Review: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet coverIf you haven’t watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, do that before reading this review (I’ll wait). Produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, the webseries is a compelling modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice told through videoblogs. As a broke, unemployed 24-year-old grad student, Lizzie is relatable, flawed, and funny, and the series focuses on more than just the relationship statuses of the Bennet sisters. I was – and continue to be – a huge fan of the show, participating in the fandom, writing a grad paper and contributing to the show’s wildly successful Kickstarter (my DVDs just arrived in the mail!) One of my favourite aspects of the series is its transmedia element: during the run of the show, active social media accounts for each character allowed the story to unfold over multiple platforms, and allowed direct interaction between the viewers and the characters; LBD’s transmedia storytelling even won the show an Emmy. The last transmedia frontier was a book, which publishes on June 24. A novel based on a webseries based on a novel? As much as I love the videos, I was hesitant at first – how much new material could the book really give? The answer: not as much as I was hoping, but I still enjoyed reimmersing myself back in Lizzie’s life, and I think other fans will too.

The novel is set up as Lizzie’s pen-and-paper diary, sectioned into days that follow the arc of the videos closely. At the end of some chapters, the corresponding videos are linked (in my ebook version, anyway) for those who want to track the diary against the original videos. I liked this touch, since it reinforced the transmedia roots of the series. However, sometimes I felt that these links didn’t allow the book to breathe on its own, since it allowed for no distance between adaptations at all. More than once I was surprised to see that there weren’t diary entries between some videos at all – surely Lizzie would have something to say about events significant enough to record in her videos?

My main complaint is, that for a novel that positions itself as Lizzie’s “means to express [her] most private feelings,” it doesn’t actually explore Lizzie’s inner emotions more than visible on video. Yes, deflection and avoidance are prime Lizzie Traits, but I felt like the book favoured rehashing canon events rather than exploring what Lizzie is actually feeling in any depth. For example, something that bothered me is that, while the majority of the novel is split into first-person diary entries, the chapters corresponding to episode 60 and episode 98 – the two Darcy “proposals” and huge moments in the original series – are verbatim transcripts of the videos. I understand that when you have these two very popular canon scenes, it is a lot of possibly redundant work to recap these events in a new way or perspective, but I didn’t appreciate the break from Lizzie’s internal monologue to have these transcripts slotted in, especially when the next diary entries are days after these events; I felt cheated of Lizzie’s internal struggle and immediate feelings.

Another irritation I had was that characters, especially Lizzie, didn’t feel developed any more than we’ve already seen them on video. I understand that a lot Lizzie’s characterization work has been done already and entirely new traits and hobbies would be obvious retcon, but to me, it felt kind of lazy. I actually found Lizzie to be flatter than in the videos; I suspect this is because I didn’t feel that the novel was told in Ashley Clements’ voice (which is funny, since Bernie Su and Kate Rorick were both writers on the series). Lizzie likes: books, school, and presumably watching Youtube, although this is mentioned so in passing in her diary that it’s laughable (“I’m a fan of the Vlogbrothers and other videos of this style, so it [videos] can’t be too hard to produce, right?”). Along these same lines, the novel would have been a great opportunity to expand on places and events outside of Lizzie’s bedroom that the viewer never gets to see because of the inherent limitations of the vlog. However, this is another opportunity wasted: it turns out what Lizzie does when not making videos or participating in awkward Darcy run-ins or sister drama is go to the library, a lot. The amount Lizzie visits the library approaches Hermione-like proportions: she seems to spend almost every waking non-video moment there over the summer. It feels like they needed to make her do something, and settled on this; whatever the reason is, it gets kind of boring. Similarly, there are few descriptions of unseen locations (a notable exception is Lizzie’s house-sitting gig in San Francisco, which seems too good be to true). An actual line: “Netherfield is gorgeous; I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate.” Actually, this would have been a great place to elaborate, since all the viewers saw of it was one purple bedroom!

The novel dispelled many of my personal headcanons, but that is to be expected, and there were some nice surprises: we learn where Lizzie got her idea to start vlogging and where her camera comes from, more about her home life and time spent jobshadowing, and exactly when her feelings for Darcy start. There are couple juicy nonvideo plotlines and information, such as new insights into Jane and Bing’s relationship, Darcy’s letter, and seeing Lizzie’s parents in more depth. Other details – such as Caroline’s job, what was happening with Bing’s med school, and why Lizzie didn’t watch Lydia’s videos – are also given, but felt more filling in obvious plotholes, but I appreciate that the authors addressed it, all the same. If you are looking for final authority as to what Jane’s indescretion was, prepare to be disappointed.

Despite my complaints, the book really is enjoyable. There are many running jokes and fandom references (Seahorse count: 1), and I sincerely hope that the line “My phone lit up like a Christmas tree” is a TFIOS allusion.

These bonus lbd episodes are the best advert for a book I have ever seen

Agreed, tumblr user makeyourdeduction, agreed.

There is a lot more Darcy, since, without Lizzie being limited by the camera, we can live her accounts of the Most Awkward Dance Ever, every uncomfortable Netherfield moment, and the San Francisco tour first-hand – all entertaining, all primed to show how skewed Lizzie’s perspective is. I think my favourite part of this book was the fact that two new bonus LBD videos were produced to promote it; whatever that might say about the quality of the book itself, it was worth it for that new content alone. Overall, it was a delights to spend more time with Lizzie Bennet and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.

3-Day Novel Writing Tips

3DN-logo1Now that Rachel Slansky’s novel “Moss-Haired Girl” has been named the winner of the 2013 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, along with the shortlist, I thought I’d share a few tips on writing and submitting a good entry for this contest.

The 3-Day Novel Contest began in Vancouver in 1977 and runs every Labour Day weekend. The premise is simple: in 72 hours, write a complete short novel with minimal pre-planning. It’s an intense creative experience and sure to jumpstart your imagination. First prize is publication, including editorial work with a real editor. I’ve been judging the 3-Day Novel Contest for a few years so I thought I’d weigh in on what makes a good submission.

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and are not officially sanctioned by the 3-Day Novel Contest, and are not guaranteed to give your work a leg up. Also, these tips are biased towards my own acquisition and reading preferences, and may be completely different for another judge. But same goes for any writing submission, really.

I suspect that most of this advice can also be applied to submitting a manuscript to a publishing house or agent. In which case, swap out “judge” for “editor” or other appropriate title.

Content: What makes a good novel?

Outline Your Novel Before You Write It. Some of the strongest novels I see are, unsurprisingly, the ones with defined plots that are present from beginning to end. The reader should always know what the main character wants and why they’re doing it. Let the reader see the goal at the end of the novel. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be any suspense, but it’s better when the surprises aren’t an unexpected supernatural plotline halfway through your previously realistic novel.* The rules of 3-Day permit you to outline your novel before the contest begins. Use that bit of extra time to your advantage!

Related: Spend time making your opening pages really good. As a judge, I can usually tell whether I’m going to pass an entry to the next round within the first three pages or so, so make them good. Use this space to grab the reader’s attention, not slowly meander into the story. If you are going to revise or spend more time on any part of your novel, do it here.

Keep the number of major characters down, if possible. Your novel is probably going to be in the neighbourhood of 100 pages, and that’s not enough room to have a fully-developed protagonist with seven sisters and two love interests.* Simple can be better.

Be aware of trends (and maybe avoid them if possible). It’s tempting to write about creatures or character types that are hot right now, but be aware that the market is pretty saturated. Like, I’m sure your zombie novel is great, but it’s hard to be fresh when there are 12495 books and movies starring them already. Also, I have probably read like six other zombie entries already*; how is yours going to stand out? This is something to keep in mind, especially if you’re writing in a supernatural genre that has received a lot of attention in the past decade or so (e.g. vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc.). Past winner Terroryaki is a great example of employing a fresh take on the supernatural: the haunted teriyaki truck is reminiscent of the Flying Dutchman, which is an unusual trope that creates great tension and suspense.

Related: Build your world. If your novel has a supernatural element, make sure that the “rules” of your fantasy world are clear, or at least mention how this world is different from regular old earth or other well-established supernatural worlds. Vampires allergic to caffeine*? Interesting! An elf, a dwarf, and a goblin attempting to seize a magic ring on the edge of a volcano*? Been there, done that.

Basic historical accuracy counts. I’m not saying you have to do in-depth research for every aspect of your novel, but maybe perform a quick google here and there before you have your protagonist lovingly gaze upon a photograph of their mother in 1650.*

Presentation: So you’ve written the novel and it’s time to submit it. Now what?

If you have time, do a quick spellcheck and/or proofread. Make sure you are consistent with your character and place names, and pay attention to those homonyms! Your manuscript is much easier to take seriously when you don’t mix up orgasm/organism* and when people aren’t dying “in vein.”*

This is definitely my own bias, but don’t submit your manuscript in Courier. Courier is a headache to read on the screen, and do you really want to annoy the judges more than you have to? Same goes for other fancy fonts that make your manuscript look “edgy” or “futuristic.” I recommend a more standard (read: boring) font such as Times New Roman or similar plain, serifed font. Let your writing, not your font, be the thing the judge remembers. Leave Courier to scripts (which, reminder, are not eligible for 3-Day).

Submit your novel in black ink. I really don’t think more needs to be said about that.

So, this is my advice for you, 3-Day Novel Writers! Again, there are no guarantees that following this advice will put you at an advantage (except the spelling and proofreading. Do that!), but at the very least your novel will outshine those that didn’t read this blog post. Let me know your tips for writing under pressure, and feel free to ask me any questions you have about the contest!

 

*real example.

Great Books You Probably Haven’t Read

Last week, John Green, the patron saint of authors on social media and online communities, made a video recommending eighteen of his favourite books that aren’t bestsellers. The full list is available in the video description (and here). He was right – I hadn’t read any of them, although I’ve added a number of them to my mountainous to-read list (and some are great for my 2014 reading challenges!). John’s video got me thinking about how everyone probably has a list of favourite, underrated books, and how sharing them could be a fun way of discovering new reading material. So here is a list of my top five beloved books that you probably haven’t read.

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

A fictional true-crime diary, The Basic Eight satirizes the satanic panic of the 1990s in a San Francisco high school, loosely based on Handler’s own high school. Flannery Culp is a pretentious teenager with a pretentious friend group and an unrequited crush on the indifferent Adam State. Features include: three layers of narration (including, hilariously, moralizing vocabulary and study questions inserted by an uptight TV psychologist), croquet, terribly clever writing, absinthe, glamorous best friends named Natasha, unreliable narrators, and murder. This is my actual favourite book. If you choose to read it, report back wisely.

Eight Days of Luke

 

 

 

 

 

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones’ books are wonderful children’s fantasy, and I devoured every one the library had in stock when I was a kid. I had a hard time choosing which DWJ book to include here (a very close second was the Chrestomanci series), but Eight Days of Luke won out because it’s the book that ruined American Gods for me when I read it years later; basically everything I’ve read of Neil Gaiman reads like a pale imitation of a Diana Wynne Jones book. Eight Days of Luke follows David, a neglected boy stuck at home during school holidays with his miserable guardians, and the strange things that happen when a mysterious boy named Luke appears in David’s backyard. Fantasy and reality blend as David realises Luke and his relatives are not what they appear. As a standalone, this book is a great introduction to Jones’ work.

Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler     Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler

There is probably a good reason that Watch Your Mouth is on no one’s radar, and that’s because it has questionable content, and a lot of it (namely, all incest all the time). However, this is the best young-adult incest-comedy gothic Jewish porn opera novel that you will ever read. The first half of the narrative is constructed as an opera, with plot events arranged in acts and scenes, accompanied by strings and woodwinds, and the operahouse audience reader is directly addressed; Joseph spends the summer at his girlfriend’s parents’ house and discovers they have a terrible secret, which culminates in the appearance of a life-sized clay Golem and murder. The second half (printed in dark red; symbolism ahoy!) is set up as a twelve-step program, in which Joseph tries to recover from his summer at the Glass’s and figure out this Golem business. Watch Your Mouth is risky in form and content, but witty and satisfying.

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

I first read this book last year as a part of a course I was teaching, and all my friends and students hated it, but I loved it. Literary editor Sarah is lured to Malaysia by a sleazy family friend, and there discovers Christopher Chubb, a writer who tells her an incredible tale of his fictional character Bob McCorkle coming to life, haunting him, and abducting his daughter. Sarah must choose whether to believe or confront him in order to get her hands on the finest piece of literature she has ever read – a manuscript written by McCorkle (or is it Chubb?). My Life as a Fake is based on the 1943 Ern Malley hoax and questions the intersection of fiction and reality. It’s also an intertext of Frankenstein; I love the reading of Chubb as a mad scientist who stitches together McCorkle out of his own skin. Delightfully confusing and macabre, I change my mind about the truth of McCorkle every time I read it.

Movies in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movies in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones

So, Cleolinda is my favourite blogger, and her screenplay-style parodies of popular movies took LiveJournal by storm back in the mid-2000s. They’re still funny, and she posts one or two new ones a year, although these days you can more commonly find her recapping television shows and nailing it, as usual. Her book features Movies in 15 Minutes that never appeared online, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Philosopher’s Stone, The Matrix, Titanic, and (hilariously) the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is my go-to book for bedtime reading when I need something funny to settle my brain raccoons.

Have you read any of these (or have I convinced you)? Let me know what you thought, and what your favourite under-the-radar books are!

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Every decade or so, Donna Tartt reemerges from her reclusive writerly life to publish a new book, at which time her readers crawl back out from under the spines of other novels, ready to accept the magnificent volume into our lives and libraries. I don’t keep it a secret that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favourite book (along with Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which is in the same vein, really: pretentious teenagers, witty writing, murder), so I was eager to see if Tartt’s new book could compare. Spoiler alert: it does. The Goldfinch returns with Tartt’s signature combination of unforgettable characters and gorgeous prose. goldfinch-large-194x300

I was fortunate to attend Tartt’s reading at the Toronto Reference Library last November, and since I thought I would never, ever get the opportunity to see her in person or get a book signed, I was thrilled. Like, really thrilled. Cross-it-off-the-bucket-list thrilled. At the reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tartt is less severe than her author photos and reclusiveness might suggest: she warmly answered questions from both the interviewer (Jared Bland, who was wonderful as always) and fans (only appearing weary at one questioner’s insistence that she name her top four books. They were, for the record: Lolita, Bleak House, Jekyll & Hyde and The Great Gatsby). Dream fulfilled, I settled down to finish the novel.

At nearly eight hundred pages, The Goldfinch was certainly worth the eleven-year wait since The Little Friend. The story is told by Theo Decker, who as a young boy survives a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother and creates a bond between Theo and a dying old man, who encourages him to take the titular Goldfinch painting. For reasons he can’t explain, Theo doesn’t return the painting, but keeps it secretly with him when his his previously absent, alcoholic father turns up to whisk him off to Las Vegas for a life of artificial domesticity, complete with McMansion, dog and new stepmother. In Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, another abandoned son, and the pair search for meaning in the desolate desert landscape, and increasingly in petty theft, drugs, and alcohol. Theo later returns to New York (with painting hidden in his suitcase) and grows up under the care of Hobie, a delightfully absent-minded antiques restorer. Theo remains haunted by his past, his parents, his painting, until Boris shows up to turn Theo’s life upside down, again. The Goldfinch is a sort of Tell-Tale Heart story, with Theo slowly being driven mad by his act of theft – obsessively checking on the painting, compulsively tracking the news for hints that the authorities might be on to him, and gazing on it in a my-precious sort of way.

The Goldfinch questions the difference between life and art by consuming Theo’s life with paintings, museums, and antiques, but seems to suggest that what both have in common is not love, or passion, but artifice. The novel’s  character-like settings (art-obsessed New York City, the spectral suburbs of “Lost Vegas,” and feverish Amsterdam) mirror the important people in Theo’s life (shallow Kitsey, his delinquent father, and the unattainable Pippa), and highlight his loneliness. Perhaps only Boris escapes accusations of artifice: hot-tempered, drunk, and charming, he embodies the chaotic life that Theo is thrown into, but simultaneously manages to ground him and provide freedom. As usual with Tartt’s male protagonists, Theo is a wonderfully deceptive narrator, and Tartt manages to surprise the reader again and again with her skillful plotting. With its beautiful writing and engaging story, The Goldfinch is my favourite book of 2013.

2014 Reading Challenges

So this year I thought I would participate in a few reading challenges in an effort to get through all the unread books on my shelves, and also to boldly go into strange new worlds and seek out new genres and characters. I’m undertaking the following three challenges in 2014:

50 book pledge logo50 Book Pledge

Put on by HarperCollins Canada, the 50 Book Pledge is a promise to read a certain number of books during the year. The website helps you keep track of the books you’ve read and you can earn badges and prizes. I like the idea of tracking what I read, and it might push me to read new books instead of rereading the same handful of books every year (yes, you, Harry Potter.) Between school and leisure, I estimate I read over 100 books in 2013. For 2014, I’ve set a goal of 75 books. So far I’ve got three under my belt, which means, according to the website, that I am on track for 84 books. So far, so good!

Reading Bingo

2014-01-08-ReadingBingosmall2014-01-08-ReadingBingoYA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random House’s Reading Bingo Challenge is pretty straightforward: use the books you’ve read to fill in the book-themed Bingo cards, and find new reads to complete the more challenging spaces. The result: Trying new books, reading more widely, and feeling the satisfaction of crossing off squares on the cards. There’s two card options: “regular” and YA; I think I might try to complete both. I can already see that some of the squares are going to be tough for me: “A book with music” (what is this?) and “A book based on a true story” (I’m not into non-fiction), but that’s the fun of this challenge!

tournament-of-books-xThe Tournament of Books

This one’s a bit different: In Tournament of Books, sixteen books published in 2013 are pitted against each other in tournament-style brackets, where each book in a bracket is read and evaluated by an esteemed judge (this year’s notables include John Green and John Darnielle) before advancing to the next round; eventually, one book is named the “Rooster of 2014.” I’m not going to play along. Instead, I’m going to use the list of nominated books as a base for my own reading and follow along with the Tournament. Okay, so I’m not actually doing this reading challenge, but hopefully I’ll discover some great books.

So now that I’ve bitten off more than I can (probably) chew, I better get reading. What are your reading goals for 2014?