I love history, despite the fact that the more I learn, the more I need to learn. For example, I have heard the term Jacobin often–but never fully appreciated their origin or their role in the French Revolution and The Terror. Listening to this audiobook, I thought Robespierre was two words. The first half of this book is an interesting portrayal of how the drive for egalitarianism also led to the Terror, where opponents of the new French Republic were guillotined without mercy. So now I am reading about Jacobins, The Terror, and several historical figures I never knew were interesting. The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte was almost anticlimactic in comparison to the amazing turmoil of the the French Revolution. Almost. This audiobook also taught me several things about Napoleon.A new part of history has been opened up to me. I can’t wait to learn more.
This year, I have quit drinking diet soda. Wow, you say. So what. Or perhaps you understand my addiction to artificial sweetener. Prior to 2015, it was common for me to drink a case of Diet Coke a day, every day. My life revolved around emergency runs to Dillons or Quick Trip. Everyone in the family was drinking soda, though no one had it as bad as I did. In short, I used diet soda to cheat Father Time. (Or did I?) Working bad hours, staying up late and getting up early when I actually had a chance to sleep, was breaking me down. I had heart palpitations, headaches from too much and headaches from too little caffeine / artificial sweetener. I also chewed tobacco, which is something I never talked about on line before because I’ve been embarrassed to admit to such a bad habit to my kids. It’s been fifteen days since I’ve had either one of these poisons. A friend at work recommended a site called www.killthecan.com where I learned that nicotine causes caffeine to be used more rapidly than normal. Which means I was chewing tobacco and drinking caffeine so that I could function on four hours of sleep (or less) a day. The joke was on me, because I was chewing more and more without realizing that this was causing me to drink additional caffeinated beverages with less effect. I learn something every day. This caffeine / nicotine interaction was definitely not something I expected. Without nicotine, I found a cup of coffee made me really jittery and kept me wide awake for hours longer than expected. It was tempting to blame this on withdrawal symptoms, but actually I was feeling the full power of coffee for the first time in years. Wow! What does this have to do with writing? For the first two weeks, I had one goal, and that was not to cave and return to my old ways. It turns out that getting motivated is one of my strongest triggers for nicotine. I remember reading that Stephen King quit smoking and how hard he said it was. I refuse to believe my creativity relies on any chemical, even one as commonplace as nicotine. The fog of withdrawal is starting to fade. I am reclaiming my motivation, while focusing on leading a more balanced life. Family, friends, work, and other hobbies (exercise and taking time to relax) are taking their proper places in my writing life. Today, I am continuously experiencing a true miracle. Quiting chewing tobacco is almost impossible. Ask anyone who has done it. Turning away diet soda after thirty years of total reliance on the drink may be harder yet. Quiting cold turkey has never worked well for me. Yet it is happening now. Fifteen days? I never lasted fifteen minutes before. I believe in God, though I have struggles with understanding the mysteries of faith. Organized religion has committed foul crimes (just like every other organization or individual has) throughout history. But there is good in the world, and I feel it is often associated with religion done right. I feel blessed, though I don’t deserve it.
Photo credit http://theclockworkcentury.com A little over a year ago, I purchased a book in the Steampunk genre that caught my eye. That book was Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest. As I worked my way through my to-be-read digital stack, I came upon the book and thought it might also be a good candidate for an audio book, since I had some credits waiting to be used. Then, I realized that Dreadnought is not the first book in the series. I did some research, visited the web site of Cherie Priest, and decided to start at the beginning with Boneshaker.Here is the premise for Boneshaker.During the 1860’s, the Russian government holds a contest to see who can create a mining machine best suited for escalation of a gold vein in the Klondike. A scientist by the name of Leviticus Blue takes the challenge, but his creation does terrible damage to Seattle, forcing an evacuation due to a release of toxic gas that has some seriously catastrophic side effects, i.e. people turned in to “rotters.” The area is walled up. Some people remain inside to contend with the gas and the undead.The main character, Briar Wilkes, pursues her teenage son into the city as he imparts on a foolhardy quest. Each has dangerous adventures and learns things that perhaps they might have feared to learn, had they known what they were really looking for.All in all, I enjoyed Boneshaker and plan to continue with the series. Some of the writing is good, some is excellent. The story is a basic action adventure plot that moves at a good pace. I read some reviews after I started listening to the audiobook, and that might have prejudiced me negatively. For some reason the negative reviews stuck in my mind and I viewed each character and plot device through that tainted lens. I finished the book and was glad I did. The only other Steampunk books I have read have been Japanese Steampunk (Stormdancer and Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff). So far I have enjoyed the genre and recommend these books for those who enjoy speculative fiction.
Photo credit: http://www.bookarchitecture.com From time to time, a book on writing competes for my top five selections on the craft of writing. Like many Indie authors in the current publishing environment, I’m aware that competition is fierce. I first heard the number one rule of book marketing from Donald Maass, “Write the best book possible.”One way to do that is to study the craft of writing a novel.Blueprint Your Bestseller, by Stuart Horwitz, now has an honored place in my top five books on this subject. Why?Horwitz teaches the Book Architecture Method, which complements all I have learned about writing over the years and clears a few things up.The BAM focuses on finding the right scenes in the right order. I am breaking my current work-in-progress into scenes, polishing the good, discarding the worthless, and fixing those with potential. Great stuff! I plan to revise previous works using this process. Needless to say, the future of writing is bright and exciting.But wait, that’s not all. Horwitz ties the concept of scenes together with series. Briefly, series are the aspects of scenes that tie everything together and give a story cohesion and richness. The concept of series has clarified many stories in my unpublished backlist.Horwitz also drives home the point that theme maters. He’s fond of saying your book can only be about one thing. Theme has always been hard to pin down, since I spent the first thirty years of my vocation writing by the seat of my pants, with only a few guilty attempts to outline after the fact.The BAM made theme much easier, and more friendly, to work with.The final game changer for me was Horwitz’s discussion of limitation. Without going into detail, I say now that this concept has made my work-in-progress tighter, clearer, and more powerful.Reading this review, you might wonder if I have a financial interest in Horwitz’s book. I don’t. It is not the only method I find useful, but it is in my top five.The BAM is work, don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s one path to great writing.
I had this book on my reading list for a long time, feeling that I should go beyond what I was taught in school. I have always enjoyed biographies, but rarely find the time, because I am a huge consumer of fiction. Once I started listening to the unabridged audio version, my concern about being bored and continuing out of a feeling of obligation vanished. The narrative style was interesting and well paced. I learned a lot about Lincoln’s early life and his development as a politician. Lincoln’s story is truly an American tale. Abraham Lincoln came from humble beginnings and rose to greatness, despite the first impression he made on people due to his large, rough physique and unruly appearance. Self educated, awkward in romantic situations, and an idealist, he changed the world. I was surprised to learn that his political career had often been disappointing and that he stepped aside when needed for the good of his party. He earned the name Honest Abe because of his decision to pay his debts, rather than pack up and move as many people did during this time of rapidly expanding frontier. He also wondered about his heritage, a detail I would not have thought about. Abraham Lincoln was a dedicated abolitionist, but strove for a moderate position, often angering other abolitionists, but in the end, he achieved what no one else could. The limitations of his views on equality were somewhat surprising, but in accordance with the times he lived in, and also, I believe, meant to pacify those who would fight his abolitionist goals. He has always been portrayed as a social equality saint, so when I heard some of his letters and speeches on this topic, I was surprised. During the most dangerous stage of the development of the United States, he set a precedent of honoring the constitution and what today is often referred to as “…the intent of the framers of the Constitution…” when wrestling with constitutional law. Lincoln redefined and expanded the role of President, sometimes in ways people disagree with. He became the first true Commander in Chief, first learning about military strategy and tactics, and then involving himself in every stage of the Civil War. He listened to his advisors, but did not always follow their recommendations. One scene which amazes me is when he went to visit General McClellan at his house, and was sent away because the general allegedly felt under the weather. Regardless of how sick General McClellan was, I cannot imagine the audacity of how he sent his President and Commander and Chief away. What was further surprising was how Lincoln reacted. There is a great deal more that could be written about this book, but it should suffice to say I recommend reading this. A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White Jr., teaches us not just about Abraham Lincoln, but about the development of the United States.
Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White)Elements of Style is a small book, less than one-hundred pages. I find it an invaluable tool, because it strikes to the heart of style issues and is decidedly unpretentious. If you are like me, there are too many books, blogs, and newsletters to read. This book can be read over and over, helping any writer craft powerful writing.Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne, Dave KingI highly recommend this book. There are clear examples of how to improve a manuscript through editing and revision. Familiar topics such as ‘showing versus telling’ are handled with fresh clarity, and though I have heard the advice hundreds of times, I found Browne and King’s discussion of the topic exciting to read. The examples and analysis are helpful. (I did not do all the exercises, because I wanted to apply the techniques to my writing rather than labor over the text provided in the book. I plan to read the book several times, and may do the exercises next time.) From the table of contents: Show and Tell, Characterization and Exposition, Point of View, Proportion, Dialogue Mechanics, See How it Sounds, Interior Monologue, Easy Beats, Breaking Up is Easy to Do, Once is Usually Enough, Sophistication, VoiceI began implementing the advice immediately. I enjoy writing dialogue and was not seeking help in this area; however, I used their dialogue tips (especially beats) and found them useful. Other areas that are more difficult, such as Sophistication and Voice, improved with application of their suggestions. If you are interested in improving your writing, or editing for someone else, I would make this book part of your collection. New ideas: I experienced a light bulb moment when Browne and King explained how repetition of an effect can weaken the writing. This can occur on a large scale or a small scale. After reading the examples and seeking similar sections of my own writing, I saw these little quagmires of weak writing are easy to miss. I tried a few changes and was pleased with the improved result. Check this one out: borrow it from a friend or find it at the library if you must. The title might be misleading. The book does not suggest self-editing only. All writers should be masters of self-editing, even if they have a good critique group or money to pay professional editors.Writing the Blockbuster Novel (Albert Zuckerman)Albert Zuckerman, a literary agent, provides excellent advice on how to write a blockbuster novel. He breaks down several best sellers, including The Man from Saint Petersburg (Ken Follett) and The God Father (Mario Puzo). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)King’s book is full of sound writing tips, including his recommendation of Elements of Style by Strunk and White. He tells a great story and the result is a book that motivates writers to write. Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass)This is probably my favorite book on writing, though I am also very fond of Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk and White’sThe Elements of Style. The first two books are both inspirational and informative. Strunk and White has a straight forward approach with no fluff, however I have recently come across a blog, Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, that is not so enamored with the book. I still like Strunk and White. One must remember that it is a style guide and that rules are made to be broken. The premise of Writing the Breakout Novel is that a writer has control of his or her career merely by writing the absolute best novel possible. Less encouraging is his suggestion that the mid-list is dead and that it is harder to stay published than get published. He provides expiring examples of writers who had been successful, floundered, and seemingly at the end of their careers, and became even more successful by writing their breakout novel.This book is a must-read. I used to read from WTBN for thirty minutes just to get inspired before writing; this practice really worked.Plot & Structure (James Scott Bell)This book starts with a great message about being a writer. Bell advocates studying the craft. His story is inspirational and the techniques and examples he provides are excellent.2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love – Rachel AaronI really like Aaron’s writing triangle: Knowledge, Enthusiasm, Time. Having recently dragged myself through painful re-writes of two novels, I have become a believer in planning story structure. Like many writers, I have written outlines and strayed when my imagination takes hold. Aaron’s suggestions on story knowledge and structure are helpful and not too ridged. The section on developing knowledge of the story before writing is well done and seems like solid advice. This book is motivational and entertaining, but I enjoy success stories and agree with her ideas about writing happy. Aaron also has a nice section at the end of the novel (advice to new writers) about the writing police: there are none. The theme of this section is that we should write stories we want to write, and not be discouraged because of genre (whichever that may be) is not selling right now. Aaron’s section on editing seems well thought out and efficient. I already use scene maps and can vouch for their usefulness during editing and revision. Timelines are probably a good idea. I combine the To Do list with my scene map. The book could use a proof reader. There are some missing words and misspellings. Overall, I found this book very useful and motivating. 2K to 10K exceeded my expectations.
Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney is a well researched and motivational account of the creative process. Denney relates accounts of several renowned authors such as Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen King to name a few.Included in the book are many examples of how writing quickly, getting in the zone, and trusting your Muse produce quality fiction. I was amazed at how Michael Moorcock wrote his early books. There is also a wonderful story of Ray Bradbury and his classic work Fahrenheit 451. I was surprised at how quickly such enduring classics were created. Denney provides tips for breaking writer’s block and eliminating needless work. My favorite piece of advice for writing quickly and freely concerned focus on the main plot line of the story (especially during the first draft). I learned that subplots can lead to dead ends (which I have experienced in my own writing). For some reason, this particular section was liberating. I could almost feel myself writing faster (and I am already a quick writer).As a “cliff-jumper” or “panster” I have grown fond of plotting, outlining, and story structuring. Denney discusses the benefit of planning a story; at least enough fend off writer’s block. Much of the message in this book concerns finding the right mixture of narrative push methods (cliff jumping or writing by the seat of your pants) and planning. Denney has clearly studied successful writers and done a considerable amount of writing fiction and non-fiction. Writing in Overdrive relies on many stories of famous writers. These were entertaining and often inspirational if nothing else. I look forward to reading other books by Jim Denney.
One of my writer friends and Twitter superstar, Lilo Abernathy, was chosen by Amazon for the much coveted Kindle Daily Deal. Her book, The Light Who Shines, will be featured for one day only at a price of $1.99. So Why am I writing a blog post about another writer’s work?First, she’s a great writer. Second, she’s very supportive of other authors. Here is the book description from Amazon:When Supernatural Investigation Bureau agent Bluebell Kildare (a.k.a. Blue) arrives at the scene of the crime, it’s obvious the grotesquely damaged body of the deceased teenage boy was caused by far more than a simple hit and run. Using her innate sixth sense, Blue uncovers a powerful magical artifact nearby. She soon discovers it acts as a key to an ancient Grimoire that was instrumental in the creation of the Vampire breed and still holds the power to unravel the boundaries between Earth and the Plane of Fire.Blue and her clever wolf Varg follow a trail that starts at the Cock and Bull Tap and leads all through the town of Crimson Hollow. Between being sidelined by a stalker who sticks to the shadows and chasing a suspect who vanishes in thin air, the case is getting complicated. If that isn’t enough, Dark Vampire activity hits a record high, and hate crimes are increasing. However, it’s Blue’s growing feelings for Jack Tanner, her magnetic Daylight Vampire boss, that just might undo her.While Blue searches for clues to nail the perpetrator, it seems someone else is conducting a search of their own. Who will find whom first?Danger lurks in every corner, and Blue needs all her focus in this increasingly dangerous game or she risks ending up the next victim.Reviews:The Light Who Shines has 154 reviews, with a 4.7 star average. Not bad for a debut book!From Amazon:”The book abounds with action, supernatural creatures and tinges of sexiness . . . and will please readers looking for a gun-toting, magical hero who’s independent yet yearning for companionship.””Bluebell Kildare, a Gifted human with blue eyes and a streak of blue hair, fights crime as a member of the Supernatural Homicide Investigation Unit . . . An often enjoyable delve into urban fantasy.””As much as she’s defined by her butt-kicking attitude, Kildare is complex, confident and introspective . . . She has the ability to sense souls.”—KIRKUS”Bottom Line: Excellent novel . . . Highly recommended and will be continuing with the series, great new world.”—Douglas C. Meeks, Amazon Top 500 ReviewerAs a writer, I wish Lilo Abernathy the best. I’ve just started reading the book, so I can’t give a review yet, but I will in a future blog post.
(In the spirit of streamlining this website, I am systematically moving archived book reviews and other posts to this section, then deleting the archive.)A Game of Thrones begins with a mysterious attack north of The Wall and establishes that something supernatural or perhaps magical is threatening the world. With the prologue out of the way, the Starks are introduced (and six dire wolves) and the story moves into the family drama and political intrigue that make up the scaffolding that the (many) characters live and play on. What makes the book so enjoyable? It is easy to suspend disbelief. People in the story believe in magic, but rarely experience it. The lives of most people, even the nobles, are desperate and survival is hard earned. Martin has an excellent command of world building, down to the smallest detail. He writes dialogue that seems effortless and natural. Characters stay true to who they are and point of view is controlled, which is no small task with the multitude of main characters in the book.Since so many people have read the first book or at least seen the HBO series, I am not going to worry about spoilers. When Eddard Stark dies, I knew this book was different. I had been trying to decide who was the main character, and was leaning toward Eddard. I liked Eddard, I respected Eddard. Everyone in the story depended on Eddard. But the plot demanded he die, and he did. As I came to truly believe that Martin had the courage to slay any character, I started making bets with myself as to who would live and what they would do. Currently I don’t think that Daenarys or Tyrion can be offed. But I have read all five books and been wrong about many other major characters. In this book, the stakes are real.A Clash of Kings – George R.R. MartinA Storm of Swords – George R.R. MartinA Feast for Crows – George R.R. MartinA Dance with Dragons – George R.R. MartinI have listened to these audio book three times and purchased the Kindle version. I strongly recommend this book and plan to write a review after I read it again.
(In the spirit of streamlining this website, I am systematically moving archived book reviews and other posts to this section, then deleting the archive.)Blue Hearts of Mars, by Nicole Grotepas, is a science fiction, YA romance about a seventeen-year-old girl and an android that fall in love. The girl (or young woman rather), Retta, goes to school and works to support her family. She encounter’s a boy who exposes a world of prejudice and unfairness. Androids are a crucial part of society and Mars would never have been colonized without them. They are so human in appearance that most pass as humans. This gives rise to an interesting question: can an android have a soul? They are thinking, feeling, living entities with the capacity for love…They are also smarter and stronger. It is not surprising that some humans fear and resent them and would not want their daughters (or sons) dating them. The boy, Hemingway, seems the less powerful character, even though he has perfect memory and superhuman strength. But Retta makes all of the hard choices and stands up for what is right. I mention this because Hemingway fades in and out of the picture, allegedly to protect Retta from the perils loving and android will bring. This is good, honorable, and realistic because human / android relationships are taboo in this story. Fine. Retta is the protagonist after all, so she should be center stage. I guess what I am trying to say, is that I like Retta better than Hemingway in this story.I enjoyed Blue Hearts of Mars quite a bit. The book description sounded interesting and I was curious, though I almost passed on the book because Hemingway, as a character name, jolted me. Once I started reading, however, the name stopped distracting me and I began to like both the name and the character. One of my favorite scenes is when Retta tells off other students in her class, choosing to stand up for her teacher who many believe is an android. This demonstrates her strong values and willingness to take risks. Retta stands up to her friends, her boss, and her father. I would recommend this book for fans of science fiction, YA romance. If a reader is seeking hard science fiction about the colonization of Mars, this may not be the right book. The depiction of life on Mars is entertaining and the moral and social issues concerning androids that can pass for human (and some believe to have souls) is thought provoking.I obtained a free copy of this book through Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. I am glad I did.
In the spirit of streamlining this website, I will be systematically moving archived book reviews and other posts to this section, then deleting the archive. So let’s get started with:The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth, stunned me at the end with its resonance.I began reading this novel after Sol Stein recommended it in his book Stein on Writing as an example of structuring a story for suspense.At first, I was a bit confused because so many of the “rules” of writing were violated. A great deal of narrative summary padded the beginning of the book and many uses of the passive voice existed.What made Forsyth’s tale a modern classic and basis for popular movie versions?I wasn’t blown away, but the story and the historical references interested me. So I continued listening to the audio book.Enter the Jackal. At first, this character seemed like a modern anti-hero like so many assassins portrayed as good guys in movies. Forsyth showed him as a skilled professional not to be messed with. When an identity forger tries to double cross him, the Jackal ruthlessly takes him out.A gunsmith treats the Jackal honestly, and the Jackal spares his life. Not every character is so lucky. Let’s just say that at a certain point, I thoroughly turned against the Jackal and wanted him to go down hard for his crimes. Police Inspector Claude Labelle is introduced well in to the story, but quickly becomes a major character. By the end of the novel, I’m cheering him on and growling at everyone who seeks to destroy his reputation.The Day of the Jackal entertains from start to finish, though I found the second half of the book exceptionally good. This is a novel I will read again for enjoyment, but will also study as an example of good writing. Simon Preble performed the audio book. He’s one of the best readers I have listened to, and I devour audio books one after another.
Photo obtained from JoshHayesWriter.com What are some elements of good, entertaining fiction? For me the list starts with compelling characters, conflict, suspense, and a setting exotic enough that I’d like to go there and have an adventure. Hayes put all these pieces into the story, and I want to see more of these characters and this place they have found. I obtained this as a free advanced reading copy in return for an honest review, and thought I knew the gist of the story before I began, but I was delighted and surprised by the end and can’t wait to read the next installment. I wish I had thought of the science fiction Neverland concept. This series is going places, and should be full of fun. I recommend this story for fans of science fiction / action adventure genres.You can learn more about Josh Hayes and his works on his web page, Josh Hayes Writer.com. He is an active member of the indie writing community and does a lot more than just promote his own books. His site is full of author interviews and book reviews. In fact, I am going to try and get an interview set up up with him soon.Second Star: Breaking Through Kindle Link (I like to use Amazon to see other reviews, download a free samples, and make purchases.)
Josh Hayes, author of Second Star: Breaking Through