Books within Books: Novels Featuring Writers

Many writing teachers tell their students to “write what you know.” And what do writers know better than… writers? I love a good story about a writer, and so jumped at the chance to read ARCs of Joani Elliott’s The Audacity of Sara Grayson and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot.

The Audacity of Sara Grayson

Synopsis:

What happens when your mother’s dying wish becomes your worst nightmare?

What happens when the world’s greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series?

And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she’s not a real writer?

Sara Grayson is a thirty-two-year-old greeting card writer about to land the toughest assignment of her life. Three weeks after the death of her mother—a world-famous suspense novelist—Sara learns that her mother’s dying wish is for her to write the final book in her bestselling series.

Sara has lived alone with her dog, Gatsby, ever since her husband walked out with their Pro Double Waffle Maker and her last shred of confidence. She can’t fathom writing a book for thirty million fans—not when last week’s big win was resetting the microwave clock.

But in a bold move that surprises even herself, Sara takes it on. Against an impossible deadline and a publisher intent on sabotaging her every move, Sara discovers that stepping into her mother’s shoes means stumbling on family secrets she was never meant to find—secrets that threaten her mother’s legacy and the very book she’s trying to create.

My thoughts:

Joani Elliott knows how to write! Well crafted novel with a realistic depiction of the art of writing — the insecurity and hopelessness and futility and accomplishment, cycling in an endless, introspective loop. If you think the story synopsis above sounds interesting, the book storyline should be right up your alley. Elliott’s writing is empathetic, and feels uplifting, in a real, truthful way. As someone who dabbles in writing, I found much of this book inspiring. I definitely recommend if you are a writer. You will love Phil, because he’s the best.

The book also has a couple of adorable and believable romances.

My only issue with this book (which, unfortunately, is a big one), is that we spend the majority of our time with Sara Grayson, and Sara Grayson is… kind of awful. Whiny, full of excuses. Literally everyone she knows is like, “Your writing is so good! You need to do this! Also, you’ve been unhappy. Trying this new thing may help you realize what you want and feel fulfilled.” And she doesn’t trust herself, she doesn’t trust those she loves, and she’s fucking annoying about it. It’s probably realistic, but it’s very difficult to spend so much time with her when she’s insufferable, and, like, not in a fun way.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 typewriters

The Plot

Synopsis:

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

My thoughts:

Thriller novels are difficult, in that they rely on either:

  • creating tension/suspense that causes the readers to avidly keep reading out of desperate need to find out what happens/get resolution;
  • have a twist that changes the lens by which the story has been viewed;
  • have writing so amazing, that even if the twist is predictable, the reader doesn’t care, because it’s so fun getting there.

I applaud Jean for the work that she put into this book. The concept is interesting, and writing a book is a lot of work.

However, I was able to see the “surprise twist” about 20% of the way through the book, the writing was fine, but nothing that particularly filled me with wonder, and given that I knew where everything was likely headed (and I was correct), lacked the tension/suspense I would generally want from a thriller.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 typewriters

Pretty Little Stalker – Who’s the Real Victim?

For anyone who has seen the movie Pretty Little Stalker, the title is a rhetorical question; obviously, the victim is us, the viewers. It sucked me in with it’s title that was obviously designed to draw the attention of Pretty Little Liars fans and ridiculous-sounding thriller premise. I continued watching it, because it was a dumpster fire – terrible and rotting, but sort of beautiful, in a nonsensical, this-needs-a-drinking-game way. So how is this movie terrible? Let me count the ways (and, like, don’t read the rest of this post if you actually have a desire to watch the movie and don’t like spoilers, because that is what the remainder of this post will be comprised):

  1. In the beginning of the movie, a character named Maggie, who you will only ever see in this one scene questions the protagonist’s legitimacy as a mother because she’s in her second marriage. Which is… very illogical. It’s like someone likes to eat salad, and someone else being like, “But you don’t like chicken nuggets. How can we trust your legitimacy as a person who likes eating salad?” Like, shit, Maggie may “tell it like it is,” but she also seems like a crazy person and also, she’s literally only in this one scene, so this entire scene should have been left on the editing floor.
    1. On a related note, this scene, which is a Lorna book signing, since the protagonist is a bestselling self-help author, ends with Lorna signing the book of whomever the next customer in line after Maggie was. You don’t know this person’s fucking name. This person doesn’t matter. But, like, I love how legible Lorna’s signature is. As anyone who has seen a doctor, or attended the book signing of a bestselling author knows, people who have to sign their names all the time have nearly illegible signatures. They have to, to avoid carpal tunnel and, you know, boredom.
  2. So, this one’s a little random, but the dress Lorna wears in the third scene of the movie (modeling a dress in front of the mirror; immediately after the book signing scene) is one that I own. It’s a kerchief dress, with a solid black top with a keyhole, and a paisley-esque skirt. I’ve had this dress for, like, a decade now. Pretty sure I got it on sale at JCPenney’s. Also, weirdly, this is a dress her husband purchased for her, apparently on a whim, since he has to ask her if she likes it, and says he “wasn’t sure” she would. Like, why did you buy it then? Seems a bit misogynist…
  3. Lorna’s supposedly normal high school son is introduced playing the handslap game with his girlfriend. You know, the one where you hold your hands above the other person’s, and you have to try to move them out of the way before they get randomly smacked? These kids are supposed to be in high school. High school students are smart enough to know how to try to seduce someone. This game is literally the weakest foreplay I’ve seen in my life – like, that boy’s never getting laid.
    1. Side note: It’s pretty obvious that Ashley Rickards is the stalker. But wouldn’t this movie be so much better if the “girlfriend” character Bridget was actually the stalker, and was playing the long con to completely ruin Lorna’s life? Like, she gives Lorna’s son syphilis or something before sneaking into his mother’s bedroom and cutting her Achilles tendons so the self-help guru can never walk again. #justsaying
  4. There are several scenes (okay, at least 2) where Lorna’s husband, named Harry, is exposing his hairy chest. In the first scene in which this occurs, he is investigating a noise that Lorna heard. It is very important that he be shirtless, guys. He can’t put a shirt on or even grab a weapon in case it’s robbers to investigate.
    1. The “placate-the-wife” routine this misogynist is going through, since he obviously doesn’t expect it could be anything dangerous because he hasn’t grabbed a weapon is pretty played-out. Like, he deserves that golf club to the head. #TeamMallory
    2. Do you think they changed the name of Lorna’s husband’s character after casting Mr. Hairy chest? Even better, I would love if he’s not actually hairy at all, and the costumer with the ancient discount closet carefully collected, like, her dog’s hair or something and glued it to Harry’s chest.
  5. There’s this whole, weird virgin worship in this movie. Like, Mark’s supposed to feel ashamed that he finds Mallory attractive when he has a girlfriend. I mean – she’s a super hot chick who has an endless well of family drama, which we all know is often the best aphrodisiac. It’s okay for a high school boy to be interested in her. Just, like, don’t string your “girlfriend/slap-hands partner” along – let her know she’s really cute and all but you really want some hot, crazy sex, and maybe you’ll hit her up again when you’re done sowing your wild oats. #honesty
  6. Hairy literally closes his wife’s laptop on her fingers when she says she’s not ready to go to bed. So controlling. Why can’t you just let your bestselling author wife sleep in? Damn, she bought you a freakin’ mansion. Let her do what she needs to do to keep making green! Those property taxes are not going to be cheap.
  7. Because the screenwriter needed to make sure you didn’t find Mallory likeable, there’s this weird scene where she kills the couple who bought her previous home. This scene is amazing. Mallory literally strangles some random bitch named Monique while her husband is sleeping right next to them in the bed. Guess when the husband wakes up? Like, right after his wife was killed. Like, hey guys, just another shirtless misogynist. Nothing to see here. He totally deserves that bullet to the chest. #TeamMallory
  8. The chick who plays Britney in Glee is Lorna’s agent. She loves the book that Lorna is writing based solely on interactions Lorna has had with her stalker. You would think Lorna would look more favorably on someone who was her fucking muse. It was at this point in the movie that I thought: “Dude Lorna, I don’t know what “Mallory” has planned for you, but you probably deserve it.” #TeamMallory
  9. Lorna plans to postpone her son’s 18th birthday party… because she’s grounding him for dating a girl she doesn’t like. Are we supposed to think she’s a good parent? Like, I thought I was strict. Lorna just seems like an emotionally controlling monster.
    1. It’s okay though, guys. She takes that back and gets her 18-year-old son balloons. Like, yeah, I’m so sure your 18-year-old son will appreciate those much more than inviting his girlfriend.
  10. So… just to be clear:
    • Lorna, who doesn’t seem to have any education in therapy, psychology, etc., wrote what are probably bullshit self-help books that “helped” Mallory’s mother realize she wanted to divorce her husband and abandon her daughter, resulting in Mallory’s father killing Mallory’s mother and then himself.
    • So she destroyed Mallory’s family.
    • Yet it is okay for her to protect her own family when Mallory tries to help karma out a little bit by attempting to kill Mallory with a gun.
    • She couldn’t even have tried to draw Mallory out while she stealthily dialed 911, and gotten Mallory monologuing until the police arrived, since they are required to show up at to investigate if they’re not getting any feedback (or hear a mentally ill woman raving and threating to, you know, kill people). Or maybe she could have been like: “Mallory, you’re so smart! You have so much potential. Don’t throw that away by killing my lame nerd of a son. I was inspired by our conversation over dinner – I’ll give you a share of the royalties! Let us be partners. Huzzah!” Nope, she just nabs Mallory’s gun and shoots the poor girl.
    • Who’s the real victim here, I ask you?
  11. Also, for some reason, they have Mark’s 18th bday party 6 months later. Which is just… odd.
  12. There wasn’t even a twist at the end where Mallory, like, walks in front of their house or something. #missedopportunity

So, yeah – I was not a fan of Pretty Little Stalker. Though I will admit:

  • the chick who plays Lorna has amazing hair through the movie, so kudos to the hairstylist; and
  • Ashley Rickards does a good job with a batshit character whom it is unlikely would actually be out on the streets for so long considering how often she attacks people.

Have you seen the movie? If so, what were your thoughts? If not, I don’t recommend it – also, did I convince you to join Team Ashley?

Plain Bad Mediocrity

Brookhants, a property housing a boarding school that was last peopled with students in the early 20th century, is haunted. Parents stopped feeling comfortable sending their girls there after the mysterious deaths of several of the students, as well as members of the faculty. The terrible deaths surrounding the property, as well as the unconventional lifestyles and love interests that people the property’s tragedy, made for a fascinating, bestselling read when literary talent Merritt Emmons had her non-fiction book featuring the mystery published as a precocious teen, and are now in the works to become a (hopefully) blockbuster, (at the least) expensive movie featuring the famous and beautiful Harper Harper and her B-list co-star Audrey Wells. … what could go wrong?

If I were to draft a book wishlist, a book description fairly similar to the synopsis of Plain Bad Heroines would be on it. As a fan of thrillers/horror since elementary school, as well as enough of a follower to read shit because Emma Roberts’ book cult suggested it, it’s almost like Emily M. Danforth’s novel was crafted specifically for me. Sprinkle in characters that challenge heternormativity, and an intelligent, rich mentor character who met Truman Capote, and I have got to fucking read this book.

Give me ALL the books!

Unfortunately, although the plot and characters are interesting, this book was not as enjoyable as I was hoping.

Plain Bad Heroines is an interesting conundrum of a novel, in that it has really forced me to evaluate what I desire from the books that I read. Objectively, I consider the plot to be interesting. It has two primary timelines – one occurring in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, the other occurring more recently, in the early twenty-first century – and both timelines include interesting plots and have an approximate equal weighting. Objectively, I consider the characters to be interesting. There were characters I liked more than others, but the majority of the characters are either fairly well fleshed out, or appropriately rely on stereotypes that allow the reader to quickly understand them. I will say, not all of the characters really grow or change, but given that this novel is in large part a thriller/horror novel, I think that is okay. When you think about a lot of famous horror movies, the main character struggling to survive is often a static character, who may become traumatized, but has not really changed at his or her core, and has instead shown how his or her character has allowed him or her to remain alive. So, given that I agree that the plot and characters in the novel are fairly well done, what, exactly, was my problem with the novel?

That is an excellent question.

I’m going to try. Also, way to call bullshit on my stalling tactics.

Right.

I think the missing element for me with this novel was writing style. There were moments, brief glimpses, where the prose style was enjoyable to me. However, for the most part, the writing of this novel felt a bit plain. It was not that the sentences were even necessarily poorly crafted, they just didn’t appeal to me. The information that should have been conveyed was conveyed, it was just done in a way that felt too simple, that drew too straight a line from point A to point C. In essence, I think that this novel shows craft and shows writing, but just does not do so in a way that is in accord with my artistic sensibilities. I would not be at all surprised to discover I am in the minority in my feelings while reading this novel. At the same time, my honest, true feelings are that the writing style takes an interesting idea peopled with interesting characters and fails to elevate the story, leaving the book instead one more mediocre novel populating store bookshelves starting October 20th.

Ugh – I wanted to like this so much more than I did!

Did you read it, or are you planning to do so? If so, what did you think or what is most interesting/intriguing/appealing to you?

In the [Place] with a [Murder Weapon]

Diane Peterfreund’s YA novel In the Hall with a Knife is the Clue Update you didn’t know you wanted. Yes, Clue – that game created by Anthony E. Pratt in 1943, and later turned into a cult-classic of a movie starring the likes of Doc from Back-to-the-Future, Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, and Tim Curry. This book is a YA re-telling, including the classic characters you know and love, as well as Dr. Orchid from the 2016 version of the game recently released, as suspicious and mistrustful adolescents attending an elite boarding school in rural Maine. When a handful of students, faculty, and staff at this school are isolated there due to a terrible snowstorm, people get fussy, someone gets murdered, and most people play detective, because, like, what else are you going to do when there’s no internet or television?

Similar to the movie, this novel gives all of the characters a back story. These backgrounds are generally ridiculous, campy fun, including a poor-little-rich girl former child movie star, a boy with an evil, identical twin, and a dude who got kicked out of military school and continues to want daddy’s approval.

If you are looking for a good mystery novel, don’t read this. It’s fairly obvious who the killer is long before you get to the end, and you will be disappointed.

Attribution: GRPH3B18 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a thriller, this novel should provide what you seek. This book has drama, tension, nostalgic references, bad weather, hot cocoa, hints at romance, reasons to suspect everyone even though you kind of already know who the killer is, and is also well written. So… like… what are you waiting for? Make a cup of hot chocolate, and tuck in with this book, which was released in October, because it’s the holiday season, and nothing counteracts the saccharine commercials, television movies, and inescapable carols like a thriller.

‘Tis the Season
To be Readin’