Friday, February 27, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Friday

4 Line Items in My Presidential Budget

Don't tell me you haven't played the "If I Were President" game because I won't believe you. It's similar to the "If I Won an Oscar" game; you know, the one where you stand in front of your bathroom mirror with a bottle of hair conditioner and thank the little people.

Lemme just say, while I agree with where President Obama wants to put our tax dollars (healthcare, education and jobs), I also happen to believe he's overlooking a few important things.


1. NASA - scientists who know what they're doing are saying that there could be millions of other Earth-type planets in our universe, with lots and lots of intelligent life, just like on "Star Trek"! How could we not go after them?

I say, give NASA a few trillion to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, etc.

2. The Arts - schools and communities have cuts thousands of arts programs for kids and families all over the country and it's time to bring them back. Music and dance and writing are not luxuries - they are necessities, especially in this current economy where we need to have people think creatively. A teen studying guitar in high school may not form her own band but it might make her think in a new way when she approaches college and beyond.

Investing in arts programs is investing in people's brains and encouraging them to think in different ways.

3. Mass transit - one of the best things about NYC is its subway system. I miss it just about every day here in LA. I appreciate that we want to save jobs in the auto industry but I think we need to spend more money on carrying big groups of people from one place to another rather than individuals from home to the mini-mall.

If Obama wants to talk about responsibility - which I do love - he needs to be responsible to Mother Earth and cut back on the carbon emissions that damage her.

4. Teacher salaries - yes, put money into school programs and supplies and facilities but let's not overlook the number one thing that is important to children's (and adults') education and that's the teachers instructing them. I'm glad the President wants every child to go to college but there have to be people teaching them!

Let's pay teachers good salaries, the kind that encourage really great people to go into education rather than private business.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

4 Famous Dead Authors I wish I could have met

1. Shirley Jackson
2. Douglas Adams
3. John Kennedy Toole
4. Franz Kafka

I just realized every one of these authors died young. Hmmm...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

C'mon, we all do it. We see a book or a DVD on the shelf and we read the jacket flap or the summary on the back of the case and we think, "Been there, done that." Or worse, "Been there, done that, hated it."

You don't think you do? All right, I'll go first:

A few months ago, I received a galley copy of a novel called "The Book of Unholy Mischief" by Elle Newmark. The jacket copy made the story about a chef's apprentice in Renaissance Venice who gets caught up in a murder mystery sound, in a word, lame. I was convinced the story would be overwritten, the dialogue stilted, the plot contrived and so it sat on my TBR pile for weeks without me even taking a peek at it. When I finally did - by accident, I think - I was intrigued from the very first chapter. It's a fantastic novel and I have since loaned my copy out twice and recommended it to others.

The same is very true of DVDs: we use Netflix a lot and often, the service will try to recommend movies for us based on which movies we have previously rated highly. Using a complex formula involving lots of numbers and some pixie dust, Netflix will tell us what film we should see next and how much it thinks we will like it.

Example: "Tropic Thunder," the comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. , Jack Black and Ben Stiller. We like all of these actors and Netflix told us we would love their new movie. We were skeptical and thought we would hate it; after all, lots of groups had protested it for many reasons and it seemed sort of weird: Robert Downey Jr. in blackface? How can that not be racist?

And we loved it. Unlike many comedies, it had no lapses in the joke department, no sudden sweetness producers throw in to make the movie perfect for a couple on a date. This was just a very funny parody on all things Hollywood.

I mention these examples because recently, the book blogger Thao Tran reviewed my book, LOVE, MEG on her blog, Serene Hours right here. She very honestly says she didn't think she'd like it - and in an email to me, she told me she had won the book in a contest but had, in fact, been hoping to win my other book, ALL ABOUT VEE. But a free book is a free book, right? (LOL - my words not hers...)

Thao thought the story would be cliche, the characters uninteresting- she believed she had seen this before in other books so she really wasn't expecting to like it. She also wasn't crazy about the cover - it gave her an impression of the story being something she probably wouldn't like. Now, with all of that going against it, how can my little book possibly succeed?

But it did! When Thao read it, she began to enjoy it and you can read for yourself her review and how the book changed her mind. I love hearing this! It suddenly makes a 3 or 4 star review feel like 5 stars! While I would love to hear from a reader that she thought she'd like my book and then loved it instead, I will take the surprised reader too. I would so much rather surprise someone than disappoint them.

And this is not the first time this has happened in a review. Many, many times I read in reviews of my books, particularly ALL ABOUT VEE, that the reader thought she would be bored and was instead shocked at how much she liked the book. In these instances, I definitely want reviewers to say that: tell me, tell potential readers your honest opinion, let us know you thought you'd hate something but instead loved it. That will give other readers an incentive to give my books - and other books they thought they wouldn't like - a shot.

Thanks, Thao, for encouraging others to give MEG a chance.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Friday

4 More Notes on My VC Andrews Challenge progress*

*contains spoilers

The next book in the Dollanganger series, "If There Be Thorns," is told from the points of view of Cathy's two sons, Jory and Bart. Jory is the son of Julian Marquet, her husband who died in a car accident (actually, he would have lived after the accident but he killed himself because he would never be able to dance again) while Bart is the son of Bartholomew Winslow, her lover and the husband of her mother who shoved her and her siblings in an attic which resulted in Cathy and her brother having sex.

Just to, you know, remind you of that.

The book alternates narrators and it's pretty easy to tell who's who: Jory, who is 14, talks like he's a teetotaling college professor while his 9 year old brother Bart says things like "don wanna" and "don like" and "ole witch." Eventually, as he reads his great-grandfather's memoir, Bart starts using language from the turn-of-the-century which makes him even more realistic.

So on we go...

1. Everything the boys learn about their parents' relationship and past is through eavesdropping. They are constantly listening to Cathy and Chris talking (usually pre or post-sex, god these two do it a lot) or their grandmother talking to her servant. Or they're reading the salacious stuff: Malcolm's memoir or Cathy's book. Why can't they actually talk to one another? Or at least listen to people other than family members? Lazy writing.

2. It takes months for Cathy and Chris to learn the identity of the woman who moved next door. Even considering they are out in the middle of nowhere, and their son is obviously troubled and spending a helluva lot of time over there, they can't be bothered to check out the weird old lady. And then when they do, each of them fails to immediately recognize their OWN MOTHER!

3. Just hours after learning that his parents are brother and sister, Jory finds it in his heart to tell Chris that he forgives them and would never want anyone else for a parent. This, by the way, while they are running in search of Cathy. Literally running. Somehow Jory manages to choke this revelation out between breaths. Then again, he is a dancer - destined to be the greatest male dancer the universe has ever known which, in the Land of the Real People, means absolutely nothing but in the Land of VC Andrews, it's the quickest route to fame and fortune.

4. After Cathy (that's Catherine Leigh, remember) stops dancing, she becomes a writer! Okay, like, am I following someone else's script? This was seriously freaky. I can't wait to read book four to see what I do next...maybe this should be called the "doppelganger series."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Underrated Movies: 2 From Scorsese

Taking a brief departure from my fascination with all things of a 4 nature, I remind you of two excellent films from the brilliant director Martin Scorsese who has somehow become primarily associated with mafia/gang films when, in fact, he has a wide range of films under his belt, including a musical with Robert DeNiro ("New York, New York")!

1. After Hours (1985) - a dark comedy about a guy (Griffin Dunne) who decides to get out of his rut and take a walk on the wild side of Soho and the Lower East Side of Manhattan and every single thing that could go wrong, does in the course of one very long night. Amazing cast: Rosanna Arquette, Catherine O'Hara, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Cheech and Chong...and all of them turn against him.2. King of Comedy (1983) - another dark comedy starring Robert DeNiro as Rupert Pupkin, a guy who wants to be a stand-up comic and who becomes obsessed with Jerry Lewis, who is - believe it or not - awesome in this movie as a talk show host/comedian a la Johnny Carson. Sandra Bernhard is DeNiro's female compadre who assists him in kidnapping Jerry Lewis. Pupkin's demand? A top spot on Lewis' show.

Anyone who says Scorsese is too serious or too over-the-top hasn't seen these films. Marty totally has a sense of humor, albeit a dark one with an edge to it. I love it. No cheese in sight.

Netflix these for a good time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Friday

Setting 4 Things Straight for the Record About Friday the 13th

1. Tonight is the opening of the Friday the 13th remake - or reimagining, if you will (that's what they call the new BSG). The original movie did not feature Jason or anyone in a hockey mask and in fact, Jason was not the killer at all. The movie introduced Jason a la Michael Myers at the very end and that's what led to the multitude of sequels.

2. The new Friday the 13th movie is actually the 12th in the series which means, logically, there really needs to be a 13th. Will that one be the one to finally end the franchise?

3. The appearance of Jason in the final frames of the original movie were intended as a joke but the next director who took on the franchise insisted he be included in the sequels.

4. The fim's original title was Long Night at Camp Blood. Ooh, scary...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's with the number 4?

If you've been visiting lately, you might have noticed my experimentation with the number 4, an underrated number if you ask me. On Friday, I tried my hand at 9 but that felt all wrong. "4" feels more feminine: slender yet shapely, demure yet self-assured.

"4" is that number between 3 and 5, an odd number that is actually even. People so rarely use it in normal conversation. When was the last time you heard someone say, "Name me four of your favorite songs from the 80s?" Or "What are the top 4 movies at the box office?" No. It's always 3 or 5, or at the end of the year, usually 10.

["10" is like, the superstar of list numbers, the king of 'em all. "5" is probably the second most used for lists. But "4"? Bah! Hardly ever.]

I want to bring "4" back. I want to give "4" the respect it deserves. Don't be surprised if you see "4" around here a lot more often.

Monday, February 9, 2009

4 Famous Writers I want to meet

1. Anne Tyler - does not tour, does not give interviews, does not have a website. I love her books! She won the Pulitzer for "The Accidental Tourist" but I love many of her other books so much more: "A Patchwork Planet," "A Slipping Down Life," and oh, "Digging to America." Her characters are so true-to-life, so haunting (in a good way! they really stay with you long after you've finished reading).

2. Umberto Eco - Italian author, background is semiotics. Eco hasn't written many novels and the ones he has written are really hard to read - complex, intricate, and filled with references to arcane texts and historical figures. "The Name of the Rose" is a wonderful mystery set at a monastery in the 14th Century (the movie adaptation wasn't bad, with Sean Connery as the investigator) and long before there was "The Da Vinci Code," there was Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," which I needed to use a dictionary to read. But more than his novels, I love his nonfiction essays ("Travels in Hyperreality" contains some of the funniest, smartest material I've ever read on philosophy).

3. Elizabeth Berg - prolific author of what many demean as "women's lit." Not chick lit. She writes for smart women: Oprah loves her ("Open House"). That is not a bad thing, despite what Jonathan Franzen believes. I find her prose tremendously accessible, her stories heartfelt and touching, her characters multi-faceted and flawed. Her books made me want to try my hand at first person POV. "Never Change" broke my heart. I adore her writing style.

4. Lemony Snicket and his creator, Daniel Handler - the series for kids, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a brilliant concept, dark, funny, clever but never pretentious. I've not read Handler's books for grownups because I've been so enamored of his Snicket's creations and I fear being disappointed. His work, along with the gorgeous illustrations by Brett Helquist, recalls Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, whom I adored growing up.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Friday

9 Careers I'd Like to Have or If I Had a Cat's 9 Lives

How many times do you see or hear about a job and think, "That would be such a cool gig"?

I do it practically every day which made it really hard to whittle this down to 9 lives ("109 lives" is not as interesting a title, is it?) but here goes:

1. Train conductor - don't see a lot of female conductors which makes the job all the more intriguing. I love the idea of riding the rails and traveling from one end of the country to the other and I especially dig those little punchy things they have. But I think you have to know a lot about engineering and how trains actually work and that would take me a long time to learn.

2. Senior Advocate - not seniors in high school but senior citizens. I get so angry sometimes when I read about people who take advantage of the elderly or abuse them. There is a special place in hell for those people and if I were an attorney, I'd send them there! Do I have to go to law school?

3. Hair stylist - I once cut HH's hair before we visited his family and he thought it was horrible. He claimed I didn't have the right scissors but I think he was just too shocked at my mad barber skills. I just know I could be really good at this if I trained at a school. I love the idea of making people look beautiful.

4. Personal shopper - again, the concept of transforming people from schlubby to superstar is a draw for me. If someone wanted to give me access to their credit cards, I could probably do a really amazing job of outfitting them with a brand new wardrobe.

5. Dietitian - along with the above, I think it would be a fantastic and satisfying job to help change someone's life (hmm...sensing a pattern here?). School, coursework, internships - it's a lot of work and I would have had to start a lot sooner.

6. College professor - even more work! This is one job I am still holding out hope for, although I don't know which subject I would teach. I would love to teach dance at a college level but then again, writing is a strength too. I wonder if there's a school out there that would allow me to do both?

7. Animal handler - it's so cool to watch people on sets taking care of animals, teaching them how to do things - but with care and love. I also think it would be neat to be a person who bring dogs and cats to the elderly or those in hospice care. However, I have never owned a pet as an adult so I have no idea if I am cut out for this or not.

8. Ballerina - ah yes...I didn't realize I was any good at this until I was older. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been more serious about ballet when I was a kid, tried to get scholarships to programs in NYC, and then pursued it professionally rather than go to college. I can't begin to do this on my own now but I hope I can encourage others to. It's a difficult life but I would have pursued it for sure if I had known.

9. Pastry chef - after watching many seasons of "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares," I really can't envision myself running a restaurant but I would love to work in a bakery. Although I don't have a sweet tooth, I do love baking for others and I especially enjoy creating sweet treats. I could go to culinary school and learn all sorts of things about cooking but would I have to eat meat? In every episode of "Hell's Kitchen," I see Ramsay and his contestants tasting every dish but I don't eat meat. Or cream sauces. Or fried foods. Okay, not the best choice for me.

I think I'll stick with what I'm doing for now. But it is fun to think about alternative lives.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

4 Annoying turns of phrase

Maybe I'm pickier than most people because I'm a writer and a reader but honestly, I wish humans would pay a little more attention to what they're saying before they spit it out.

1. "He did a complete 360." No. He didn't. Not unless he spun around himself and came back to the exact same point. You mean, he did a 180. 360 degrees is a complete circle. 180 degrees is half the circle. When you want to mean, "he's doing the opposite of what he used to do," you say, "he did a 180."

2. "Supposably, she left the party." The first word in that sentence is not a word; it's simply a collection of letters. You actually mean to say, "supposedly," which is defined as "believed to be."

3. "Six and a half dozen of the other." The correct phrase is "six of one, half a dozen of the other," used when you want to imply, "both options are the same." HH is guilty of this one and while I do chuckle, it actually makes absolutely no sense.

4. "I sent it in, irregardless of the rules." Nothing grates on me more than this doozy. I don't care what Webster's says, "irregardless" is NOT a word. The correct word is "regardless." Do not write it. Do not speak it. And in fact, only use it if you're making fun of someone - and even then, be very careful because someone might take you seriously., was that so hard?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Tarot Cafe Novel: Review

Chandra Rooney, the author of "The Tarot Cafe Novel: The Wild Hunt," stopped by a couple of weeks ago to guest blog about the differences between writing for hire and writing an original novel. Tremendously informative post! This novel is Chandra's debut and it was, as she described, a work for hire. In her case, the editor at TOKYOPOP contacted her through her website and queried her about writing the first novel of a series that was based on a very popular manga called "The Tarot Cafe" by Sang-Sun Park. Together they developed the outline before Chandra went off to write it on her own.

[NB: I have always felt intimidated by manga, those Japanese comic books that are read from back to front and up-right to down-left or in a circle or triangle or something else equally frustrating. There is a short manga that is included at the back of this novel and it has written instructions for reading it! That was very cool and helpful.]

Since I'm not a regular manga reader, I wasn't sure if I would understand this novel: would it be based on long-established characters I didn't know? Would it be set in a world completely unfamiliar to me? Would I feel awkward or, worse, uncool? The answer is no to all of those questions.

First of all, even if you've never heard of manga or a light novel, you will have no trouble understanding this world. Rooney creates a London that is just slightly off-center, one that you will recognize: Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, the Tube, etc. but imbues it with an underlying darkness that no amount of sunlight can diminish. Many times, I felt the claustrophobia Bryn feels, the inescapable closing-in of my surroundings, simply because of Rooney's very precise word choice. She is a master at specificity.

Second, you don't need to know what Tarot cards mean, what each of the cards relates to, because the author deftly weaves in their explanations without the dialogue or prose ever feeling expository. Neither does she talk down to her reader, assuming you know nothing of Tarot. I think it helps to know why people would seek a Tarot card reader but beyond that, knowledge of the topic is unnecessary.

And third, the fantasy elements seem completely integrated into this almost-London. I can believe Bryn sees and hears the stomping hooves of the Hunt horses, smells the spittle and sweat of the dogs. That she has a supernatural ability to sense things a normal person cannot is absolutely believable to me. I never doubted her skills - or Pamela's, the woman who reads the Tarot for her.

The story: Bryn McAllister is a young actress whose star is on the rise; her fiance Jack is a painter who has struggled with success. Bryn awakens one day to find Jack has not returned to their shared flat. She leaves to attend an audition, worried about where he is and why she can't seem to reach him. Her visions of Jack being hunted by wild dogs, chased by a Hunstman and his demonic hunters, make her question his safety. When she visits Pamela, a Tarot card reader at the Tarot Cafe who has her own haunted past, she gradually comes to a conclusion about what she must do to help Jack.

The novel asks a simple question: what are you willing to do for love? Both Bryn and Pamela struggle with the answer. Bryn is young and impressionable; Pamela is older and presumably wiser. Both are deeply torn between love of self and love of other. I won't spoil it for you by telling you what choices are made.

Chandra Rooney's prose is lyrical yet never purple. Her dialogue is fresh and hyperreal as befits a fantasy novel. I love lines like this: "[Bryn] uncapped [the turpentine canister] but found it empty - only a faint whiff of Jack left inside, as though he'd already started to fade from her life." (p. 73) I envy Rooney's skill at parsing the most succinct and evocative sentence - paragraph after paragraph, page after page.

Recommended to all readers, young adult and older, but especially to those who enjoy urban fantasy like Melissa Marr's "Wicked Lovely" and Richelle Mead's "Vampire Academy."

You can visit Chandra at her website or order her book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.