Tag Archives: fiction

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (or Cheerleaders are scary)

SPOILERS ABOUND

(I wrote this for people who read Abbott’s book already.)

If you weren’t already frightened by the competitive cheerleaders you see on ESPN2, you certainly will be after reading Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me. The book, which follows second-in-command Addy Hanlon as she is torn between Top Girl Beth and Coach Colette French, is a vivid depiction of the incestuous, competitive sub-culture. The cheerleaders are  powerful, self-serving individuals but also a force to be reckoned with when they act as one body. Abbott constantly builds the image of one connected body/spirit as she describes the girls doing stunts. And this almost-mutant-like physical connection carries over to their loyalty to each other in the most scandalous of circumstances. They are indeed the scariest version of Voltron ever to grace the pages of a paperback.

Let’s talk about the plot. Nothing new here. It’s actually bland and predictable. Really. Try to imagine yourself pitching this read to a friend. It’s Mean Girls, Heathers, Babysitters’ Club on steriods. Maybe not the last one. The point is that Abbott uses a very “used” plot structure and makes it new, unpredictable, and at times, horrifying. Abbott’s writing chops are impressive to say the least. Dare Me, similar to Gone Girl, features tight, controlled prose. Like the textual version of a Hitchcock film. You discover ONLY what the writer wants you to know, what the filmmaker wants you to see. Any brilliant deductions you make are NOT due to your brilliance but due to the curating of the story.

Sorry. I think you’re smart.

No, really. I do.

So let’s talk about how the predictable plot is rendered unpredictable by the author. In my opinion, Abbott achieves the suspense in two ways. First, the creation of narrator/protagonist Addy Hanlon. Addy is unsure of herself in the beginning and looking for an alpha-female to follow / model herself after. Because Addy trusts Coach, her processing of the Sarge’s murder is unreliable and adds to the reader’s suspense. What’s most impressive about Addy is that she finds her own power in the latter half of the novel. The last chapter left me with a sense of discord–almost as creepy as the end of Gone Girl.

Second, Abbott’s depiction of the world of a competitive cheerleading team is amazing.  Just as interesting as the question “Who killed the Sarge?” is the inner-workings of the team and the hierarchy, and fight for dominance between Beth and Coach. And if I may flex my English-major-muscle, the team culture is further reinforced by the presence of Sarge and his boys.

Questions for you…

1. Do you think Dare Me should be a movie? (I think that Gone Girl would be awesome as a movie but Dare Me will be seriously diminished as a story in cinematic form.)

2. Who’s your “Top Girl”: Beth, Addy, or Coach? (As I mentioned above, I liked Addy the best.)

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Mommy & Novelist…Or Maybe the Other Way Around

Jackson prepares for the Mud Run.

Alternate title: “How To Write and Market Your Novel, Be a Stay-at-Home Mom, and Deal with the Pull of Guilt from Both Your Literary Baby and Your Real Baby.”

I started writing North Shore South Shore in 2007 when my husband was relocated to Los Angeles. I was working as an editor for AOL’s TV Squad. I joined a writer’s group with my husband just to fill some time. I took the relocation hard and didn’t have many friends in L.A. or much to do for that matter. But I drafted the first iteration of my novel.

We moved home just a year later, I started working as a high school English teacher, and North Shore South Shore collected figurative dust filed away on a USB drive. Plus I started back pursuing my second Masters. For a solid year, the novel was just a large file, forgotten and finally moved to make room for lesson plans and graduate work. I looked at it a few times during school breaks. I had to revise much of it and add a fourth narrator. But I couldn’t even get to writing because I would have to read the whole thing before I could put fingers to laptop.

In 2010, I had Jackson and finishing North Shore South Shore looked unlikely. But in the summer of 2010 (five-month-old in tow) I buckled down during naps and after bedtime. North Shore South Shore was “coming along.” I even started posting about it on my facebook page (because if you don’t mention it on facebook, it’s not real). By the following summer, I had something of a manuscript and an active, charming 15-month-old. I had also finished my second Masters. My husband’s voice was now a familiar refrain: You need to finish it. How many people say they are going to write a novel and never write one? You have over 100,000 words. You never know–it might get published.

Jackson takes the road not taken.

And I have him to thank for the completion of North Shore South Shore. My refrain was something like this: I don’t have the time. I have the baby to care for. I have a part-time teaching gig still. It’ll never get looked at anyway. But, despite my best efforts to convince myself NOT to finish the novel, I finished it. I created this blog to document the process. The book became an old friend that I would catch up with whenever I had the chance. I looked forward to times when I could work on it the same way I looked forward to taking Jackson to the zoo or the playground.

While writing the book was a focused, intense process, marketing my book to both buyers and literary agents is a multi-headed monster, like the mythical one that Hercules kills in his labors. But Hercules killed his wife and kids (ain’t no Disney ending there) and therefore is suspect as a role model for this process. Talk about missplaced rage.

Still, I’m left with the task of fitting it all in (and without mythical role models). Oh, and I should mention we’re potty training right now. My days alternate between the guerilla marketing of North Shore South Shore and taking care of Jackson. I confess, sometimes I just want to focus on caring for and playing with him. When I’m working on novel stuff, Jackson beckons “I play you, Mommy” and grabs my hand. (Cue pang of guilt.) I feel like I’m missing something. He’ll never be this age again. “It goes so fast so enjoy it,” said the lady in the diner peering over her walker with tennis balls on the bottom and I get this eerie feeling that my octogenerian self is warning me. (It should be noted that before said lady walkered over to our table, I was trying to make Jackson sit in his high chair and he was calling “Help! Help!” to other diner patrons.)

But if I’ve spent the whole morning with Jackson, my literary baby beckons.

So my days include (but are not limited to) potty training, updates to the novel’s facebook page, emailing queries to agents, cutting up fruit for snacks, play dates, formatting the book for release to eReaders, scouring Pinterest to fill out North Shore South Shore‘s Pinterest page, tweeting, emailing, diaper changing, playing with blocks or trains or play-doh, and the occasional art project.

And despite every expectation that I should not be able to accomplish both, things are getting done. I’ve had several requests for full manuscripts from agents. My kickstarter project started two days ago and is already 31% funded. My facebook page has over 300 fans. And the book is finished and will be released in October.

And my laundry is done. And my apartment is (somewhat) tidy. Because mommies can do anything. After all, we gave birth. That s*** was ridiculously hard.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll allow for some advice (not of the sage variety but advice nonetheless):

1. It’s okay to want to work on your work, especially if you’re creative like me. Just as my child is a living, breathing being in need of my love, North Shore South Shore is an ever-expanding and contracting text that has taken on a life of its own via twitter, facebook, and kickstarter. Taking care of both babies feeds my soul in different ways. I’ve learned I’m learning to be at peace with working on the project.

Jackson paints a blob.

2. Do something meaningful with your child (either once or multiple times a day depending on the age). I find that Jackson’s attention span for me is only about 20-30 minutes. After that, his interaction level decreases and he moves on to something else. So I try to do a few activities in a day with him. We paint, craft, build block towers, pretend play with Go Diego Go toys, build Thomas Tracks, and read books. Some days I spend a few hours in the morning with him at the Botanical Gardens or the Bronx Zoo and then I spend more of my afternoon marketing North Shore South Shore or doing quick stints of proofreading.

3. Get in some work when your child is napping or eating. The naptime work session is obvious. But I get in some writing after I set Jackson up with breakfast or lunch. I find it takes toddlers at least a half hour to eat anything. He is a gourmet who savors each cheerio, each bite of penne, each strawberry half. By contrast, I eat lunch standing at my kitchen counter, putting away dishes with one hand and stuffing a sandwich in my mouth with the other. Because of my obsessive need to multi-task and damaged relationship with food, I can get plenty done during his lunchtime.

4. If you feel like there’s something you want to do, DO IT. Write the book. Start the business. (I have a friend who makes beautiful invitations from home and another who crafts adorable bows for little girls.) Finish the degree. (I have two friends working on their dissertations right now.)  Just do it. I certainly believe you can.

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Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL…Reese Witherspoon as AMY?

A NOTE ABOUT MY REVIEW: So my review of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl will be split into two parts: one that everyone can read (no spoilers) and one that only people who finished the book can read. Actually, everyone *can* read both parts. It’s a free country after all. You can read whatever you want. But if you plan on reading Gone Girl, I don’t recommend reading the second part of this post. The book is a thriller–much depends on the your discovering details as it moves along.

REVIEW FOR EVERYONE: Let me say first–this novel belongs on the NYT Bestseller list. The list is currently populated by books that pale in comparision (*cough* Fifty Shades) in terms of pyschological insight, engaging story and characters, and sharp wit. This book made me smarter. Seriously, I learned new words and lots of other useful shit. (If C.K. reads this post and then reads Gone Girl, he will definitely want to know what “useful shit” I learned.)

A few good points

  • Strong narrative voice: I should say “voices.” There are two narrators: Nick and Amy (in the form of diary entries). Both are intriguing, realistic, and reveal deafening psychological problems. I don’t like either of them and yet I’m completely obsessed with both.
  • The twist: I’m not going to say what it is, of course. But I will say that I didn’t see it coming AT ALL. With thrillers (either in film or books), your brain can’t help but try to figure things out before the author/director gets you there. It’s part of the amusement, I think. You want to have the “gotcha” feeling before the protagonist gets puts all the clues together.
  • The pacing: This is the most perfectly paced book I’ve read in a long time. Nothing is superfluous. Everything is meaningful. Flynn’s writing is tight–either providing details for the kidnapping/murder or the illuminating some deep recess of the character’s mind (and in the process defining his/her moral code).

One disappointment: I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. More on that below in the second part of the review.

James Marsden should play Nick Dunne.

SPOILERS ABOUND! SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK!

REVIEW FOR FELLOW READERS OF GONE GIRL: Oh my GOD! Part Two of this novel, people! I didn’t see it coming. Actually, I saw some hints of it coming but still, nothing jived with Amy’s personable diary entries. I absolutely adored that first or second chapter in part two when she describes how she framed Nick, how she hates her parents, how she did it all to punish him for cheating on her. The framing is just impressive–you know you’re dealing with a very intelligent narrator. The resentment for Rand and MaryBeth had me exclaiming “Of course! Who wouldn’t hate those parents? They took her trust fund!”

And if the framing has you loving how intelligent Amy is, the punishment of Nick damns her as a reliable narrator. I love a good unreliable narrator (Hello, Nick Carraway in Gatsby!). Furthermore, Nick Dunne was the unreliable one / the unlikeable one but after the shift, Amy fills that role. As a reader I was totally on Nick’s side–the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. And the scope and dedication of such an elaborate punishment reveals Amy to be a sociopath fit for an orange jumpsuit.

My one disappointment was the ending. However, I think my reading this on a Kindle killed it for me. I laid down in bed Monday night and looked at the Kindle: 94% at the bottom. I thought–I can finish this tonight. But with 6% left there has to be another twist. And I was spoiled with how beautifully paced the twists in the narratives were. Nick has to get Amy somehow. Boney has to figure something out. Jacquelyn Collings finally gets a sympathetic soapbox in the media and a really good lawyer. But the novel ended abruptly as 97% and went into acknowledgements. Where’s my last 3%? Where’s my twist?

But nothing! Nick just stays with Amy because she’s having the baby he always wanted. That baby, by the way, has no chance. Flynn created a completely innocent victim. Who would want to be endowed with those genes? So the only character who has my sympathy is the baby. However, I wanted vengeance despite not liking any of the victimized characters. And maybe that’s the point–Nick and Amy are screwed up and deserve each other. I guess Desi is just collateral damage.

Now, I’m reading Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, fourth and final in the Wicked Series. Talk about superb writing and getting smarter from reading. The man is a genius.

I read the wikipedia pages for the first three books: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. I think I need to read them all again to be prepared for Out of Oz. So much rich history there.

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