Sunday, December 31, 2006

Some of the Books I've Enjoyed

Well, it's taken me a while to post this, and the pile waiting for "quick" comments has grown to tottering, but I hope you enjoy the peeks into what I found compelling.

Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy (a long-standing FM writer)

I'll be honest and say I picked up this book merely to support the author, and it took me a bit to get to reading it with the state of my to-be-read shelf. However, once I started, it was really hard to put it aside to work on what I needed to get done...and I stayed up way too late the last night on the "too close to the end" problem. It's a solid story with a likeable, mouthy character who drives her life even when fate seems to try to drive it for her. I suddenly understand why, after this one sale, she's had a cascading effect on the publishing industry. The story is good, the character compelling, and the sense of place, even when things are out of place, is wonderful. I didn't start out a grand fan of the urban fantasy trend, but I keep running into books that make modern day so much more interesting. This is definitely one of them. And a further sign of how good this book was...I just picked up the next in the series :).

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

I picked up this book as a case of mistaken identity. I thought I was picking up that book that everyone seems to be talking about: Kushneil's Dart. It wasn't that book, but I certainly don't regret the error. This is a strange story with an indirect narrative (meaning not a clear story being told), which would normally turn me off. However, it captures the feel of 18th Century London with the backbiting politics, the personal grievances, the cult of beauty, etc. that I've always loved in romance novels. The characters are compelling and you just can't wait to see what will come of this new tidbit you find. Okay, so on the story side, you don't always find out what that tidbit meant, even when the threads are somewhat resolved, but for once it didn't matter to me. I just went along for the ride and loved it. Will I be tracking down the first in the series? You better bet I will :).

Forest Mage by Robin Hobb

This is the sequel to the book I read as part of the publisher's reader review program. I picked it up out of curiosity mostly because, though I enjoyed the first one, the first was more about setting up a world than the story. It's what follows in that world that determines whether the author has taken advantage of the work. The answer in this case is clearly yes. Not only did she take advantage of the world she'd built in a grand way, but she even made me cry. I can say that without any spoilers at all, because the moment would not be what you could expect as a tearing up moment, but all the same it was. As usual with her books, the dense description took some time to get into. I have to remember that because first impressions would have me turn away from her books. They start out as they go on, however. The difference is not in the text or style, but in me. When I first start reading, I'm coming out of my busy, multitasking world and my hand is already rotating in the family signal of "get to the point already." Then, as if I've been walking through a muddy swamp, suddenly my foot comes free, lands on solid ground, and I'm completely enveloped in her forest. It's a change in state, in mindset, that doesn't come easy to me, but a talented author (and Robin Hobb has proved so twice now) can take me from my normal rush into complete absorption so that I want to stay in her world, heavy in detail and all, to become a part of it.

Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell

This book is a poster child for promoting yourself through an Internet presence. When I saw the book, I said, "I know that author," and picked it up. I didn't realize until I looked through the cover that it was his first book. Anyway, here's another book that had the "no clear story" issue. I'm starting to wonder if this is a trend and I'm going to have to just get over it :p. While not as compelling as the Kushner, I enjoyed the characters and wished more for the story to link together in a beginning, middle, and end format. I had a bit of a hard time with some of the gimmies, while at the same time, I enjoyed those same elements. The use of dialect was superb, not just in the actual dialect but in how a character negotiated the dialect, being as he'd been brought up to another speech but had integrated into the dialect-using society. As much as the logic of recreating Aztec society didn't make sense to me (though honestly it was shown from the outside mostly instead of through those to whom it was the norm), I found its use within the story compelling and well integrated. If I let go of the gimmie, from there, it made sense, and though not a society I could support, I could understand how someone brainwashed from birth could think it normal. I also enjoyed the almost steampunk feel of the novel even though it clearly wasn't. They all know they're on another planet and that they came as colonists, but a war set them back to that period and rediscovered tech is coming out much like Victorian steampunk, as clearly shown by the cover art (which, by the way, is right on target for the book, showing the book's cross natures. Anyway, it was a fun, interesting read. Tobias Buckell clearly shows some strengths as a writer that will keep me coming back. It'll be interesting to see what he does with this world and if what I look for in a storyteller is something he'll grow into or if the market has changed so much that I'm a dinosaur in my tastes :).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Disaster Magnet (Part Whatever...)

Okay, I really can't help this, I don't do anything to bring it on myself, I swear. It's just that life seems to line up this way. And it's fun to tell you all about it...after the fact.

So anyway, my son was trying out for a part in Fiddler on the Roof. This happens to be one of my favorite musicals so I was talking with him about it and I mentioned the Russian dance at one point in the movie version at least. Umm, this part IS my fault. I decided, with years since the last time I'd done the dance and in winter when my joints are not at their best, I would demonstrate it :). Needless to say, I did a piss-poor job and ended up with a very sore knee.

Years ago, I twinged my knee and ignored it until the inflammation was so bad I had to go around in a wheelchair for almost 2 months. This time, I was going to be smart. But my flexible brace was missing. Turns out my husband had thought, just a day before, that he would use it in a skit he was doing at work. After all, I hadn't used it in 7? 10? years? So what was the likelihood I'd need it then? Sigh. He forgot to factor in Fiddler ;).

So anyway, he brought it back home and I wore it on and off for a number of days, determined to be smart and careful.

Then I had some submissions to mail.

My husband's car is an automatic, so I asked him to switch, but our garage is very tight. After all the trouble getting into the car with the brace on, I parked it a bit wider than usual so I could get out. This meant when he parked my car next to it, he parked the car a bit wider than usual as well.

Then, when he brought the garbage can in on Monday, he didn't put it in snug, something that shouldn't have been an issue, but...

So anyway, I had more submissions to make. I asked him to leave his car, just to be cautious, but he forgot.

No problem. I wasn't needing the brace anymore, so I should be fine in the stick.

And then I backed up.

My side-view mirror hit the garbage can with the weight of a backing car.

I drove forward and swerved wider to get past it, annoyed but no biggie.

Ah, there's the failure point.

It turned out the momentum of the car had shifted the can enough so that it blocked the garage door sensor.

No problem, got out and shifted it.

The garage door still won't close.

(Just an aside for those of you who don't know, I live in a winter place now. There's snow on the ground and it isn't melting all that much in the heat of day. It was early morning because I wanted to miss the crowds. My car doesn't have a thermometer, but just two days before, when hubby went to work (about two hours earlier than the current time) it had been nine degrees. And that's not Celsius.)

So I clear the cobwebs off the sensor and try again. This time even holding the button for a manual override doesn't work. And the door makes funny noises.

I go back to look more carefully.

The car had indeed pushed the can. Hard enough to twist the rail of the garage door. So getting it closed? Just not going to happen.

I go looking for pliers. End up with a hammer and a metal clamp.

Small detail. I'm not as strong as a car. I can get it to budge a little, but not back to straight.

Still, it looks close.

I push the button.

It goes around the top curve and jars to a halt, then runs back.

I go take another look.

Hmm, it's not just bent a little. From my new angle, it's bent at least 2 inches.

And if that isn't enough, I look above me and the door now has one guide wheel hanging loose and another coming out.


I call hubby. Explain, and ask for suggestions. He has none. Plans to come home.

While waiting, I try to address the weight issue.

Figured out the perfect solution. Jam something between the rail and the wall to force it back into place. Only the only thing I had that was strong enough is about a half an inch too wide. BAH!

Searched for something of the right size then jammed it in there anyway, put the wheels back on the rail, and lowered the darn thing manually. Then called hubby, said no parking in the garage, but for now, it's set. Couldn't very well leave it open. The heater would have frozen :).

The good news is that I came through all of this with only a blood blister on my pinky (of course on the typing edge :p) and didn't get frostbite after warming up running around with a hammer :).

I couldn't put these circumstances together if I tried. It's a domino effect that only the fates, and a certain ancient Chinese curse, could manage. But at least it makes for an amusing blog post :).

Oh, and yes, I did get to the Post Office and my knee held up nicely :).

Welcome to my world. Stay at your own risk. I don't think it's infectious.

Epilogue in two parts:

Part 1 -

Hubby got home and, with the assistance of a monkey wrench, ratcheting bolt driver, and axe, we got the bracket back to mostly straight. But the rail was still off kilter. Back went the crate as a brace. Door's working okay, but we'll replace the bracket just in case. At least we come out of it in a pretty good position. Even life in suburbia has its adventures.

Part 2 -

I now understand why this keeps happening to me. It's not that I'm's genetic ;). I'll leave it to my dad if he's willing to explain in the credits. Suffice it to say, he sent me an email describing what would have been implausible on an Abbott and Costello routine :).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I don't usually put up writing notes here, but my writing blog is all about process, and this is all about life. So you might find this one a bit amusing.

Okay, multitasking is a necessary skill for writers. There are those who can work around it, but not me. However, when I start to get tired, when I've been pushing too long and too hard, it can work against me in the most amusing ways.

Morning is my writing time. I get about 1 hour of early sunlight to power my fingers. Only today, I'm writing along and the perfect rework of the ending to the romance novel I am currently editing comes to me. I should have pushed it aside and kept writing, but those kinds of inspirations can vanish like smoke if not getting proper attention. So I switched to the right folder, pulled up the file, and jotted down my notes, which are so much better than the ending I have now.

All well and good. Now I can get back to writing, right?

Umm, sure. But I come back to this line: Mr. Peterson put a hand on Pete's head and ruffled his feathers.

Okay, first of all, I just noticed Peterson/Pete. Sigh.

But that's not what caught my attention.

This novel is a contemporary romance between a woman grown tired of city life and a man who inherited his son after the death of his ex-wife. Yep, that's right. Pete is a boy.

Last time I checked, boys didn't have feathers.

Enter the other bit of multitasking. I recently put a short story up on my critique group about a man with feathers. It needs a lot of work and has been poking me at stray moments to get the work done based on the very on-target critiques I received.

I think the walls between my tasks are crumbling. Guess it's a good thing that I'm off for four days of family time when I'm unlikely to be able to get anything done, right?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Big (?) Game Hunter

Okay, I've spoken about all the times I tried to kill myself by accident, well except the fact that I discovered my cuddly purple sweater is all melted at the front after making tea while I was sick last week (guess it isn't cotton ;)), so I thought I'd convey one of the triumphs in my house. Gross, amusing, positively icky, but triumphant.

Yesterday, I was going about my innocent life in a house alone with way too many inquisitive, intelligent cats. You know when you hear the bump in the night? Well, let's just say it doesn't send me running for a baseball bat. The last time these cats got in trouble, they took out a glass bottle of thyroid medicine for our elderstateskitty (recently passed :().

Anyway, so when I start hearing them leaping off furniture and clatters and bangs, I go running out to rescue whatever next they're thinking to destroy, or to protect their paws from glass shards if that's what card I draw.

This time, it was the worst I could ever imagine! My Siamese kitten (1.5 years old), who has been gently brought up and hand reared (okay, since he was 6 weeks), had a mouse in his mouth. No, it wasn't the toy kind. When he dropped it, it wriggled. Ewww.

So here he is, dropping and grabbing, dropping and grabbing, and growling at Fawkes (a street cat picked up from the pound).

Well, glass had been bad enough, I didn't want to be cleaning up mouse guts. So I grabbed a paper towel, grabbed Randy, and told him to drop. It only took two tries before he released the squirmy, furry object and I wrapped it up, went to the outside garbage, and tossed it in...not hard enough because it was still wriggling, but at least it was trapped.

So, torn between pride and gross-out, I search the house for an "appropriate" cat treat. Can't find any so call my hubby. Not only does he direct me to the treats, but he tells me he knew there were mice in the garage and had put out poison for them. Eep!

I lost a cat, my first one actually that I remember for real, to rat poison. Hearing he had tried to poison my cat was no fun, but he didn't think the mice could get into the house...and none of our pound-collected, formerly outdoor cats had ever had any success with mice. So I start the calls to the vet. She wants to know what poison. How do I know? I didn't even know we had mice :p. Hubby gets home, tells her the poison, and it turns out they have to ingest a high concentration directly. Thank goodness. He drops the rest of the poison on the mouse still trapped in the garbage can and we go on about our lives. It's all over.

Or so we thought...

On comes family time. Right now, we're watching tapes of Space Above and Beyond because the networks have decided that sci-fi buffs like me don't exist :p. It's a weird, tense moment and suddenly a burst of violent action. Is it the show? Of course not.

Hubby goes to investigate.

It's another mouse.

Pause the show, on with the lights, and now we have four humans trying to catch the mouse. Randy backs off, disgusted, Fawkes comes in to investigate, but can't help at all.

Me, I'm the beater. I'm great at flushing the little furry creature out from behind bookcases and cabinets with an old legal-sized file folder and a piece of cardboard. Just don't ask me to touch it. Much to my kids' delight, I go all girly with the tiptoes and squeaking. I don't want that thing to run over my bare feet, no way! The mouse would have looked all cute and cuddly in a cage in a pet store. In my house, leaving unmentionables about wherever it pleases? I think not.

I flush it out. The others scramble with boxes and cans. It goes into hiding. I flush it out again, scramble, nothing.

It ends up snug with two spare CPUs under hubby's desk. He gets to crawl under and flush that time. Success. It runs over his lap. Eww! No catch.

In saunters Randy. He tries to get into my prime flushing spot. I tell him to go the other way and I'll scare the mouse out. Wonder of wonders, after a nudge with cardboard, he does.

The mouse is on the run. Jaws close.

The Randy is on the run. Did he get it? Yeah. And this time he's not so happy with his mummy. Must have thought I would toss it for him to play last time, not take it away. He finally releases (I'm his bonded human so I have to do this :p) and I'm stuck with a much more lively mouse this time. I hand it off to hubby who goes and kills it. This one wasn't poisoned for sure.

So now, the house is safe of more ickiness (at least until the babies starve or grow -- there's got to be babies, you know) and Randy has almost forgiven me. Somehow the treat I forced him to take (mint-flavored to take out the smell) just isn't as fun as proving himself the grand mouse hunter.

And since I didn't post this yet, an update. Poor Randy is bored with all his toys. He tests each one daily, but not a single on wriggles and tries to escape. And his humans have failed to provide any more of the live ones. We're mean.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Don't They Just Talk to Each Other

I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Why don't they just talk to each other" as a criticism of romance novels where the focus is on interpersonal conflict rather than some external disaster that throws people together. I've always liked those stories, because they seem more realistic to me. People just don't talk to each other, sad but true, and so misunderstandings happen all the time.

A few days ago, I heard a variation on the theme. A close writing buddy of mine says, "Remember how I said..." then continues with a snippet from her own writing. "Then why did I write this:" and it's a character thinking about how he doesn't quite trust this woman so won't tell her everything.

Here's my answer:

Because it's true to the character and the situation. Sure, if everyone was honest with everyone, life would be a better place, but really that's not reality, even fictional reality. You go with your gut, you go with what you know, and even if someone tells you the truth, if the apparent facts contradict, you're more likely to go with the "facts."

I was reading a science site recently,, and it had an article about how people really do decide what someone is like at the first impression, no matter how brief (People Judge in the Blink of an Eye: Click Here). Anyway, this ties into the topic because I think people make a lot of assumptions, rightly or wrongly, and even the bald truth can be hard pressed to overcome those impressions. To make things more complex, since both people involved in an exchange do the same thing, the truth is lost in a morass of impression and assumption.

According to the article, it's a defense mechanism left over from earlier times. So when you see a big man coming down the street toward you and you're a young woman, your senses go on alert. Doesn't matter if he doesn't care that you exist, you've identified him as a danger.

I think it's that aspect the romance novels tie into. Now I'm not saying they all do so well. Sure, you can have a book where the characters are given every opportunity to explain and choose not to for no good reason, but those shouldn't be used to judge the subgenre.

What if something or someone would be put at risk by the information? What if trust was something that had been repeatedly condemned or squashed? What if the crucial information was someone else's story to tell?

There are a lot of reasons we keep secrets, valid reasons. Some are matters of trust, either how much we trust the other person or how much someone else trusts us to keep their secret. Some are to avoid embarrassment, to protect a job, a spouse, even a pet. Some are inconveniences where if the truth is known something will have to change. I'm sure there are billions of reasons why two people would not be totally honest and that's ignoring all the reasons related to inaccurate first impressions. Each and every reason is valid fodder for a writer, especially one exploring a romantic relationship.

Romance is about love and trust, but all that doesn't come in a vacuum or at the first glance. A romance novel (or romance thread in another genre novel) is about the time before that love and trust is earned, that time when two people are still exploring this strange and unique (to them at least) emotion that has sprung between them. Would you be completely honest on your first date? Would you be comfortable if your date started spilling family secrets, explaining how long he or she wet the bed or sucked their thumbs?

Somehow I didn't think so ;).

We don't live in a world that rewards honesty. Look around you and there are billions of examples where people get ahead, get away with something, or even find something wonderful because they were less than completely honest. Honesty is scary both for the giver and the receiver. It's giving something of yourself away and taking responsibility for something of someone else. The whole social trend about the "three little words" comes because of vulnerability. In this world, people who are vulnerable get kicked. Not always, but enough times to train us to hold a little back.

Yes, that's a depressing view of the world, but I think an accurate one.

And here comes my theme on romances (didn't even realize it would come down to this). The reason these romances, the ones where misunderstanding or miscommunication forms the heart (pun intended ;)) of the conflict, work so well for me is not so much that they never talk to each other and explain away the problems but that they do eventually work their way through to communication and success despite the misunderstandings.

Whether it's how much to pay for dry cleaning or who is supposed to call whom, misunderstandings fill our lives. To teach through fiction that, if you try hard enough, any misunderstanding can be overcome is a wondrous thing. It gives me hope and encourages me to take the risk and make myself vulnerable in the hopes that things get better with the air clear and any misunderstandings resolved.

So yeah, why don't they just talk to each other? Well, maybe they, and we, should :).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Self-Censorship and the Reader/Listener's 50%

I hope no one came here looking for answers. I certainly don't have any, but I wanted to comment on something that has come up in several conversations of late, both those where I am a participant and where I am an observer. And today, I found myself doing the same thing.

I was reading The Atlantic Monthly (May 2003 and yes, I'm that behind on my reading ;)) and I ran across a fact that was new to me. I did not know (or remember) that the Talmud said all faithful (of any religion) had a place in Paradise. Now I was going to muse on the interconnection with this and the rigid rules regarding parentage to be considered an Orthodox Jew (my husband is Jewish, but according to the strict interpretations, my children are not because Judaism passes through the mother), but I decided not to. Why? Because raising religious questions as philosophical ponders can lead to those questions expanding and creating religious, as opposed to philosophical, debate. Something this blog isn't designed to address for all it might prove interesting :).

You'll just have to imagine what avenues I would have explored, because I've already decided on self-censorship.

In one of the conversations I mentioned before, a decision similar to mine--though on a word, not topic basis--was declared politically correct and therefore shunnable. Okay, ignoring the whole contradiction that exists in the concept of shunning tied to meeting acceptable social norms ;), the question here revolves around the choice to batter convention by deliberately ignoring it as opposed to compromising linguistic integrity by giving in...or does it?

Words have power. People have known that for centuries. Just think of the consequences of calling someone a Nazi, a communist, a terrorist. All of those words have a specific meaning...and a social one. The difference in the reaction of readers to describing a character as from a community that works together to support all the members and saying the character is a communist can be extreme depending on where the reader background sits. Are they equivalent? Well, the underpinning of the communist philosophy is just that: a community where every member shares the fruits of labor so the whole thrives. And how many people call (or accuse) the Israeli kibbutz system communist? And on the other end of the spectrum, if the word used is commune, it brings up images of hippies smoking things they oughtn't and lazing around all day.

Is choosing your words with a thought to the reader an act of political correctness to the detriment of your work? Is it every writer/speaker's job to redefine these terms in the hearts of their listeners so they can once again be used without emotional baggage?

To me, it comes down to self-censorship, but I don't find that a bad thing at all.

We have a rule in our family, the type of rule that requires reminders. It is "appropriate dinnertime conversation." That tag phrase is a reminder to self-censor discussions of maulings, gross things, detailed surgery, the showing of unhealed wounds, or what have you while we are attempting to consume our meal. I'm the primary reason. I have a vivid imagination and have difficulty curtailing it long enough to consume food. I became a vegetarian for 7+ years for no other reason than that I couldn't sit down to a meat meal without seeing the animal it came from, and not being raised on a farm, the food with a face concept really turned me off.

My family has agreed to censor themselves in the interest of me not starving to death. They know that while they hear just the words, my listener 50% comes in surround sound and full sensory. It's one of my strengths as a writer and my struggles as a human.

To get to the point, finally ;), their intent in talking about these things is to share interesting happenings, something they learned, something they did, etc. Their intent was never to make me too sick to eat. Just as if I were to use the term communist or commune to describe my characters' living style, my intent would not be to bring McCarthyism to the fore or a return of the flower children.

My take on this (and sure it can be called PC) is that intent doesn't matter. If I know in advance that the word I'm choosing is loaded with other meanings that will distract the reader/listener from my own purpose, assuming I'm not using the term to educate, not to self-censor, not to choose a term that won't pull the reader from my work, seems foolish.

How does this choice (word, sentence, topic, reference, whatever) advance your purpose? If it doesn't for whatever reason, I say change it. There are lots of words and oddly enough many mean the same thing (English is crazy :)). I'd never consider it PC in a derogatory way because my purpose is to communicate what I want to say. With the reader/listener 50% that's hard enough without using terms or topics that I can tell in advance will lead people off on other paths and away from what I'm trying to show them.

So, am I ultimately kowtowing to the masses? Have I lost my perspective and so will produce only bland vanilla works from now on? Or is maybe communication more important than playing the game of telephone where each person puts there own interpretation on my words until the meaning is lost in the babble? (Yes, my bias shows, but I'm still fascinated in different perspectives and you never might change my mind :).)

And just to make my point about words, though it was intended as a joke, I said I'd made the error code for something even more explicit. The response? "I thought explicit was a bad thing :P."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey: An Analysis

So, she declares no more book reviews and vanishes off the face of the Earth? Well, no more than usual, but between moving to a new state, trying to keep my sons in contact with good friends, seeing some of mine, unpacking, moving into a new office (okay, bedroom, but it's an office now), I haven't had the energy even to write up a blog entry I planned a long time ago.

But late's better than never and I had no other plans this night besides sleep, some programming on my website (which I'm converting from html to php), and even some more writing. Yeah, I'm getting the feeling I have too much going on, which is why I'm giving myself this break.

And on to what is not a review, but more an analysis not just of the book but also of my behavior as a reader. Someday I hope to have readers too, and knowing how I think is a step toward understanding those future masses ;).

I discovered Mercedes Lackey an age ago when she wrote with my favorite author Marion Zimmer Bradley. Thanks to MZB, I discovered a bunch of authors I still follow today :). As a reader, once I'm hooked, it takes a lot to make me go away. Not even the most horrible proofreading I've ever seen on The Firebrand by MZB could make me stop reading her books despite Cassandra being one of my favorites among the Greek mythological characters. I digress, but you may be getting the feeling I found Mercedes Lackey's The Fairy Godmother less than appealing. That is absolutely not the case. However, it is true that I found the beginning a wee bit dull. Before you get up in arms, this is the analysis part. For those of you prone to throw books, I'd say to give The Fairy Godmother more of a chance than that. It gets better, much better. But I can't explain or analyze without offering some insight into the book, so here's a spoiler alert. Those of you who haven't read the book should stop reading now to keep your mysteries intact :).


Okay, so now all those who don't want to read about this book have moved along maybe to return after their own experiences can inform the reactions. Me, I'm waiting to read this analysis: until I write my own so as not to compromise it.

Basically, my problem was this: the main character, Elena, does nothing to make things happen in the beginning. I've written numerous stories where characters are driven to a fate by circumstances beyond their control, but they either fight it or make choices that set them on that path. Elena left me wondering if she would ever take that big step for far too long and I wonder if I didn't trust Mercedes Lackey would I have hung around for that long. It's not that the book isn't well written, or even something as simple as Elena being an uninteresting character. My problem is specifically that she lets the story carry her along.

She makes a decision to become a general house help, her first decision, about 50 pages into the book. When that doesn't work out, she's lost until the fairy godmother picks her up and offers her an apprenticeship. Her reaction came across to me as "what have I got to lose?" more than "oh, what a wondrous opportunity." Now there's a reason for that reaction which becomes evident as the book carries on. However, she once again drifts through getting clothes, getting a wand, being accepted by the fairies, learning magic, and a myriad of other job-related events without taking control of her existence. Ultimately though, she's not happy within the confines of this task and redefines it to suit herself. The beginning then makes for good character continuity and foreshadowing, but of the kind only evident after the reader gets to the end.

For me, the book took on life when Alexander appeared. Suddenly, an existence (for she was just existing) that was following an established pattern, a pattern enforced by the manipulations of Tradition, is full of conflict. Elena's non-choices are thrown in her face and she has to decide between her word and her needs, a choice she refuses and comes up with a better solution in the end. For that to work, the first part of the book must be as it is. And yet, the first part of the book was a struggle for me, a dedicated Lackey reader.

I've analyzed the story elements and, as you can see, came to the conclusion that they required the parts that turned me off. This leaves me a little lost. Is the answer that this is a book only a well-known author with an existing following can write? I'm curious to see what you all think. Was this just me? Or did I miss something?

Oh, and another aspect of this book is something in common with my impression of Lynn Viehl's If Angels Burn. This book clearly set the framework for the Five Hundred Kingdoms. There was information in it, world building, that only tangentially affected the story but which cued the reader into how this world works. She's already published another novel in the series, so I suspect that the stage-setting was deliberate. It did not detract from the story so much as offer a mild distraction, but I think that's a writer distraction, not a reader one.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

No More Reviews

I know, some of you are going to fall down in shock that I'm posting again so soon, but I made an announcement when I started this idea, and so thought I should comment once again.

I've decided not to review every book I read. I can't keep up and still have time to read all the wonderful books I have on hand. Though reviewing the books helped me look at them in a different light, it also made me antsy when I neared the end, knowing homework awaited me. Sometimes I'd find myself composing the review as I went along, distracting me from the text in front of me. And mostly, I created this blog to air the strange, stray thoughts that cross my mind or are founded on experiences that happen to me. Book reviews don't fall into that criteria at all and had started to take it over. I may still periodically post a list of those books I've enjoyed recently, or write about one that just blew me away, but really, it's not fair to myself to keep the requirement of reviewing each one, or fair to the books to pick and choose based on my mood or whether I've got too many other tasks before me. None of the books I've read had no value and many of them were downright grand and yet some have lingered on the "to be reviewed" pile to the point that now I'd have to read them a second time to give them justice.

So there you go. Cop out? Maybe. Realistic? Definitely. I'm not saying things couldn't change, I'm just saying not right now :).

And that just increases the guilt on those that ended up abandoned.

Bitten and Smitten by Michelle Rowen was an amazing cross between a romance, vampire novel, and pure chick lit. I read quotes to my sons that had them in stitches and Jacob still mentions the high heels :). It's a worthwhile read even if you've never felt inclined to venture into the chick lit world and I'm planning to pick up her next one as soon as I get a free moment.

Midnight Rain by Holly Lisle was a novel outside of my comfort zone in romances, but at the same time, it drew me in and was very evocative. Even more so, she created a plausible situation where either answer could have been true or a red herring. Very few authors can string me along with enough valid seeds so I'm fascinated rather than annoyed. Holly did it.

Neither of these books should have been on the abandoned list. Circumstances beyond their control, and mine, put them there and even though the bright spots remain, there isn't enough to give them adequate analysis. Life isn't fair, I suppose, and I thought this would be useful and interesting for me, those readers I do have, and even the authors by giving them a slightly higher profile. It's a commitment I can't maintain and I'm going to stop kidding myself (and hiding the three to four other books I've read but not even put on the list out of fear).

I hope you've found the other reviews useful and interesting, but for now, I think that aspect is waning if not faded all together.

Oh, and any thoughts on whether I should keep writing up the list of books I do read in the sidebar? Is that of any interest without the hope of a review to back it up? Maybe I'll change the title to "Books I've Enjoyed" and then still end up with at least 95% of my reading material going up there. I'm a slow enough reader that I'm very selective in my reading and rarely end up with something that doesn't charm me.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

How to learn...

I'm a self-taught type of person. I have a bachelor's degree that I constructed out of the classes that amused me, I learned coding because my mother taught me "if you do it more than once, code it," and I'm a whiz at legacy systems. Piecing together answers with little training or documentation is my thing.

So why is it that I still believe the answers should be out there, findable and usable without the mess that is divination from scraps left buried in the sands of time?

I have a home network. In a house with approximately 6-7 computers (though not all working at the same time), it's a necessity. We just moved and decided that our new house would not have cables stapled along the walls in this modern time period of wireless and wired houses. All we wanted was that all the computers could talk to each other.

That should have been simple, right? We had the right equipment and everything... I even found step-by-step directions (though not for our equipment). Two days later, we had a semi-functioning system cobbled together with the use of the hosts file, a remnant of archaic networking prior to DNS servers and the like.

At this point, you're wondering what on earth this has to do with learning patterns and the like.

So I'm frustrated, stumped, and tearing my hair out. My oldest son is trying to help but I'd have to explain everything to him. So that's what I did. Explained, walked through, and then said, "The problem is that the hub can't see the gateway."

New search terms. Knowledge is out there, but just like the Oracles at Delphi, you have to ask the right question. This time, I found instructions for our equipment. We put it in that configuration and off we go, everything's working perfectly.

I grew up with a firm belief in education/training as supreme. But we cannot get trained in everything we're going to face. At some point, I need to remember to go back to my strengths, go back to the analysis that brought me into databases, programming, and my general approach to life. Sure, the education is out there, the information is available to anyone who is willing to look. But you've got to do the legwork and understand just what you need to know. Very few people are out there making this easy, and those that are do so as an extension of their own questions. What do you want to bet they had to do something first to discover the right questions?

I guess the bottom line is whether self-taught, a good researcher, schooled, or whatever, no one can give you the knowledge you need. You have to go out and earn it, sometimes with hard work, sometimes with frustration, but whatever the way, the only true failure is to give up.

And if that's not a stray thought-random segue I don't know what is :p.

To continue the learning, how about dropping a note about how you learn the right question to ask. Is it hands-on, talking through something, washing dishes, taking a class, or what?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

What Does It Mean?

What does it mean when books that celebrate true affection between two consenting adults are considered childish and inappropriate? What does it mean when a comic book depicting love (not even gratuitous sex) is banned when ones where people routinely destroy each other are acceptable?

I was recently asked when I leant some romance novels out why I still read them. Hadn't I grown out of them?

The question is nothing new. For years, I hid my reading material the way we used to hide comic books inside of our math textbooks. I spoke of romances in a hushed voice, stunned to discover other people read them too.

But through all that, I never stopped reading for long. Where else can you find a book that focuses almost entirely on the moment of connection and the emotions growing from that moment? Despite their trials, whether through kidnappings and murders or just a disapproving father or a business about to fail, the characters hold out for hope and love and all the tender emotions so often missing from our daily lives.

If each of those road rage monsters out there shooting people for fun would read a romance or two, maybe they'd calm down a bit. Maybe if we weren't surrounded by violence in our reading, television and down at the corner store, maybe if each of us could reserve a moment for those tender emotions that bind us together...

Okay, maybe that's taking it a bit far, but I'd be interested in a study of the emotional states and stress levels of people after they read a romance novel compared to reading a thriller. How about compared to reading a literary novel about child abuse or suicide?

I know that romance novels are not out to change the world. They don't intend to so why anyone is surprised, I don't understand. Why is it that mysteries and thrillers (about violence and death) are acceptable and romances (about love) are not? It says something that romance novels make up the majority of annual book sales at least in the US. So what's with the brown paper packages?

I had an interesting discussion once with a Swede I believe about how in his country, the violent books, magazines, and movies were behind the counter and the sex magazines were up front. It's a cultural distinction and a fascinating one.

Now I'm not saying I'm ready to answer the questions that would come from my boys reading porn, but I'd love them to read some romance novels. Sure, the books have passion and sexual tension in them. And they certainly don't hold to the "no premarital sex standard" anymore, but they're about committing to one person. Finding the right match for you and hanging on through all sorts of trouble. They're about optimism and about it all coming out all right no matter how bad it seems. When I'm stressed or depressed, I know I can count on them for just a smidge of positive thought. Where else can you be sure of that? How many people suffer from temporary or permanent depression (non-clinical), whose lives don't even have a spark of hope or optimism? Wouldn't they be better off with material that holds out hope for the future no matter how grim today is?

Okay, here's my Pollyanna moment, but I read a psychological study once that found when people forced themselves to smile, their attitude actually improved. Doesn't it then follow if you can sink into a book with characters full of that same optimism and happiness that some will rub off?

Are they works of literature designed to stand the test of time? No. Can frequent readers quote special passages that touched them in some way? You betcha. That's what romances are all about: touching people's emotions in a way that lingers and gives us something to hold on to. That doesn't sound like something I want to outgrow. I hope I never become too cynical to appreciate moments of hope and optimism. I hope that seeing people achieve happiness, whether in life or literature, always charges me a little myself and offers up energy to share with others. Who knows what type of person I'd be if I didn't read romances? I, for one, have neither the inclination nor the intention of finding out.

Go ahead. Step outside your prejudice and read a romance novel with an open mind. Does knowing the killer will be caught make a murder mystery not worth reading? Then why would knowing that they'll somehow find their way through the obstacles to true love make a romance formulaic and crass? Do they have to die in each other's arms like Romeo and Juliet to make it worth the time? All I'm saying is that few of the people who have questioned my reading have actually read romances, especially not modern (post about 1985) ones. No one questions my SF or Fantasy reading. Or when I read Marx or biographies of Manhattan Project scientists. It's not my reading that lacks variety and scope, so it must be a choice. Maybe after this, some of the reasons for that choice will be clear.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Life's Not Fair!

No, this is not a rant about my latest rejection, about the troubles in my life, or about how my teenager and preteen can't stop poking each other until I squeal. It's just a stray thought I had and it's been a while since I've written one up to share.

At this very moment (yes, I shouldn't be wasting this word count), I am participating in one of my favorite Forward Motion challenges, the May Story A Day. Each year, I promise myself I will participate come Hell or high water, plans, deadlines, even conferences. And each year since the first I've come away mildly disappointed, my story counts dropping from that original success either because of self-imposed edit deadlines, money work deadlines, or even the dreaded word count increase (because a 500-word story and a 5000-word story both still count as one).

Why? Because life's not fair.

There's a whole process out there for businesses called SMART for employ goal setting. I can't remember what all the letters stand for but the critical ones are measurable and achievable. I know that sounds like its coming out of left field, but bear with me for a moment. I watch people compare themselves to others every day, and often find themselves coming up short. Those that come up happy are arrogant and despised. In other words, you can't win.

So I, in my grandest wisdom, decided I couldn't compare myself to others. To do so would be insane. I'll never be able to write as much as Sheila Viehl or Lazette Gifford. I can improve my craft as much as I want to, but in the tangibles, the measurable goals, I'd chosen models that produce at a level beyond me. That way lies burnout, not success.

Sounds pretty put together and mature, doesn't it? Oh, wait for it...that's right. Life's not fair.

Remember that mild disappointment? The first year I wrote 20 stories for SAD, the second 15, the third 10, and I'm hoping to match the 10 this year but may end up with eight. Here I am carefully comparing myself, and coming up short. Sadly, I'm not the Dali Lama, Mother Teresa, or Gandhi. I have not achieved Nirvana or any other form of peace. And no matter what I do, I'm slipping further from those goals that I thought matched the SMART logic perfectly.

So being me, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, depressing myself, wondering if I peaked three years ago and now could only face the slow decline into exhaustion and ultimate failure. (By now some of my friends are laughing themselves silly while kicking me under the table :p.)

No, I still haven't found that inner peace and balance. My emotions haven't caught on to what my head has discovered no matter how much I try to pretend that's true. However, I thought I'd share what I have learned in case one or two of you are teetering on that same brink and letting your apparent slippage get you down.

You can wander over to my website for some specific statistics, but they'll show you exactly what I'm talking about. They'll show a steady decline in word count, writing challenge participation, sheer production numbers of novels and short stories. If you read carefully, there's an increase in edits and submissions, but they don't really balance out the deficit.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe in SMART. I still think having measurable goals gives me something to work towards and something tangible to hold on to. However, what I've had to admit is that while my tangible counts have gone down, my intangibles have gone up. I read the stories I wrote three years ago and want to edit them from ground up because I can see the heart of what I was going for, but I didn't get there. I look at the huge number of short stories I completed for the first SAD and most of them are short sketches that qualify for the word story by the barest of margins. I read the novels I wrote this year at a grueling 500 words per hour compared to the 1k+ numbers I used to achieve and they're closer to publication quality than the others are after 2-3 edit passes. Another immeasurable is the number of rejections that seem to be near misses or "doesn't play well with others" as opposed to the standard form letters.

That's just me and my developments. None of these are things that I can use for goals either because they cannot be measured or because they are out of my control. What I'm trying to learn is to recognize them anyway. I need to say that 500 an hour is actually an improvement because the skill of the words on the page is that much greater. That the fewer numbers for SAD mean nothing compared to the quality and completeness of the stories I create. I'm not there yet, but recognizing the problem is half the battle, right?

So anyway, I'm using myself as an example, not of a paragon but of a person who consistently undermines herself :p, but this isn't really about me. I'm trying to reach out to everyone who looks at the tangible and dismisses the intangible because it's hard to measure.

Hang in there. Not only are you not alone, but I'd wager a guess you're (and so I'm) in pretty good company. I'm trying hard to stop taking the easy way out by focusing on the numbers I can post on my website. Instead, I'm trying to look at the bigger picture of where I am now compared to where I was then. Please, feel free to join me and leave that self-condemnation behind. Oh, and if you come up with a way to measure the intangibles? By all means share :D.

Monday, May 08, 2006

WarChild by Karin Lowachee

If you ever needed a sign that the rules can be broken, twisted, turned, and thrown out the window, WarChild is it. Even more, it is Karin Lowachee's first novel, so a newcomer can do so if they do so well.

This is a book you will love or hate. The main character is likeable and the events propelled me along, pulling me in despite myself. However, Jos is also driven rather than driving. He has decisions to make but they are points of emotional manipulation, leaving him to question everything he has ever known or accepted. This is not a simplistic book, or an easy read. It's tangled, emotionally compelling and draining all at once, and the type of book that sucks you in and you don't want to put it down.

At the same time as all the above is true, this book broke not just conventional rules, but the ones I've found in my own reading pleasure. I have some requirements in a story, things that I, as a reader, look for. This book does not offer them. Looking back from the end to the beginning, I can start to see the shape of the book, but going along, I could not. I did not know how it would end, but even more so I could not see any probabilities for how it would. And yet, I kept reading. I even made excuses to read.

There's no question in my mind why this novel won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It's stunning and it works, though there are so many ways that it could have failed. I'm not saying the story is perfect, or the writing either. There were points when I slipped out of the story and one jarring time jump after which it took a moment to readjust back into the story line. But these pale next to the power and intensity of the novel. Really. Give WarChild a try. No matter what, I can't imagine a neutral reaction to this book as a possibility.

I purposefully avoided most specifics because they could prejudice anyone reading on my recommendation and because there is hardly anything I can say that doesn't reveal something crucial. I suppose I can safely mention that there are several factions in the war covered by the novel, and that the alien culture is not only well drawn, but also well characterized from the various perspectives. Sigh. And then I have to censor my next sentence because it would spoil.

I'll leave you all with one other note, one I wrote when reading the start of the novel. This is the writerly bit, I suppose, though it is a readerly reaction as well:

I was forewarned about the second person POV in the very beginning and this is not something I like in general, but I've never let such a concept stop me from trying something before ;). That said, this second person worked for me. Because I couldn't help myself, I tried to figure out why and this is what I came up with: The beginning of this novel is not written in traditional second person, which forces the reader into an awkward state of trying to wear someone else's skin (okay, my definition of traditional second person). Instead (and this is borne out by how the POV transitions), this second person is really first person in disguise. How I read this is as a first person account told through second person in the narrator's desperate attempt to gain some distance from what happened, to treat it as not having happened to him. It's an interesting effect whether intentional or not, and in this case, quite an effective one.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Two Jessica Hall Novels

Into the Fire


Heat of the Moment

I'm reviewing these two together because, besides being behind, there's not much I can say without spoiling the unique elements that make them interesting. Instead, I'll say that in the past 2 years or so, I have now read all of Gena Hale/Jessica Hall's romance novels from the very first to the most recent (though I have to check if a new one is out). As you might have guessed from my reviews of the first two, I didn't like them all that much. They showed clear potential, but were trying to do too much and, in my opinion, not succeeding as well as they might. I did like the characters, but the stories didn't hold together as well as I wanted. However, the skills that were struggling a bit in those first two romances grew to their fullness in Into the Fire and Heat of the Moment.

The mastery of a multi-focus romance novel is a wonder to behold. Both these novels have a large cast and many of them get at least one POV scene. This runs counter to the traditional focus on the female and male main characters and the even older tradition of seeing the story only through the female lead's eyes. However, it's done smoothly and without jarring in both these novels.

I do have one specific gripe with Into the Fire and it is purely a personal one. I will spoil the first 10 pages or so. Here's my rant, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to see. It's not fair to make me like someone and have hope for them as the MC and then kill them off in the first few pages! There, that's out of my system :p. I didn't like it when my hubby did so for his thesis and I like it even less in a romance :p. Which is not to say that it wasn't crucial for the story, that it didn't have important implications, that I didn't understand the reason for it as I went forward. I just don't like liking someone then splat!

And now back to the regularly scheduled program ;).

Honestly, I'm a traditionalist. I want my romance novels about two people struggling against mostly internal obstacles to find their way to each other. I think life is like that and unlike science fiction and fantasy, I read romances not to escape but to have hope and see possibilities. Sure, I'm happily married, so I don't need that hope for myself any more, but there are so many obstacles this world puts in between people finding each other and even those who have already found each other that reading about how people work things through is powerful. Because of this, though I do read the intrigue style romances, they're not my first choice and my dosage is therefore low :D. Honestly, I think the odds of anyone I know being kidnapped by terrorists, involved with the mob, part of an undercover sting, etc., are relatively low. I did have a friend recruited by the CIA, but she decided not to join ;).

That said, I read these two novels not so much for the romance, but for the story. I know I can count on a good story regardless of whether or not the romance fits into my favorite type and so I'm happy. These bring me back to the Russian novel analogy, except that in these two, the technique has clearly been mastered. Despite the large cast, the characters each have a crucial role, no matter how small, and cannot be cut without the story losing something. On top of that, even minor characters have to fight their own prejudices and grow up, or change in some aspect. None of them are easy cardboard cutouts. And when you have someone profiled in the first, that person will often get a greater part in the second, and at some point, will get their own novel. I have faith in that and have bets running with myself as to who gets the next book ;).

Because I have to ;), I will say that I didn't feel the answer to the internal mystery in Heat of the Moment was seeded enough. I figured it out before the great reveal (though not the full extend of it), but I didn't see the clues to point to that answer until much later. In fact, the clues in the beginning didn't really seem to tie into the middle-to-end clues, which probably means I missed something but if so, I don't know what.

Okay, and now I have to eat my words on the romance part for both of these novels. Though the big external events shoved the characters together (as is standard in suspense romances), in both cases, the characters had a history and internal forces working to undermine their attraction/love for each other. I especially liked the romance in Heat of the Moment, partially because I saw it coming in Into the Fire and wanted so much for them to put aside their differences.

So yes, I think these books had enough suspense to keep someone who prefers a little danger and fear in their romances entertained, but at the same time, even those who find the "thrown together by deadly circumstances" a little too much, there's enough personal connection and conflict to enthrall. The stories are good ones. The romance only makes it better :D.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Secret Texts by Holly Lisle

Diplomacy of Wolves
Vengeance of Dragons
Courage of Falcons

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll already know that I really enjoy Holly Lisle's writing. Though I am an active member and moderator of the Forward Motion community which she began many years before I discovered it, this is not the start of my interest in Holly the author. She wrote books with Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was my favorite author for years, and then also with Mercedes Lackey. Those drew me to her solo novels and by the time I discovered, it was because of her name that I stopped and stayed.

She hasn't disappointed me yet :).

The Secret Texts is a wondrous series that plays to my favorite aspects of Holly's writing. She's created a people who have been split into three people by wars that occurred so far in the past that only prejudice remains. Even so, the prejudice continues as a strong and bitter force, condemning the innocent and the knowing without distinction. It is strong enough that even those who can hide their difference to live in normal society accept that their true nature means they are less than human. They do not question the classification. Just think for a moment how powerful that is. Not that one group oppresses another but that members of the oppressed class believe themselves the lesser and are not sure they should be left to live.

Anyway, world building is obviously one aspect I love, but the other is philosophy. I truly don't know where Holly gets her philosophies from, but they read the way Marx and Nietzsche do. These are not half-formed excuses to carry on the plot but full-featured approaches to life that, with very few changes, could be followed in our own world. I find myself lost in the different groups, my writer mind stunned to silence as my reader mind races ahead, absorbing the story itself. Holly once learned something from a situation one of her characters experienced and I don't find that surprising at all. I think many of us could learn something from listening to what the Falcons profess but at the same time we could learn something more from seeing how their approach fetters them (no pun intended, but I left it after I realized just cause ;)).

This is no simplistic series where right and good win out. This is a tangled tale where who is good and who is not cannot be measured at all points, where the lies one character accepts make enough sense that the reader has to question what the others are up to. When I was sure what would happen next, who would be the next threat, even who had died, I found myself wrong and yet not in a way that rang false.

All I can say is that I really enjoyed the series. If your tastes run the same way mine do, I think you will too.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

If Angels Burn by Sheila Viehl

I first read this book as a set of author proofs that Lynn Viehl distributed as part of a teaser contest. I found it hard to read from the proofs as a book and so felt I might have missed some of the story. Therefore, I didn't want to read Private Demon until I'd reread If Angels Burn. This is quite a statement for me because traditionally I cannot reread books within 10 years because I absorb the story so completely that even the details are fresh in my mind, making rereading a skim search for anything I might have missed the first time through. That wasn't the case here. I had no inclination to skim and was absorbed throughout even though I knew the answer to some of the jump out and get you surprises in the book already.

Having completed my re-read despite my normal inability to re-read, I can say a couple things about me and about the book. First, either reading in the proofs is not the way for me to read for fun, or I've lost my talent to absorb a book. Sadly, I think it's the second. On the other hand, though I don't really have time to reread books, at least now I'd have the opportunity if I wanted to.

Okay, enough about me. Once again, Sheila (in the form of Lynn Viehl) has managed to capture me and pull me into her world. I enjoyed reading this book not once but twice in rapid succession. That says something to me at least. There were points I had remembered that I enjoyed reading the second time and things I had forgotten or missed that I enjoyed for the first time. I'm thinking, "No man ever refuses a blowjob," will be sticking in my mind for some time to come. It's a good tip and a great scene :). The characters were strong and distinct, the gimmies interesting and plausible within the limits set, and the story itself was fun to read.

My quibbles are simple and did not harm my reading in the least bit. They dealt both with "writerly" things that I only notice upon analysis and "marketing" which really only affects what's written on the spine :).

I had wondered if my impression of the romantic elements would change from first read to second, but it did not. I would not consider this a romance, though I saw the draw between Alex and Michael better this time. It's hard to explain this without spoilers, but I think the unique circumstances took the place of a true connection between the two. Would they have been attracted under other circumstances and let the attraction develop? Well, because of the characters I'd have to say, "No," so maybe this was the only way. I still have a hard time equating what happened with romance though. Maybe that element is more of a minor one than I would expect of something marketed with that label. However, meander back to the previous review and you'll see my prejudice there. People have different tastes. You might find this the epitome of romantic love :). If not, then read it as a vampire story with a unique twist and I doubt you'll be disappointed.

My second quibble is a little difficult to articulate, and honestly just something that bothered me as a writer upon analysis rather than as a reader. This novel seemed more of an introduction than a self-contained story. That's not to say there weren't plot threads that start, climax and complete. There definitely were. My feeling is a little more subtle. It seemed almost as if those plot lines were designed to put the characters in the right place, rather than plots of their own. The main one runs from the very start and ends dramatically, but there were too many questions left hanging, hints of things unexplained. While normally I'd consider those a book 2 issue, because of how the thread resolved, I didn't get that sense. I don't think there will be much to clarify what was going on behind those events at all, but we'll have to see.

Anyway, don't let my quibbles discourage you. If Angels Burn is a good read and the characters will stick with you. Alex is classic Sheila with a mind of her own, skills she can use to benefit or harm, and a smart mouth she uses with great effect despite vampire mind controls. The story itself is a domino race with heavy blocks falling across attempts to escape the events that pile up to overwhelm. Me, I'll be pushing Private Demon up in the pile so I can find out what will happen next with this world and these people. If the primary goal of If Angels Burn was to set up a world of potential stories, it succeeded to a grand degree and those things that raised issues will not interfere with my enjoyment at all.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Two Harlequin Presents Novels

Blackmailed into Marriage and His One-Night Stand

I read these two books together because I'm supposed to fill out the same reader form for the Harlequin We Hear You reader survey program. This was a little disconcerting because the female leads have the same name. It's a coincidence, but still surprising :).

Both of these novels are Harlequin Presents and take me back to the very beginning of my reading romance novels. Unlike many of the others, these are pure interpersonal conflicts without an outside situation pushing the issue through terror, stress or what have you.

In Blackmailed into Marriage, a very traditional Spanish grandfather manipulates his daughter into marriage with the man that really is best for her, but she fights the relationship because of its beginnings and must be wooed.

His One-Night Stand, on the other hand, involves an affair with unexpected consequences, both a child and a bond such that neither forgot the other despite him not even knowing her name or face.

These are the true heart of romance for me: the story is about how people undermine their own love life because of reasonable assumptions or life circumstances. There are no dramatic chases, murderers, kidnappings or anything that forces emotions to bloom out of time. These are true love at first sight (or at once they figure it out ;)) stories where two people must battle their own mistrust and the impact of their past to discover future happiness.

Interestingly, Blackmailed into Marriage also addresses a sexual disorder in a manner that is neither preachy nor overdone. Everything else I can safely say because of the assumptions a romance reader has when picking up a romance novel, but I was surprised and impressed at the way this novel made one of the "unspeakable" topics into something that love can conquer, but not in an easy "love conquers all" type of way. Though I love these novels for their essential nature, they do have a framework which makes the unique elements somewhat restricted. I would never have expected one to take on such a delicate topic, much less so successfully.

Therefore, though I know basically what to expect when reading a Harlequin Presents, neither of these felt old or overdone. They both contained the unique elements that arise from a specific situation and specific characters. While the traditional nurse stories of the 80s and earlier grew a bit similar, neither of these novels has that failing. The characters stand out because of who they are and the circumstances they find themselves in. It's wonderful to feel drawn into a novel even when you already know the end. It's not the happily ever after that's the surprise, nor is it some outside element. In these, it is most simply how the characters find their way past the emotional, and in one case physiological, barriers between them and that ending I know they have to achieve. This is how I got sucked into reading romances in my early teens and this is why I still read them today: for the pure emotions they offer to share with their readers.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ghosts In the Snow by Tamara Siler Jones

I really enjoyed this book. I don't read mysteries a lot because I find there is little to the story for me to enjoy. The mystery is either well seeded and I solve it too soon, or not seeded at all and so it comes across as an act of God, or more to the point, the author that the mystery is solved at all. That said, I've met Tamara electronically, and thought it would be worth while (after a long time of teasers as she tried to work through plot points without giving anything away to those of us helping) to give her first book a try. Will I be getting the second? Absolutely.

What Ghosts in the Snow offers is a mystery, yes, but it's a world and a community populated by interesting people whose subplots enhance, rather than distract, from the mystery itself. The mystery was to me the only real weakness, and by the end, it proved solvable and properly seeded. My problem was that I didn't see any real clues in the first half, something that frustrated me and left me wondering if it would be a jump out and surprise me ending. Happily, that turned out not to be the case. But here's the most important part: despite being frustrated by the missing clue layer, the story kept me reading. I wanted Risley and Nella to get together, I wanted the ghosts to find justice, I loved the way the characters interacted with each other in a rough, caring manner despite differences of station, age, and what have you. They didn't seem out of character or out of culture and yet managed to bind through bounds of loyalty, trust and just recognition of what made them unique. The mystery was not perfect, but it was darn good and neither was it all the book had to offer. Yes, the story gets gory at times, something that didn't bother me, but my husband's had me watching CSI for years. I've even been known to have dinner or dessert during it ;).

I actually finished the book and wrote most of this review some time ago, but I included this line: (it could have been hidden, but rarely do those kinds of things slip by me and it was so well hidden that even with the answer, I can't see any clues toward the first half) regarding the presence or absence of early clues. Before I managed to get it edited and posted, I mentioned this aspect to Tamara and then struggled to explain myself. The upshot of it was I decided to reread the beginning before posting to figure out what I had meant since that's quite a statement to make. So, here's what I found. I do stand by my statement and yet at the same time I can understand why Tamara was shocked. Maybe this will reveal an interesting quirk about readers like me that might help those of you interested in putting mystery elements into a story.

I reread the beginning of Ghosts in the Snow because in talking to Tamara, she was stunned at my sense of lack of seeding. I'll send her a private message on the details so I don't spoil the plot for those slow readers out there, but I will say this: I was on the look out for story seeding. What is present is author seeding. Basically, story seeding takes the fragments that we know and ties them to a person (or persons for red herring purposes). Author seeding puts key players in front of the reader's face often enough so that the reader remembers the person enough so that when that person becomes critical, it's not a "Huh? Who's that?"

Random made up examples for clarification.

1)Story seeding
  a) Detective learns the killer is most likely left handed.
  b) A gun-wielding character bumps someone and that someone is surprised not to feel a holster.
  c) Story persists and we learn the holster is on the opposite from usual side because that character is left handed.

There is no attention paid to b) and it could even occur before a) but when z) happens where we learn that character is the killer, b) clicks as in "I knew he was left handed," whether or not "I" picked up on the subtle clue at the first moment.

2) Author seeding
  a) Detective learns the killer is most likely left handed.
  b) Detective goes to a bar to drink after work and bumps into the killer.
  c) Detective answers a question from the killer near the scene where the killer has reason to be.
  d) Detective interviews killer because of a routine connection, but because it is routine, does not consider the possibility of more.

In this example, the author makes the character present while at the same time coming up with viable reasons why the character should be there. For example, killer is a persistent newshound. No one would find it surprising for a reporter to appear at the scene of the crime until the detective realizes the killer always shows up 10 minutes before his crew, though they should have left the station together.

Where this falls down is if the character could also be background color. If the character is just off enough to be an irritation, distraction, or entertainment, that could as easily be that character's role in the novel. Without the story seeding, that character is irrelevant and does not become relevant until the story seeding (mystery or not) makes that character relevant with the reader's "Oh, I remember that fellow. He was...."

So anyway, I hope I've managed to explain without giving anything away. I'm one of those people who catch on with well done story seeding very early in the novel and it informs how I read what comes next. To counterbalance this skill, I often forget the main characters' names several times during the novel if they don't come up frequently enough (especially in first person) because until I connect the people into the global picture I'm building from the seeds (and they exist whether or not it's a mystery), they aren't as concrete. It's an extension of my real-life trouble with names. I can remember that that's the person with the daughter who likes to draw elephants in purple, but that his name is George escapes me.

For those of you following my novel on Live Journal (, there's a seed I plan in the first few pages that is only just becoming relevant now at 90k. However, if I've done my job well, when she remembers the first moment, so will you. The people like me, however, should have filed that away as a potential seed at the first mention and will say instead, "Ah hah! I knew that would come up again."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hard Contact by Karen Traviss

Note: I keep holding onto posts because I can't find the time to edit. I apologize in advance for any errors, but this one has a New Year's reference and darn it! it's already the 11th :p.

If the measure of a good book is how little you notice of the world around you when reading, then this is a great read. I'm almost at the end and in the middle of a frantic battle when I hear 4-3-2. I was watching for the ball to drop in New York City on New Year's and reading while waiting. I almost missed it. At 2, I glanced up and saw the final point when 2006 lights up. Now that's what I call absorbed...and I'm one of those hyper-aware folks who rarely lets down my guard.

Anyway, to begin at the beginning, Hard Contact -- A Star Wars Republican Commando book. Not really my normal run of the mill reading, not so much because I think it is less worthy, but because I'm not involved in the universe.

When I was very young and in Girl Scouts, our troop leader came up with a bootleg copy of Star Wars shortly after it was released. I was overseas so there was no chance to join in the fervor that got Star Wars its cult following. And to make matters worse ;), my mom showed up early to pick me up, making me miss the end.

No, I am not into the Star Wars universe. I've seen all the movies now with the exception of Revenge of the Sith. I appreciate the originals for what they did to movie producing, but I think Serenity is a far better movie.

So, we come back to why I'm reading this book. The author actually asked me to directly. (Excuse the moment of chills :D.) I was so impressed by Karen Traviss's first and second books that I did something I've never done before. I wrote to the author...someone I didn't know and had no frame of reference besides my enjoyment of her books. She asked that I read the Star Wars novel because she felt she had made some significant writing growth with Hard Contact and thought many people (myself included) would dismiss it because it is a media tie-in.

Okay, so I killed two birds with one stone. My boys absolutely love Star Wars. So I got Hard Contact for my youngest (who wrote THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF JACOB to make sure I didn't forget who really owned it ;)). Both the boys read it and enjoyed the book, but it took me a bit to get to it, not for any other reason than that my shelves are too full of books in waiting.

And now, with that long (but interesting, I hope) history, we get to my thoughts about the book in specific:

I would agree with Karen that Hard Contact shows some maturation of her talent. The people and how they interacted was stronger than City of Pearl and Crossing the Line. I thought she really made the inherent conflict with the concept of a clone army vivid and personal in a way I hadn't expected. Her clones are not resistant at all. They accept the limits of their lives and are happy to serve not in a brainwashed way but actually in a logical, think it through, life with purpose way. They have more in common with a (honest) cult leader than with the cult followers. Their outlook, despite having seen their brothers (literal and emotional) torn apart and thrown away as expendable, is compelling and understandable, making them incredibly believable characters. They have the kind of charismatic absorption that draws in those around them and makes others stronger for the acquaintance, something I would never have expected in clones bred literally to fight hard and die young, whether or not they survived.

As you might have guessed, I had few troubles with the fact that this was a Star Wars novel. There were a few things I thought might be known to "real" fans that I was missing, but I quizzed my boys (little know-it-alls ;)) and they said no. The characters are definitely the strength in this novel. The overemphasis on gear is something I'm guessing comes from the framework of the tie-in, but even so it was well enough integrated into the book and the characters that it only made them stronger. At one point, one of the non-clone characters actually calls them on their overuse of acronyms and I was so there ;).

Now here's the bit I can't figure out if it was a consequence of the tie-in or not. What drew me to Karen's other books was the true sense of place and the way she made something so alien as real and tangible as the computer in front of me. This is largely absent from Hard Contact. At first I thought it was because every true fan would know Quillura and so grounding us in the place would be overkill, but my boys (who maybe missed that part of the series?) didn't know it. The people they came in contact with were largely described and the landscape got its time in so this is not necessarily a matter of clear fact but rather gut level feeling. In Crossing the Line, I felt a part of the place. I could look across the landscape and know where I was. This sense was absent from Hard Contact for me. It didn't make the book any less enjoyable, but this book didn't provide the YES I get from the other two. This book didn't offer me the sociological SF perspective I find so rare and so appealing.

So, all this means to me is that when Karen pulls in her expanded people writing skills with her world building skills, that novel is just going to blow me away :). Honestly, I think some of the people who didn't click as well with the first two books will understand what I saw in them better when reading Hard Contact. The people bit is what most people glom onto and Karen has definitely grown in that aspect. Give her a try if you haven't already. I doubt you'll be sorry :D. If she continues to grow as she has with this book, I fully expect to be stunned and thrilled for years to come.