Sunday, September 28, 2008

Suzanne Brockmann's novels

Suzanne Brockmann's series of Navy Seal romance adventure novels follow usually 2-3 couples through life threatening circumstances that manage to be unique despite the tight theme. By the end of the book, one couple will have found their happily ever after, another couple will be on the road to theirs (to be resolved in a later book), and the third, when present, is often torn apart in such a way that you can't imagine them ever getting back together again. Being an avid romance reader, I've read many series centered around a town, a business, a high school graduating class, or whatever holds them together. Suzanne Brockmann is imminently skilled at working the series so that rather than being able to see into the future and determine who is up next, rather than being able to rely on the fact that those who seem connected will end up together, everything is up for grabs. Though the story revolves around the Seal group, people come and go from the team, form separate companies that continue to appear in the book series, pull in other groups such as an FBI negotiating team... Her books do not stagnate, nor do they toe the line of traditional romance. They're both realistic and befitting the romantic fantasy while providing a solid thriller/adventure story for the reader. She's a great writer. My husband is hooked on her books as well, so if you want a non-romance reader's recommendation, he definitely thinks she's worth the pretty penny :).

I have a bit of a history with these novels as I received my first as a barter exchange for a program I wrote. What you'll see in this post is my notes on not one but several of her novels in this series, mainly because I never got around to posting them. The latest, a post-surgery gift from my husband, I'll talk about first just to be contrary.

Force of Nature by Suzanne Brockmann (Acquired: gift)

This spinoff of the SEALs novels breaks with all traditional romance and focuses as much on the love life of one of her reoccurring characters who happens to be gay as it does on the heterosexual romance between the two main characters (though who exactly is the main couple is sort of up for grabs). At this point, Brockmann's made enough of a name for herself that such a radical deviation from the traditional isn't as dangerous, but considering the current political climate with gay marriage, I was fascinated by how she tackled this.

What's even more amazing, and a clear sign of her excellent character development, she'd received a significant enough number of requests from readers to give Jules, the gay character, a happy ending of his own that she felt it a reasonable extension. Of all of hers I've read so far, this is the first one where both the romances resolve in one book, her only concession to making sure the more traditional readers had a relationship to glom onto as well as Jules' HEA (happily ever after). And don't worry if you get squeamish :). The gay romance is just that, a romance. Not graphic detail about body parts, the physical details act to emphasize the emotional connection.

However, like her other novels, neither couple has it easy. There are several points in the book when I was sure that things wouldn't work out. Especially with Brockmann's history of leaving one couple hanging, I didn't have the guarantee that both would resolve tidily by the end even with the implicit promise of the author notes in the beginning. This is a fast-paced action novel where the characters, through no fault of their own, but as a logical extension of their circumstances, end up in the middle of an international incident where no one, not the private detective nor the FBI investigator, know who exactly is the bad guy (okay, who is the bad guy they're looking for). If you enjoy strong characters, emotional situations that will pull at you, and an action-adventure to rival James Bond...though without the easy out of his fancy gadgets ;)...give Force of Nature and Suzanne Brockmann a try :).

Over the Edge by Suzanne Brockmann (Acquired: Steph Tyler ( in exchange for the progress bar)

Steph gave me these books a long time ago in return for a copy of my progress bar program. They sat on my tbr pile not because I didn't want to read them but because I wasn't in the mood for that type of book. When my husband got addicted to another thriller/romance writer, I offered him these to try. He said they were wonderful and picked up Suzanne Brockmann's back list too. When he gave my copies back, they never quite managed to get on my shelf so when I needed to grab a book, I took one from the pile. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Over the Edge is the fifth book in a series, but Steph had promised they could be read stand alone so instead of getting the earliest, I started with the one she'd suggested...finally :). Though the very beginning was a little confusing with the huge cast, clearly people profiled in earlier novels that should have been familiar but of course were not, the very wonderful writing just kept pulling me along. Usually with thriller/romances, one of those threads gets the shorter end of the stick. Suzanne Brockmann manages not only to offer a good military thriller plot with terrorists and SEALs and tension and terror, but two full romance plots. Sure, both threads referred to earlier events, either in the series or just mentioned as back story (I can't tell the difference), but there was enough of the developing relationships to keep me grounded and involved. Then, on top of that, she layered in a story about a Holocaust survivor that not only tied into the characters but into the overarching plots (ALL OF THEM) as well. Really, I don't care whether you've never read a thriller, never read a romance, never read anything about the Holocaust before. There's something in this book for a wide variety of readers and the writing itself is strong and approachable. I'm jealous :). And you better bet I'll be reading the rest of them. It might take me a bit, but it'll take a string of sour books to pull me from adopting this author, something I already know won't happen cause my hubby's already read and enjoyed them :D.

Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann (Acquired: Steph Tyler ( in exchange for the progress bar)

Brockmann didn't disappoint with this novel either and I have requested the ones my husband purchased (sadly he wasn't able to find everything) so that I can continue enjoying her writing and the lives of her characters. The stories begun or continued in Over the Edge show up again in Out of Control, some to find happy resolution and some that fail to, despite my hopes. The main story involves a character we know from the previous but only peripherally, and then an unknown woman and unknown couple. Considering how big the known cast is already, adding more seems overkill, or should. But nothing is weak about this novel or her writing style. She manages to keep ongoing threads that cross several books alive as well as offering multiples of new stories and reminding us of the sweet resolutions of previous stories. It's a complex blend that pulls me along as a reader on the edge of my seat watching disaster after disaster push the characters around until they all manage to come together for a tangled end that works and is a logical extension of everything that ever came before even though my mind says that isn't possible. It's an orchestration I've rarely seen outside of a Russian novel, but there is no question that she's joined my list of favorites. Actually, the very fact that I read another one so quickly shows that because I've still got tons of novels to read and giving the same author two spaces in that order is really saying something :).

The Defiant Hero by Suzanne Brockmann (Acquired: bookstore)

Suzanne Brockmann has become one of my favorite writers. I have a soft spot for SEALs, and she gives complex story along with believable romance. Even better, she manages to blend in a romance from an earlier point of critical history. This particular story is an early one in the series and contains the start of a relationship that I've already seen an end to but the beginning is only hinted at. It's a twisted pleasure to see those events play out, but it's a sign of her skill that I could enjoy even knowing the end, assuming that I do. And the piece of history for this book is Dunkirk, the evacuation of the British out of France with an armada of tiny boats, anything they could get into the water, while the Germans strafed those waiting evacuation. She made it personal, connected that moment of sad victory to the characters and paralleled the situation with the courage necessary to survive and succeed in their current troubles. Brockmann offers interwoven stories twisting through the lives and loves of a group of SEALs. Each book contains at least two relationships, one of which resolves and another that's carried on until later books. If ever there was a blueprint for how to keep a series interesting, The Troubleshooters (currently on book 12) is it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Last Lecture and Life Lessons

Sorry for the long silence, though this may actually explain some of it :).

As some of you may know, I spent the past year under a knife, figurative, but possibly literal, with a severe medical condition that no one could explain. It's made me think about things a lot, though most of that pondering got swallowed up by the pain/pain med-induced amnesia :p.

Now with that context, you might think the fact that both my sisters recommended The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch to be particularly ominous, but it's actually a coincidence. I had heard about the last lecture and stuck it in my head under physicists saying fascinating things. Yes, I know now that Randy Pausch is not a physicist, nor is he talking much about science. But that was enough to make me interested when, at a family reunion, I noticed my older sister was reading this book. She'd borrowed it from my younger sister, who then both recommended I read The Last Lecture and allowed me to borrow her copy as well.

So I got back from the reunion to discover that what we'd thought had resolved (in three wonderful, mostly symptom-free weeks) was back. The upshot of it was that I now faced a surgery to cure me instead of either being already cured or under a death sentence. Still, my frame of mind over the course of this past year had certain similarities to Randy Pausch.

Anyway, between preparing for the surgery and after, a small book with little chapters seemed the perfect read. I knew my focus could be measured in minutes, not hours, so a normal book would take too long. Except that I didn't read just a page at a time.

The Last Lecture is neither about physics (or virtual reality, his actual area of expertise ;)) nor so much about dying. It's a collection of thoughts and stories about how Randy Pausch lived his life, what he learned about people along the way, and what lessons he wants to pass on to his children, along with anyone else interested enough to listen. The book is surprisingly optimistic while being very grounded in the reality of his timeline. He focuses on the people whom he's met in his life, not to be maudlin, but to celebrate the wonderful things these people are doing, and to appreciate the chance to be part of their lives, to help them achieve what they truly wanted.

This is a book about childhood dreams. About striving toward them and about what you can gain whether or not you end up achieving those goals. It's a book about being aware of your life and how you interact with others.

And now that I've made it sound like a boring, Hallmark moment, let me tell you Randy Pausch is incredibly articulate and talented at choosing the right illustrations from his own life or from those around him to prove his point. For example, he talks about how he initiated the "First Penguin" award in his labs, not for the group that succeeded, but for the group that fails spectacularly. This example really speaks to me because I'm a largely self-taught programmer, database analyst, systems analyst, and process analyst. Okay, anything logical I'll tackle and enjoy ;). Sure, in the end I'll get things to work, but the way I come to the understanding is by first putting together something that does not. It might not produce any result, might be the wrong result, or maybe it's just a resource hog. The reality is that with each attempt to accomplish something that fails, I've gained a better understanding of the process and how I need to go forward. Each time I think I know the answer and the path leads me to a dead end, I learn about that section of the process and get clues about the overall process so I can set off on another path.

Okay, before I go too far on this tangent, I'll get to the point. I once worked with a project manager who I enjoyed talking to because he was an interesting man. Out of all our discussions though, the thing that stuck with me so many years later was one time when he mentioned that early in his career he'd been the system administrator for a Novell server. His comment? He'd been responsible for that system for something like five years and still knew little to nothing about it.

At the time, I was hip deep in an aging system that had been pushed well beyond its limits, was leaking data from every crack, and which my team was plastering together with duct tape in the hopes of keeping production rolling long enough for the new system to come into being (which would of course be 10 times better ;)). What I realized was, rather than cursing the old system under my breath, I should be hugging it. I came out of supporting that system with a clear understanding and direct experience with Unix, Oracle, Unix-Novell bridge solutions, and half a dozen other things. I became a successful programmer and data analyst because of that old system. And when the new one started dribbling data, I didn't have to learn everything from scratch because those skills I'd honed on the old system were globally applicable. Heck, I still use them in the systems I work with today.

To get back to the book though, that's only one of the many life lessons he offers that really clicked with me. Randy Pausch's analysis, in his final months on this Earth, made me sit back and appreciate some of the things I hadn't given much thought to, people things, computer things, life things. As it turned out, I wasn't under a death sentence this time at least, and I have more than four months to enjoy the world he's reminding me of, time he wasn't given. A lot of what he said wasn't new to me. I'm prone to self-analysis and so had already come to many of the same conclusions. But this book is a good reminder of things, of making choices and decisions, of not accepting the easy road when your heart craves the harder one, of being there for other people and making their way a bit smoother, and most of all, of seeing the brick walls we face in life not as barriers but as challenges to be conquered.

I have no doubt why this book is a national bestseller, and though it needs no help from me, I suggest you go out and get a copy, whether you buy one, borrow from a friend, or get it from the library. Me? I read my sister's copy, and there's a high probability that, when I return it to her, my own copy will nestle in my shelves.