Monday, November 28, 2011

The Zusak Scale

When I was in high school, I had a drama teacher named Mr. Zeis who taught me two valuable life lessons:
1.) Don't let anything break the illusion for your audience.
2.) Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

A few months ago, I went on a Markus Zusak kick, and ever since I've been trying to figure out how to explain what sets his work apart. His use of language is a little different, the way he evokes emotion and swings you around from laughing to crying within just a few words is a little different... You don't "read" Zusak - you "experience" him.

I was toying around with an acronym, something like the Zusak Illusion Experience Scale (Z.I.E.S), and that dyslexically brought me back to my drama teacher (Zeis).

That's when it clicked: It's not about labeling a book as "good," or deciding whether or not you "like" it - I'm talking about evaluating those special few books that you develop a relationship with, that are so real that "reading" isn't an accurate enough verb to describe your interaction.

For our experiment, I'll be grading books on a scale of 1 to Zusak, with the Zusak level reserved for the most "real" illusions, the most "intimate" reading experiences. But please understand, I'm not suggesting that Zusak is the gold standard. Zusak, while great, is flawed. He never spikes the football, so to speak. I wait for that emotional stomach punch at the end (and I WANT it, I have my tissues at the READY), but he never quite gets there.

My goal: Find something that ranks ABOVE the Zusak - something that draws me in more, that maintains the narrative illusion better, and then brings in the closer (baseball analogy) to finish the job.

EXAMPLE ONE: MAUREEN JOHNSON

I recently did a book study on Maureen Johnson's NAME OF THE STAR, which I thoroughly enjoyed but described as "a little too tidy" for my tastes.



This book maintains an illusion perfectly - but it lacked the emotional attachment element. It didn't draw me in as deeply as, for example, MJ's LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE duo. I never had a moment where I was so wrapped up in "experiencing" the story that I ceased "reading" it.



THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE books, on the other hand, sucked me right in. Ironic, because NAME OF THE STAR is in First Person, which is supposed to feel more intimate, more immediate. THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES are in Third Person Past Tense, but I was doubly invested and properly weepy at the end of both of them. For me, they provided the richer experience. I demand Disney/ABC Family/Hallmark make these into movies immediately. ABC Family could use THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE as part of their "25 Days of Christmas" series that starts every year around Halloween.

THE POTENTIAL ZUSAK HEIRESS

I bring this up because when I originally got wrapped up in The Zusak, I hypothesized that Tahereh Mafi's book SHATTER ME might land high on the Zusak scale - similar writing style, similar ways of playing with words, similar use of humor, etc.

I struggled to study SHATTER ME the way I've studied other books because, for the first time, I "know" the author. I've followed The Mafi for awhile, I've exchanged emails and Tweets, I've read her blog for ages - I had a good feel for who she was, how she wrote, and what was important to her LONG before I got my hands on her book.

At the core of everything Tahereh writes, you'll find a cheerleader, rooting for everyone to reach their full potential, to never give up, to see the best in each other and in themselves, etc. That's her mission:
"SHATTER ME is a story about hope, about love, about looking within ourselves and finding both light and dark, strength and weakness, and struggling to be more than the labels pressed upon us by society. it's about a girl trying to find herself in a world trying to tell her who to be."
Her core mission innately gives her writing extra depth that is often lacking in other narratives. I love reading Tahereh Mafi.

SHATTER ME is absolutely the kind of book you "experience" more than "read" - I'd call it innovative in the way she takes Zusak's sensory wordplay to the next level (including crossed out segments to show you what Juliette is trying not to think). I think Tahereh is going to be a major player in the industry. I think she's going to be a star. However, as many kudos as I give her for this project - I know she can do better.



SHATTER ME explodes emotions in a raw, almost messy way, which I think is good. Juliette has gone most of her life without being touched, so when she DOES experience the sensation of closeness, you feel the explosions it creates in her nerves and in her brain. But it gets kind of repetitive. Some may accuse it of crossing the "purple prose" line.

I've never felt closer to a character than I felt to Juliette - not only was the story First Person Present Tense, but the language is so sensory that I FELT what she felt, and the strikeouts let me into her head so deeply that I even knew what she was NOT thinking. If that makes sense. Subliminal and brilliantly executed.

What I don't understand is that Tahereh failed to take advantage of what I think is her greatest asset - her amazing sense of humor. SHATTER ME is heart wrenching - there is a lot of emotion sloshing about. But I don't remember ever laughing out loud. Once Tahereh integrates her playful side into her work, she'll be in a class by herself. Of this I feel confident.

SHATTER ME is a strong debut and worth a read, if nothing else so that you're braced for the inevitable copycatting that is sure to follow. The Mafi is only going to get better. Can't wait for the second installment.

AND NOW FOR A BRIEF TANGENT/RANT

I don't read jacket flaps. I do my best to avoid spoilers. I want to experience stories without anything getting in the way. What bugs me about jacket flaps (or other summaries): They tell you what you're going to read before you read it.

We live in a society of increasingly shorter attention spans. Things move quickly. It seems to me that the way these book summaries are put together is kind of old fashioned, and may even become problematic for a publishing industry already trying to keep up.

In short: I don't want to read a summary on a jacket flap, and then spend the next 150 pages learning what I already know. This dampens the experience and makes me less likely to enjoy the product.

SHATTER ME (in the hard cover US version) is 338 pages long. I read through about page 120 before I re-learned everything I learned by just reading the jacket flap. That's one-third of the book! Am I the only one who thinks this sort of "production" issue is a problem? Isn't there a way to write the jacket flap/summary so that you can jump right in to the story without the duplication? Wouldn't that be better for the reader, better for the art, better for the business?

Lord knows I understand how difficult it is to write a "hook" but this doesn't seem sustainable - it's like watching a movie trailer that shows you a summary instead of a tease. How invested would you be, as a viewer? How much would your attention wander?

This is by no means a knock on SHATTER ME (and should in no way reflect poorly on Tahereh, who I'm sure had nothing to do with it). This book was highly anticipated and spoilers were hard to avoid. SHATTER ME was good on its own. It wouldn't take much to hook a reader. At least in this case, I feel they over-hooked and it kind of broke the illusion for me. I'll bury my head deeper next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

NFL Thanksgiving Cheatsheet for Nonbelievers

You still don't like football? Or maybe you kind of like the idea of liking football, but there aren't enough hours in the day and it's low on your priority list? That's cool. But this Thanksgiving in households around America, football WILL be on. Wouldn't you like to know enough to participate in family conversations? I mean, otherwise, they'll probably start prying into your personal life - wouldn't it be MORE fun to redirect the conversation toward the personal lives of Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers?

Well, you've come to the right place! Here is the DEFINITIVE 2011 NFL THANKSGIVING CHEATSHEET, your one-stop source for easy talking points so you can spend your Thanksgiving holiday in peace... and maybe even accidentally enjoy yourself in the process.

GAME ONE - NOV 24 12:30EST - FOX
GREEN BAY PACKERS v. DETROIT LIONS


Topic of Discussion: The defending Super Bowl Champion Packers look even better than they did last year; they are the only undefeated team left in the league.
Correct Response: If you were at MY family's Thanksgiving, you'd make some remark laced with dark humor about how the Indianapolis Colts are the only team in the league who has not yet WON a game this season. Then we'd all exchange knowing glances because it's all part of the plan.

Topic of Discussion: Is Aaron Rodgers the best quarterback in the league?
Correct Answer: He must be, if he can get away with the Championship Belt Touchdown Celebration. When he first did it, we all feared it would be his undoing because QBs are supposed to be infinitely cool, you know? But now, if he stopped, we'd all be sad. The goofiness is part of dear Aaron's charm. Never change, Aaron. Hang on to your inner goof.

Topic of Discussion: Detroit Lions play every Thanksgiving - isn't it nice that they're actually kind of good this year?
Correct Answer 1: Yeah, maybe they'd be kinda good every year If-Matthew-Stafford-Stays-Healthy.
Correct Answer 2: Yeah, they should have started playing dirty a long time ago. Did you see when Matthew Stafford almost ripped that guy's head off? Or when the Lions' Coach tried to fight the 49ers' Coach after the game (sorry, can't find video)?
Correct Answer 3: Just shout "MEGATRON!" every time Calvin Johnson catches a pass. I don't care how good Green Bay's defense is, CJ will catch something.

GAME 2 - NOV 24 4:15EST - CBS
MIAMI DOLPHINS v. DALLAS COWBOYS


Topic of Discussion: Yikes... the early game should be a lot more entertaining than this one.
Correct Response 1: Miami may be friskier than their record shows. I mean, I don't think so, but Sports Guy does (Quoth the SportsGuy: "I’d take the Jags and Dolphins right now over every other mediocre-or-worse team. Vegas isn’t totally believing in their overpowering notsobadness yet. I believe."). They had the chance to Suck for Luck and didn't take it. So...
Correct Response 2: The Cowboys are awesome at collapsing when they shouldn't. ANYTHING could happen!
Correct Response 3: Did you know that Tony Romo just married into the GOSSIP GIRL family? And that earlier this season he played with a PUNCTURED LUNG!? That's almost as good as Chris Simms' ruptured spleen! (Note: Wait until after eating for this discussion.)

Topic of Discussion: Miami needs a new coach and a new quarterback.
Correct Response 1: Why aren't they Sucking for Luck? WHY!?!?
Correct Response 2: Sports Guy muses that there may be a "Curse of Dan Marino" brewing. This is the only logical conclusion. In other news, I'm growing increasingly curious about this Case Keenum person. I haven't paid this much attention to college football probably ever.

GAME 3 - NOV 24 8:20EST - NFL NETWORK
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers v. BALTIMORE RAVENS


Response 1: Awww, the coaches of those two teams are brothers! Thanksgiving is a holiday for family togetherness!
Response 2: Awww, the brother who's in his first year of coaching has a better record than the brother who has been coaching for a long time! Awww!
Response 3: You know, this could be the best game of the day. I'm sure the 17 people who get the NFL Network will really enjoy it!

OTHER SUGGESTED TOPICS OF CONVERSATION IN CASE YOU GET DESPERATE
(Note: The following is a list of topics you can throw out and then watch everyone else debate/discuss whilst you enjoy a cocktail or hot cup of java. It is my gift to you this holiday season, and you're welcome.)

Topic 1: What do you make of this Tebow thing?
Note: This may take the rest of the day. That's why I suggest using it first.

As for me, I still love me some Kyle Orton. But, I watched the end of the Broncos/Jets game last Thursday. There's only one way to describe what happened: Everyone knew what was going to happen, and they simultaneously knew that it was impossible. It takes awhile for those two things to reconcile in a feeble human mind. Accept the power of the Tebow can't be explained and just enjoy the ride. Oh, and only watch the end, it's more fun that way.

Topic 2: The so-called "Dream Team" Eagles have only won about one-third of their games.
Note: This may be a touchy subject. Michael Vick's time in prison on charges related to dog fighting will probably light at least one fire in any household. But, by Thanksgiving weekend, he may be benched due to injury in favor of Vince Young... and that's an entirely different train wreck.

Topic 3: Did you guys see how Manchester City destroyed Manchester United a few weeks ago? That was hilarious, NO ONE saw it coming, right!?
Note: Enjoy the blank stares and silence as people try to figure out what language you're speaking.

TEAMS SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS NFC:
* 49ers, 49ers, 49ers. Yay Coach Harbaugh, my beloved Captain Comeback!
* Bears. I'm dreaming of another Bears/Packers playoff game. I'll include that in my letter to Santa next week.
* Giants. Someone's gotta carry on the Manning name, and I'm solidly in Eli's corner.
* Lions. They've been backsliding and got exploded by the Bears last week, but that doesn't change the fact that they're in playoff contention on Thanksgiving weekend for the first time since Lewis and Clark went in search of the North-West passage. And by the way, for those of you who like curses and conspiracies - read this and then wonder if the Lions may be in the process of finally exorcising their demons. We could be witnessing history, like the 2004 Red Sox.
* Carolina may not be surpassing expectations, but rookie quarterback Cam Newton is. I apologize for that cookie remark I made in my preseason cheatsheet. My husband has started Cam in every fantasy game this season and has only lost once. Testify.

TEAMS SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS AFC:
* I was going to say Buffalo, but they seem to be saying, "Move along, nothing more to see here." Too bad, I like being reminded that their quarterback has a degree in economics from Harvard.
* I was going to say the Houston Texans because they were simultaneously expected to thrive and self-destruct (per usual). Now their quarterback is out for the season with a broken foot, but they're in a quagmire of a division (with Colts, Tennessee, and Jacksonville), and anything could happen. Mostly, there is evidence of yet another curse. In case you couldn't tell, I've been researching these things lately.
* Bengals. Bengals Bengals Bengals. Andy Dalton, rookie QB who has hair the same color orange as his helmet. Congrats, Cincy, the Bengals are suckering people in with a young and likable team. Whenever anyone calls Dalton the 'Red Rifle' I think of Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
* Denver Broncos and the Tebow experiment. With Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers once again underachieving, there is a playoff spot up for grabs. I'm going to include a Tebow playoff game in my wish-list to Santa, too.

SUPERBOWL PREVIEW

May I remind you once again that the Superbowl is Feb 5, 2012 in my beloved Indianapolis? I'm asking haters to keep an open mind about this. I wanna go.

Most likely Superbowl Contenders NFC:
* Packers (Again.)
* Saints (Looking a bit weak, but I love the idea of Drew Brees coming back to Purdue territory.)
* Giants (Eli Manning = The Official Little Brother of the Indianapolis Colts.)
* Bears (Jay Cutler is from Indiana, Chicago is an easy drive away, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels would enjoy taking in more Illinois $$.)
* 49ers (Wildcard, would be an amazing Cinderella story, and would bring Coach Harbaugh back. Many a fan in Indianapolis would turn out in support because he was our guy, just prior to Peyton Manning.)

Most likely Superbowl Contenders AFC:
* Patriots (Ugh, seeing Tom Brady hoist the trophy amidst the confetti on Indianapolis turf would probably stop me from eating for at least 10 days. Even if there's fudge.)
* Steelers (Meh.)
* Ravens (This would be kind of interesting because Indianapolis "stole" the Colts from Baltimore, at least in the eyes of Baltimore fans. I was three years old, so I reserve judgement and embrace the blue. Either way, those Baltimore fans with long memories would probably get a deep sense of satisfaction from winning in Indy. And maybe then everyone could let it go? No? Okay.)

Long story short... looks like I'm rooting for the NFC this year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Study - The Name of the Star


Question: Who is the best author you've never read?

Until a couple of days ago, my answer was Maureen Johnson. MJ is something of a power broker in YA publishing. She goes everywhere and knows everyone and has her finger on the pulse of everything. Somehow I managed to follow her on Twitter for months without reading any of her books.

I had several books to choose from. Several. So far I've only read two, but it seems to me that she needs to be included on the list of "Must Reads" for anyone who wants to be an author when they grow up.

HOW TO SPOT A REAL PRO

MJ does her homework. She owns her story, she is the expert, no one knows more about her characters, her world, or her plot than she does. That sounds kind of obvious, like that should be the case with all authors, right? But it's not. Haven't you ever watched a movie/TV show where you checked out because you knew something was just "wrong"? It flicks you in the back of your mind, breaking the illusion?

Several months ago, I did a series of studies on how to properly "refresh" a story. You have to accept that your readers will go into your version with a set of expectations and some common knowledge. A lot of these principles apply for MJ's THE NAME OF THE STAR, because at its core, it's a presentation of the Jack the Ripper cannon. In order to own this story, she had to know more about the Ripper than we did. She had to know London better than we did. She had to build the rules of her world, drag us into it, and then run every word past our eyes without us hiccuping and saying, "Wait, that's not right..."

Still not impressed with the amount of legwork she had to do in order to pull this off? If you follow her on Twitter, you'll see how often she travels to London, how much time she spends in libraries, what sorts of things she studies, how many times she's been on the Ripper tours, etc.

She's a New Yorker creating a main character from Louisiana with Southern cultural attributes. She's creating supporting characters from London with various British cultural attributes. She's fluidly including their proper speech patterns - and I purposefully included the word "proper" in that sentence because I love how the English use the word "proper".

I first noticed the use of the word "proper" on TOP GEAR, my new favorite BBC show. (It's about cars. I care nothing about cars. I still love this show.) They say things like, "You look like a proper orangutan when you concentrate," and "That little Fiat is properly quick." Through Grantland, I listen to a weekly English Premier League (soccer) podcast, and those Great Brits say things like, "Our guest today is a proper comedian, a proper broadcaster, a proper many things."

There were a few instances where MJ used the word "proper" like that, and I laughed out loud because it was perfect. And I laughed even more when the main character Rory used it in her inner monologue because it's been proven by science - Americans who stay in England too long become aware of their accents and pick up the Queen's vernacular. (I count myself among the guilty.)

In short, MJ's a proper pro.

DOING ALL THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT

When I study a book, I keep a notebook handy. About three-fourths of the way through THE NAME OF THE STAR, I reviewed my notes and noticed they were all positives. No questions, no instances of "huh, this didn't seem quite right," no irritating cliches or things that struck me as lazy.

The story hops seamlessly from a first person narrative (high school girl) to very short third person accounts of adults who play various roles in the Ripper mystery. I love this format, perfect in structure and execution.

And although this is a creepy ghost story involving graphic murders, it still has MJ's voice and sense of humor throughout. There's a maturity in her style; she knows when to be serious and when to be fun.

She includes lines like "Something about her suggested that her leisure activities included wrestling large woodland animals and banging bricks together." She adds "Auntie MJ" wisdom and depth by describing fear as a "snake with no venom." Whether it's Tumblr, Twitter, or paper and ink, MJ is MJ in style and substance.

WORLD BUILDING

I already covered the London details, but more than that, THE NAME OF THE STAR takes us inside a private British boarding school that felt a little Hogwartsian. Rory emphasizes how average the school makes her feel, how adult it felt (it seemed more like college than high school to me). As monotonous as it can be to read YA book after YA book in cookie-cutter high schools, this was fresh. She took me somewhere I hadn't been before. I drank in the details, so excited to be in a new and interesting place.

Also, it was nice to see the American/English educational and cultural juxtapositions - something I haven't necessarily seen in other stories where American kids end up in foreign countries. It wasn't central to the plot, it wasn't a "fish out of water" story - it was a series of small details that made it real and three dimensional.

EFFECTIVE USE OF SIDEKICKS

When I studied ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD, I was a little harsh on Cas's sidekicks, stating that I liked the story better when Cas was on his own without all the extra noise. In NAME OF THE STAR, Rory was enriched by her "sidekicks" - and the more were added, the happier I was.

First we met Rory's roommate "Jazza." Her real name is Julianne, but in another example of attention-to-detail, MJ gave her an Englishy nickname. Soccer player Wayne Rooney is called "Wazza." BBC host Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) is called "Jezza." I've not heard a girl nicknamed this way, but I wasn't surprised - in fact, I was delighted.

Jazza is just a nice, considerate, "good girl" character. She wasn't exactly a stereotype, but she was exceedingly normal. I felt like I'd met a dozen girls like her. In a good way.

We also have something of a love interest in Jerome, an adventurous prefect and burgeoning journalist. He's sharp and resourceful, and wants to be where there's action. Not necessarily to be a part of it, but to make sure he sees what happened. Very journalist-like.

Later, the book takes a forty-five degree turn - again, in a good way. "Boo" joins the cast, a London girl with the kind of accent that finishes every sentence with "yeah" and a question mark ("I was in Mumbai vising family, yeah?"). I could hear it so clearly, and in my mind popped an image that was part "Bex" from the Gallagher Girls series and part "Tai" from the movie Clueless, only of Indian heritage.

For reasons I can't quite explain, my favorite character was Stephen, a stoic boy of indeterminate age (between 18-22) whose personality you almost pick up subliminally. I'm going to have to re-read to figure out how that happened. Somehow, Stephen slid through my brain without me realizing he was there, but of all the characters (and there are several), he's the one who ended up following me around after the story was done.

BUT HERE'S THE THING...

I've developed a serious writer crush on Auntie MJ over the past week, but nothing is perfect. THE NAME OF THE STAR is a phenomenal example of technique and precision. It's so tidy and put together that there's nothing for an amateur like me to criticize. Even the title is brilliantly clever.

But about two-thirds of the way through, I wrote in my notebook, "Why am I not falling head-over-heels in love with this?" On paper, this book was written for someone like me. I'm obsessive with British culture and always have been. I did a semester in London, living in a three-person room in the same general area as Rory. I've even been on the Ripper tour (by the way, if you haven't seen the movie FROM HELL, you probably should).

I wondered if the issue was just with me? Like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, where I was looking for resonance and the timing was just off? If I read it in 2005 instead of 2011, would it have taken up residence in my brain HUNGER GAMES style? Or would I have liked it better if it weren't so perfectly executed, maybe if the edges were just a little raw? Or was it that the end got a little monologue-y? I mean, the bad guy kind of did an impression of a Bond villain...

All of these questions bothered me, so I grabbed 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES, MJ's older book about a girl who goes on a scavenger hunt around Europe, piecing together the last years of her beloved aunt's life. Comparing 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES to THE NAME OF THE STAR is interesting because you can see how MJ's craft has evolved over the last six years (give or take).

THE NAME OF THE STAR is probably a better book, but 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES made me "properly" weepy, evoking all of those emotions I'd been expecting but missing. I leapt right into the recently released sequel, THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE, but had to shut it down. I wasn't ready.

I'm not sure what else to say. I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel to THE NAME OF THE STAR (I think she said it's the SHADES OF LONDON series, or something to that effect). I think I'll like it more the longer I let it marinate, and I'm saving THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE for a Christmastime treat.

Friday, November 11, 2011

When You're Accustomed to Winning

As I've said before, I was an Indianapolis Colts fan long before it was cool. And as for what's happened this season - I have only myself to blame. (Note: Never ask a question unless you're sure you want to have it answered.)

Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback ever to play the game, may never play again as a result of multiple surgeries on his neck. I'm not ready to eulogize him just yet (after all, he's our GUY and hopefully always will be), but this begs the question - what do you do when a winning streak ends and the ground crumbles beneath your feet? When you don't get the job, or all of the appliances in your kitchen break at the same time, or your car needs jumper cables three mornings in a row, do you:
* Embrace losing with a plucky sense of humor (see: #SuckForLuck)?
* Take it seriously and have an angry meltdown (see: just about any sporting event ever lost in the city of Philadelphia)?
* Just sit there. Stunned. Asking, "What just happened?"

If I'm honest, I'm the one who sits there stunned with my mouth hanging open as my IQ plummets about 30 points and my teeth turn to cotton. I'd rather be the one with the plucky sense of humor, like the guy who set up the #SuckForLuck twitter campaign.

For the uninitiated, #SuckForLuck is named for college quarterback Andrew Luck. He and his Stanford degree are expected to be the first pick in the next NFL draft. The first pick goes to the team in last place, so the joke is that bad teams are trying to be their worst in order to "win" him. At least... we hope it's a joke (the Colts have been losing the most, so they are currently "winning").

There's a lot to like about Andrew Luck. For one, he decided to stay in school and finish his Stanford degree. He was coached by former Colts quarterback Jim 'Captain Comeback' Harbaugh. So-called "experts" say that he's the closest to a "sure thing" they've ever seen. They "know" he'll be a star in the league. And I'll admit - I enjoy watching him play and can't help rooting for him.

I've always been rather loud about my Colts fan-hood. Now that the Colts have gone from constantly winning to constantly losing, everyone wants to ask me about the Andrew Luck/Peyton Manning controversy. Do you stand by your guy, or go after the shiny, tantalizing young gun in hopes of ending your losing streak for the next 10-15 years?

My Answer: I wish things could go back to the way they were - with Peyton healthy and Andrew Luck buried in some high school somewhere not bothering anyone, not making us daydream like philandering bigamists, cheating on our franchise player while he struggles back from a rather scary neck injury. It's like one of those stories where the hero is sent off to war, gets captured and is assumed dead, and then bravely returns home to find his lovely wife cuddling in an intimate way with their younger, capable, fiery neighbor.

The good thing is that now I know what kind of loser I am. Now I have clear eyes, a full heart, and ample opportunity to practice losing until I know how to do it properly.

I thank and salute you, anonymous Miami Dolphins fan who started #SuckForLuck. Thank you for blurring the lines between winning and losing and reminding us to look on the bright side. There's a practical life lesson here. Like a 1980's sitcom.

Thank you to evil genius @thatdjgallo (writer for ESPN's Page 2) for suggesting the Colts draft Andrew Luck and then bury him on the bench, just so no one else can have him. (This is going to be my new answer to the Manning/Luck controversy question.)

And thank you most of all to @PeytonsHead, the best thing on Twitter since @MayorEmanuel fell into that unfortunate vortex. If we learn nothing else, friends, we must learn this: When you are accustomed to winning, and then you begin to lose, you know who your true friends are. Don't take yourself too seriously, stay calm, and carry on. Nothing lasts forever.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Study - Anna Dressed in Blood


One of my most fondest memories of college is of retreating with a group of about forty girls to a farm for a late-night bonfire, telling ghost stories and generally trying to freak each other out whilst eating s'mores.

That's what drew me in to the first half of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD - that urban legend feel of a short, creepy story with no definitive answers or explanations. The kind that make your eyes dart around when you cross an old, lonely road late at night, or make you sit straight up in bed when you hear a mysterious thump in the attic. The kind that remind you that the unknown is the most thrilling part.

THOSE FIRST FIVE PAGES

Anyone who's played the query game knows that (generally) just the first five pages are submitted to agents when a novel's being "shopped." To anyone getting ready to enter the game, may I recommend these particular first five (okay, it's actually seven) as an example to follow.

First Line: "The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway - no pun intended." To be honest, not one of my favorites. But, to be even more honest, I don't get very excited about first lines. I know, I know, everyone who knows things emphasizes how important it is to have a catchy and memorable first line. They rarely do much for me, so I tend to think them over-rated. Moving on.

This first chapter is essentially a self-contained story, the kind we would have told around that bonfire. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a sufficient amount of mystery to prevent unsatisfying resolution - a ghost story needs unanswered questions in order to be scary. Here's a snippet:

The locals say that they beat [the hitch-hiker] up pretty good by the bridge and then dragged him back into the trees, where they stabbed him a couple of times and then cut his throat...

[Now as a ghost] He's perfectly pleasant. A nice guy to ride with. But when we get to that bridge, he'll be as angry and ugly as anyone you've ever seen. It's reported that his ghost, dubbed un-originally as the County 12 Hiker, has killed at least a dozen people and injured another eight. But I can't really blame him. He never made it home to see his girl, and now he doesn't want anyone else to get home either.



Our hero, Cas, tracks these stories, hunting the ghosts to "kill" them, forcing them to move on to... wherever ghosts go when they die.

In seven short pages we've set the premise, built the rules of the world, heard Cas's great voice, and had a ghost story about a hitch-hiker with a beginning, middle, and end. We feel like we know exactly what to expect now, and we'd like to have more.

YAY! FIRST PERSON BOY!

Cas has a great storytelling voice. He uses words like "kerfuffle," which I didn't even know how to spell. It has an oral history feel to it, even though it's in present tense. You feel like you're listening rather than reading. However, I can't find an audio book version. This is nearly criminal.

I sat here looking at my Blogger for half an hour trying to think of which young, male actor who would be perfect for the audio book job, but this just reminded me how old I am. Someone, please put in the comments the correct answer to this question so I'll be able to sleep tonight. Thank you.

To help you cast the voice, here's a sample of Cas's wisdom:
* "They'd made the decision to pick up a hitchhiker, and they weren't about to let themselves be scared into going back on it. They rationalized their fears away. People shouldn't do that."
* "I always hate the sunlit towns, full of newly built developments with double-car garages in shades of pale eggshell, surrounded by green lawns and dotted with laughing children. Those towns aren't any less haunted than the others. They're just better liars."
* "I need to get people talking to me, so I can ask them questions that I need answers to... I always look for the queen bee. Every school has one. The girl who knows everything and everybody. I could go and try to insta-bond with the lead jock, I suppose, but I've never been good at that.... So I scout the halls until I finally see her, smiling and surrounded by people.... Everything I want to know, she could tell me. Which is what I hope she'll do."

Cas is comfortable in his own skin. He's not worried about what he looks like, or what he can't do. He's confident in what he CAN do, he understands his role in the world, he's brave and he's smart. He doesn't try to be anything he's not. I love him for that, and I wish more characters went in these directions.

THE MAIN EVENT

The primary plot involves Cas investigating a ghost story in Thunder Bay (Canada), which the locals refer to as "Anna Dressed in Blood" - an unsolved murder mystery.

I loved watching Cas piece together the story like a detective, relating the anecdotes, figuring out what's true and what's legend. Even better, when Cas tracks down "Anna" and sees her for himself, Blake (our worthy author), manages to build drama and tension without it being cheesy or overdone.
It's her. She's flickering in and out like an image on a computer screen, some dark specter trying to fight her way out of the video and into reality. When her hand grips the rail she becomes corporeal, and it whines and creaks beneath the pressure.

Anna is descending upon me, coming down the stairs without taking any strides. Her feet drag horribly along like she can't use them at all. Dark, purplish veins cut through her pale white skin. Her hair is shadowless black, and it moves through the air as though suspended in water, snaking out behind and drifting like reeds. It's the only thing about her that looks alive.

She doesn't wear her death wounds like other ghosts do. They say her throat was cut, and this girl's throat is long and white. But there is the dress. It's wet, and red, and constantly moving. It drips onto the ground.

Well played, Blake. The building cadence of a good ghost story, and it feels like it's being spoken aloud. Again... why isn't there an audio book!? Normally I wouldn't care, but this one is screaming for it. GET IT DONE!

THE GOOD AND BAD RELATIONSHIPS

I said earlier that the first half of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD felt like a oral, bonfire ghost story session, and that's what drew me in (I read it on Halloween, by the way). However, somewhere in the middle, it took a bit of a forty-five degree turn and started feeling something more like I AM NUMBER FOUR - and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

I preferred Cas on his own, without all of the sidekicks. My favorite relationship in the book was between Cas and his semi-evil cat.
"He's half Siamese and has that breed's trait of choosing one person to adore and saying screw off to all the rest. Not that I care. I like it when he hisses and bats at me, and the only thing he's good for is occasionally seeing ghosts before I do."


After I read that section, I wrote down in my notebook "Watch relationship with cat - potentially SUPERB." And it was. Fantastic.

Cas also had an interesting tension with his deceased father. We figure out very early on that Dad was killed by a ghost, leading Cas to become what he is, but the tension is drawn out a bit longer than I preferred. Seems like we wait artificially long to find out what exactly went down. That's being pretty picky, though, if I were Blake's critique partner.

My bigger criticism would be for Carmel (the Queen Bee of the high school) and Thomas (the nerdy psychic outcast). Carmel reminded me of Sarah Hart, and Thomas seemed like a Sam Goode doppelganger. Their tagging-along added a bit of a cartoony element, almost Scoobie Doo-ish, breaking the tension of what had the potential to be a truly scary ghost story.

And then there was Cas's interactions with Anna... never fully wrapped my brain around that, either.

IN OTHER WORDS...

Remember when the movie IRONMAN came out? In the first half of the movie, Robert Downey Junior was kidnapped by terrorists and had to invent the Ironman suit to escape. In the second half of the movie, he's playing around with improving the suit and starting to fight baddies. It's divided into two halves, and most people I've talked to enjoyed the movie, but liked the first half better than the second.

Lots of people like this book. I like this book. It's fun to read, and it has a nice look to it (just look at the font - the FONT!). But, I liked the first half better than the second.

It's hard to write a long ghost story and hang on to that tension. It's hard to resolve things in a ghost story, because the unknown is what makes it cool. In the light of day, with the mysteries explained, it's not fun anymore and you end up feeling kind of silly that you were ever scared.

But this is a novel, and I guess you have to answer and resolve. Kind of too bad - this might have been a fun opportunity to test those rules JJ Abrams-style, see what we could have gotten away with. That all being said, if I ever see another Kendare Blake book, I wouldn't think twice about picking it up.


CONTEST

If you'd like to win a gently used copy of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD... and, what the hell, maybe even some Halloween candy to go with it (if you're good), leave a comment below letting me know you want it. Random Number Generator will decide the winner on Monday November 14, open internationally to those aged 18 and older.