeling that the author didn’t know how to write an action scene, so she just chickened out.

The vampires: Oh my. It’s totally clear (particularly in later books) that Meyer doesn’t do research. This includes even watching a few vampire films or perhaps reading Dracula. Her undead aren’t really vampires, or even undead, except for being immortal and having a taste for blood, and “cold fingers.” They don’t seem dead, or particularly evil. They sparkle in the sun, they apparently have like, oh my God, no real weaknesses. And they’re all really pretty. We hear about that a lot. Let’s not forget their smorgasbord of cool psychic powers like seeing the future, and reading minds. These make hack plot construction really convenient. I actually started my novel a year before even hearing of Twilight, but reading it certainly motivated me to make sure my vampire heavy was a really bad-ass undead in a nasty evil way. He doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight but he will leave your entrails hanging from a tree to make a point — and he certainly wouldn’t ever concern himself to learn current High School vernacular.

Publishing mystery: Twilight had a very aberrant publishing history. As a first time novelist it was picked up by Jodi Reamer of Writers House really quickly. This is a very prestigious agency and that’s very rare. It was then sold quickly to a great publisher for a really huge advance. That Reamer showed interest in it is not what surprises me. There is a mysterious something about the first half of the book — it had potential. But what surprises me is that it was never edited — or if it was I’ve never heard of an editor that lax. The standard length for YA books is more like 50-70k, and there is a LOT of fluff in the book, not to mention the bad grammar and the flaccid ending that would be easy to fix. Having been through rounds and rounds of revision myself, the book was held to none of the standards my editors have exhibited. Of course it turned out to be a great decision for Jodi, but I still don’t understand why it was never edited.

The movie: Catherine Hardwicke directed the first movie. She actually did a really good job with the source material, and I think the movie is actually better than the book. Not exactly great, but better. The casting was excellent, particularly Kristen Stewart who does have a soft charisma, and she’s hot in a non obvious way. If you see her in some of her other films like Adventureland or Speak you realize that she’s actually a very fine young actress in certain roles. Twilight doesn’t provide a lot of room for subtle acting. I myself had casually known Hardwicke from when she did production design for Insomniac’s Disruptor in the mid 90′s (Insomniac was located next to my company Naughty Dog in those days). So I’d noticed when she started directing with Thirteen, which is a depressing but brilliant movie — particularly given what must have been a VERY low budget. Hardwicke brought the same kind of hand-held-documentary style to Twilight, and it worked well to offset the inherent cheese factor of the material. Not totally offset, but the result was somehow watchable. She did a nice job capturing Bella’s POV. This is tricky because in a novel, particularly a first person one like Twilight, so much of the book is dominated by the voice. With a combination of diary style voice over (more-or-less quoted from the book) and a peeping-over-the-shoulder viewpoint (as also used in Thirteen) Hardwicke pulls it off. For some reason, they ditched her with regard to directing the sequels, and the those devolve into further cheesiness. Of course so do the later novels. Can I just say Volturi?

Conclusion: I’m kinda baffled. Twilight isn’t particularly good, or well done, but it does have a certain appeal. However, the overall magnitude of success has left me totally confused. Harry Potter is ludicrously popular, but at its core rest three stunningly good initial books. The first book is really well written, the central premise is very novel and sold with incredible style. Even the ridiculously melodramatic Vampire Dairies is more fun than Twilight. I’m just left scratching my head and hoping the anti-vampire backlash isn’t too bad.