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Review of ‘The Next Best Thing’ by Jennifer Weiner

August 27, 2012 1 comment

The Next Best Thing

by Jennifer Weiner

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012, RRP $37, ISBN 9780857208163

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

The Next Best Thing by best-selling author Jennifer Weiner is set in Los Angeles and is about Ruth Saunders, a young woman who breaks into the world of TV sitcoms with her show The Next Best Thing. I’m interested in LA and screenwriting, and I think they’re great subjects for a novel, so I was looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. But it didn’t go quite the way I’d expected.

Fifty pages in I knew there was something not quite right about this novel, and so I did a little investigating. I wouldn’t normally search the internet or look at other reviews before I write my own, but on this occasion I’m glad I did.

It turns out that Jennifer Weiner co-created and wrote the short-lived sitcom State of Georgia in 2011. To be fair she acknowledges this at the back of The Next Best Thing. But there’s a reminder that should be pinned to every writer’s wall: just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it should be in your story. When I found out about Weiner’s cancelled sitcom, and had a look around, all the problems I had with The Next Best Thing started to make sense.

As the story slowly unfolds, we see Ruth’s ideas being taken away from her, changed piece by piece until her show is no longer the one she dreamed up. If only, I realised Weiner is telling us, if only I – sorry, I mean Ruth – could have made ‘State of Georgia’ – sorry, I mean The Next Best Thing – the way I’d wanted to it would have all been OK, and it would have been a hit.

Weiner tells us in great detail how it all happened. Dozens of pages go by while we hear about how the show was picked up, the rewriting of scenes and introduction of new characters, the studio executives getting their way with casting, and the lowly status of the writer when it comes to decisions. And what happened with audience testing. And how difficult the actors were. And so on and so on.

There’s no problem with writers basing parts of their stories on reality. Everyone does it. But Weiner’s inability to resist including endless scenes just because they happened in real life weighs the book down heavily.

Weiner doesn’t help herself by choosing to write in the first person. Everything is related to the reader by Ruth at a slow, unvarying pace. I turned the pages quickly, but not because I wanted to find out what happens. I just wanted to get it over with. There is a remarkable lack of dramatic tension. Although Weiner tries to get us engaged with her characters, there’s no depth, no emotion. There’s nothing really at stake. There should be – all the ingredients are present – but somehow it fails to ignite.

Mark Twain said he didn’t have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one instead. I’m quite sure Weiner didn’t give herself enough time to write The Next Best Thing. She couldn’t wait to tell the world what she thought about her ‘State of Georgia’ experience. ‘State of Georgia’ was cancelled in September 2011 and The Next Best Thing hit the bookstands on 1 August 2012. Hardly enough time to write it, let alone tighten it up. Definitely not enough time to pick up what would be called, in TV or the movies, glaring continuity errors. Not enough time to pick up the typos. Not enough time to do a quick web search to confirm that if you wanted a ‘Maori tribesman’ to give you a tattoo, you probably wouldn’t go to Australia.

And then, the ending. It’s not as if any more evidence was needed to to prove that this book was produced too quickly, but the ending provided it anyway. In contrast to the slow-moving first 350 pages, the ending is hurried, muddled and indulgent. There are premiere parties and pilot re-shoots, actors on the payroll and holidays being taken, people appearing in a scene to say one thing and then disappearing again. All very confusing. And then – well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Suffice to say some of it is based on real life events and some of it is made up. Just like all fiction, really, and that’s the thing. Transforming life into fiction is what writers do but it takes time, and I don’t think Weiner spent enough time on The Next Best Thing.

I was disappointed by Weiner’s effort. She’s a best selling author, and The Next Best Thing should have been a better, and shorter, book. I’m quite sure there’s an interesting, exciting and emotionally compelling novel hiding inside The Next Best Thing. I just wish Weiner had taken the time to write it.

The Rules from Kirsten McDougall

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Having just reviewed Kirsten’s book ‘The Invisible Rider‘ this is a timely and interesting post on the International Institute of Modern Letters blog: The Rules from Kirsten McDougall.

Categories: Kirsten McDougall

Review of ‘The Invisible Rider’ by Kirsten McDougall

August 18, 2012 2 comments

‘The Invisible Rider’ by Kirsten McDougall

Published by Victoria University Press, 2012

ISBN 9780864737670

RRP $30

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Invisible Rider is an incisive and moving collection of seventeen short episodes from the life of Philip Fetch, a Wellington lawyer, and his family and friends. Each carefully placed chapter dives deep into Philip’s emotional confusion and uncertainty. Illustrated with evocative soft pencil drawings by Gerard Crewsdon, the book has plenty of character and style. It shows us the kind of questions middle aged professionals – men in particular – ask themselves, unexpectedly, as they wonder where their twenties and thirties went, and what happened to their dreams.

Readers who know Wellington will smile – and wince – at the way Kirsten McDougall brings to life familiar places we know and love. In other hands a chapter set in a bookshop with its ‘small handwritten notes,’ and ‘readings were held there, with wine and olives, and small salty crackers,’ might come across as too knowing. We all love the bookshop she’s describing but McDougall goes on to use the setting to reveal much more about Philip and his friend James, heading off perfectly any sense of indulgence.

I turned the pages of this book with great admiration for the way McDougall has observed so much that is true about people like Philip. As I read about him taking his children swimming, or thumping the bonnet of a car that nearly knocked him off his bike, or trying to stay with it at a party of the city’s movers and shakers, I not only identified closely with what was happening, I felt I knew Philip Fetch and that I’d lived parts of his life. Especially the bonnet-thumping.

It maybe that this book won’t connect quite so closely with readers from other places and other demographics, but the themes and characters are universal. Friends, family, love, temptation and loss, they’re all here, and McDougall reminds us with this carefully crafted sequence of stories that we don’t face them alone.

The Invisible Rider is McDougall’s first book, although her poems and stories have been published in journals and she also won the ‘Short’ section of Unity’s ‘The Long and Short of It’ competition in 2011. In a way her winning story, Clean Hands Save Lives (in The Long and The Short of It, Unity Books, May 2011,)does something similar to The Invisible Rider. It shows us a character – in this case a mother – at a stage of life many of us can identify with, dealing with things we know all too well. What parent hasn’t been knocked back the first time they hear their child swear? At that moment you realise not that they’ve grown up, but that they will grow up one day, even the one that took ‘thirty-six hours and a knife to come out.’ There are many equally moving moments of insight into life in The Invisible Rider

A graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, McDougall’s prose is clean and feels effortless, a sure sign that great efforts have been made to make it appear that way. I was particularly impressed by McDougall’s ability to show place without explicitly telling us where we are. One chapter is clearly set in France, although the narrative never says so. McDougall’s writing unobtrusively and seamlessly leaves us in no doubt at all about the setting in each chapter.

At times I thought a firmer editorial hand might have helped. McDougall has a tendency to repeat words or phrases in quick succession. We see ‘out the window’ five times in the first two pages, for example, whereas a tougher editor might have suggested alternatives.

If there are other shortcomings, they are to be found in McDougall’s limited exploration of some of the book’s other characters. We see something of Philip’s wife, his children and his friends, but perhaps more could have been done with them? It’s not as if the book, at 150 pages, is overly long. Could it have accommodated more material? As it stands there is no padding at all, no filler, nothing on the page that is unnecessary, but rather a lot about life in remarkably few words.

I have no hesitation in recommending The Invisible Rider.  With a main character we care about, plenty of emotion and events, and a story arc that reaches a perfect conclusion, all threaded together with the way people face up to the loss of certainty about life in middle age, it tells us many truths that we surely know but have most likely not yet admitted to ourselves.

Emma McCleary’s review of ‘Life: An exploded diagram’ by Mal Peet

August 7, 2012 1 comment

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t initially attracted to the book when it came out (2011) because the plot features the Cuban Missile Crisis and I just thought, “boring.” I’ve got a problem with making untrue snap decisions about books.

Clem Ackroyd, our central character, lives with his parents and grandmother in a claustrophobic home too small to accommodate their larger-than-life characters in the bleak Norfolk countryside.

Life takes us from intimate moments in a teenage boy’s life to the world stage and back again with ease.

We’re off to school with Clem and his mate, we’re picking strawberries in the blazing sun of the English countryside, we’re scoping out new places for make out sessions… then we’re in JFK’s war room, part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, flying high about the Arctic avoiding…

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Categories: Fiction, Mal Peet
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