Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review – The Tatja Grimm’s World

Vernor Vinge is my favorite author at the moment. Even his less than stellar works, like The Tatja Grimm's World, is so much fun to read that it's hard not to be impressed.

My wife and I, not sci-fi fans, enjoyed watching the first season of the new Battlestar Gallactica when it was released a few years ago. We thought the story lines were interesting, the acting was good, an all around good show. We felt it slumped in season 2 and stopped watching, but the authors employed an amazing technique between seasons 1 and 2, he advanced the story almost a year. All of a sudden the audience was forced to pay attention to understand what happened and how their favorite characters had developed during the time shift. I bring this up because Vernor Vinge does this not just in The Tatja Grimm's World, but does it in all of his novels, and he does it well. Just as the reader is intrigued by the story and the characters, boom! onto the same story but five years in the future. It's like a whole new story is created during that time but with characters who don't have to be re-introduced. It might be necessary to get reacquainted, but not re-introduced.

Another aspect of Vernor Vinge's novels that I find compelling are his larger than life characters. In Deepness in the Sky and Fire Upon the Deep the reader follows an almost god-like Pham Nuwen. In this novel it's Tatja Grimm. Both of these characters have almost super-human intelligence and reading about them, watching the plot unfold, is like watching speed chess . . . but really fun and interesting speed chess (normally I don't like chess, but the maneuvering of the characters, the ambushes and plots all have that type of appeal).

I noted some lines and words below:

"He was wrapped in blankets, his hands clasped and shivering in his lap. Only one eye tracked and it was starred with a cataract. His voice was quavery, the delivery almost addeled."

The description of the eyes caught my eye.

One of the main characters is on a forced road march, the description of the pain was interesting.

"Each step sent bright spurts of pain up Svir's calves. Each breath burned at his lungs."

Finally, although this is a common theme in many novels and stories about combat, I thought this character's thoughts summed up the idea nicely.

"He reflected with some irritation that in general his courage derived from that fear that he might be taken for a coward."

Mendicant – Beggar; a member of a religious order (as the Franciscans) combining monastic life and outside religious activity and originally owning neither personal nor community property : friar.

Soporific - causing or tending to cause sleep; tending to dull awareness or alertness.

Don't like Sci-Fi but love fascinating writing with rich characters and indepth plots? Go read a Vernor Vinge. Don't read this one right away, go get A Deepness in the Sky then read Fire Upon the Deep. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Editing . . . Hard on the Old Self Esteem

It never ceases to amaze me how edits are a shock to the system. I just got an edit back from the online critique group. This is for a second novel. I submit a chapter a month and get a review. I provide the same service to the others in the group. Today's edits weren't tough, but there were enough where I wanted to tell the editor what I was thinking and why I'd written it that way. Its frustrating. Then again, if she didn't see why I'd written that way, I obviously didn't do a good enough job.

But, you should remember (or I should) that no matter how good you think something is, editors will always find something to correct or say. It's their job. Even if all the spelling and grammar are correct, they'll find words to transpose, or sentences to restructure. They don't feel as though they've done a good job unless they write something. It's a delicate balancing act to separate the wheat from the chaff. The hardest part is taking all three critiques and bringing them all together and making one final draft. Still, it's better than having to go through it in person. At least I know that this person has taken a second or two to read it.

Anyone interested in a pretty good critique group should consider joining this one (here).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Most Recent First Line

I started the "First Lines" thread because my editor was so brutal in red lining my own first line, and because so many of the "Writing" books I read emphasized their importance. Lately, I've started to take David Morrell's advice an have begun to read the first lines and first few pages of new books in the bookstore, looking for unique or novel writing styles. Today's entry, . . . not so great.

"Fair Haven at South Cape was a squalid little town."

The Tatja Grimm's World – Vernor Vinge.

Anyone who reads this blog religiously will know that Vernor Vinge is one of my faves. So I'll give him the first paragraph to wow me. He fails there too.

"Fair Haven at South Cape was a squalid little town. Ramshackle warehouses lined the harbor, their wooden sides unpainted and rotting. Inland, the principal cultural attractions were a couple of brothels and the barracks of the Crown garrison. Yet in one sense Fair Haven lived up to its name. No matter how scruffy things were here, you knew they would be worse further east. This was the nether end of civilization on the south coast of the Continent."

BLAH. Truth is things don't really get interesting till chapter three.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is That a Kindle I See in the Rearview Mirror?

As the parent of a four year old, I found this article in the WSJ by L. Gordon Crovitz called E-Seuss: Be Glad, Not Sad or Madon iPad's interesting (here). Not the best discussion of what will be in store for the next few years with e-readers and the iPad, but one that instead looks at the revolution through the eyes of Dr. Seuss. I for one, even one who owns and loves his Kindle, is happy that his four year old will in all likelihood be the owner of an iPad within the next year. I look forward to seeing in what ways the iPad outstrips the plain, jane, utilitarianism of the Kindle.

I hate to say it, but what has me even more enthralled with the iPad came from this article by John Naughton (here) about The Economist's (even more well loved round here than WSJ) digital plans from a year ago. Not soul shaking by any means but he provides a wake up call to publishers who have been lulled into believing the e-reader revolution will be lead by the Kindle.

"These two developments – the Economist's app and Eagleman's "book" – ought to serve as a wake-up call for the print publishing industry. The success of Amazon's Kindle has, I think, lulled print publishers into a false sense of security. After all, they're thinking, the stuff that goes on the Kindle is just text. It may not be created by squeezing dyes on to processed wood-pulp, but it's still text. And that's something we're good at. So no need to panic. Amazon may be a pain to deal with, but the Kindle and its ilk will see us through."

"If that's really what publishers are thinking, then they're in for some nasty surprises. The concept of a "book" will change under the pressure of iPad-type devices, just as concepts of what constitutes a magazine or a newspaper are already changing. This doesn't mean that paper publications will go away. But it does mean that print publishers who wish to thrive in the new environment will not just have to learn new tricks but will also have to tool up. In particular, they will have to add serious in-house technological competencies to their publishing skills."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: Tough Cookie...or Don't Tell My Army Buddies, Sometimes I Like To Read Chick Books

ARGH! . . . As I've always said, I write these book reviews for me, not for you the reader. I like to know what I've read so I can either go back and read it again, continue or discontinue the series, or avoid the author completely. At the moment I'm struggling with the fact that I can remember reading a particularly compelling thriller about the Middle East, but apparently I didn't think enough about it to actually write it down here. Nevertheless, I'm also in a bit of a quandary about this latest book I've finished, Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson.

I started reading Davidson's series on cooking and sleuthing and wasn't too disappointed. Now, the mild enthusiasm has waned. It might take quite a bit of convincing for me to read another. Although I find her characters shallow, her excessive use of modifying adverbs maddening and silly and her descriptions bordering on insipid and confusing, I will say that her mysteries, the actual story, the plot is fun to watch come together. It's as if she sprinkles all her characters in her book like fish food in an aquarium and they all dance and float around higgelty-piggelty then at the last instant they all come together. Sadly that's the only positive aspect I could find.

Some of the passages I highlighted, showing both good and bad:

First, the annoying adverbs.

"Without my business, an enterprise I'd lovingly built up for almost a decade, I entered a spiritual fog as thick as the gray autumnal mist snaking between the Colorado mountains."

“I’d lovingly built up?” Would have worked as well or better without “lovingly.”

“She expertly poured both the juice and the champagne into a clean crystal flute to make a mimosa.”

Expertly poured? What’s that really mean? Think about it a sec, how descriptive is that?

Tom’s makeshift version, composed of kettle-dipped water, cocoa, sugar, powered creamer and milk was actually quite luscious, like a hot chocolate gelato.

I have no idea what that above sentence means. Have you ever tried that recipe? I have. Less than luscious to say the least. And can someone tell me what hot chocolate gelato means?

There were a million more like the above throughout the book. Too many to mention. “She rolled the luscious chocolate in her mouth” or “The scrumptious aroma of beef” etc. It’s not as bad in this forum and when I just give a souciant of the whole, but it gets tiresome throughout the book.

One thing that Davidson does do well is relate food and cooking to every aspect of her writing, including scene and character descriptions. Two examples:

Describig a ski slope: “Most runs are set up like slant-sided wedding cakes. Long sloped section alternate with narrow flat areas.”

“Just before eight o’clock, a state patrolman knocked on our door. Into our kitchen Tom ushered a tall, corpulent man with black hair so short and think it looked like someone had ground pepper over his scalp.”

Another thing Davidson does poorly is dialogue. In many cases when I think an author is struggling with dialogue I can give a bit of leeway, but in this case, it’s just horrible. I don’t know anyone who speaks like this, do you?

She sighed. “Not to worry, my dear friend. How's the planning going?”

I’ve never said “dear friend” when speaking to anyone.

“That won’t stop the ski traffic, unfortunately,” he said mournfully. “A day for accidents. What a shame.” – “Yes, indeed.” I said.

This one is filled with problems. Try reading that out loud then imagine saying it to a friend. It doesn’t work at all. “What a shame?” “Yes, indeed?” It’s stilted and unrealistic at best.

I try to read critically now, and I have to say to a great degree I notice new aspects of many of the books I’ve read. One thing I’ve noticed is that authors love to describe mornings. I could start a whole series of posts like my “First Lines” and “Last Lines” threads whereby I just include morning descriptions. Davidson used an original one when she says of the morning:

"To the east the sky was edged with pewter."

Finally, one problem I have with Davidson . . . her characters never goes to the store. She begins the description of Goldy making lasagna and meatballs with:

“Serving meatballs and lasagna could jeopardize my upscale reputation, I reflected while removing ground beef, ricotta, Fontina, whipping cream, eggs and mozzarella from the walk-in.”

I would have a hard time making a bowl of Cheerios with milk with what I have in my refrigerator right now, yet this lady can whip up lasagna, meatballs, a curry dish, shrimp scampi, cookies galore, two casseroles, desserts, etc. and never once have to go to the store. Made me think it was lazy writing. Kinda irked me.

There were a couple of vocabulary words that struck me:

Ingenue - a naive girl or young woman; an actress playing such a role

Frisson - a brief moment of emotional excitement : shudder, thrill

And finally, I love onomatopoeia. This example, although less than lyrical is certainly perfectly descriptive.

“The doorbell bing-bonged into the depths of Arthur’s condo.”

I guess what bothers me about this series is that I feel that my own novel is better; not much better, but better. My second novel will be much better. I suppose I should feel invigorated that if this can find an audience, my own novels should as well. I really only read these books cause I like cooking and enjoy mysteries. At this point though I might forego the next Davidson book. I might have outgrown them.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In All Seriousness . . .

One of my friends, a co-worker and pseudo-manager, has just taken a job as a Director of Marketing at a large, national, oil-field services company. Combine this with a story I read (here) about an eleven year old who is starting in on his second fantasy novel, having just finished having his first published, and you have a recipe for self-reflection, angst, and regret.

I read Stephen King's On Writing several months ago and was surprised to learn that as a young child he not only wrote voraciously, but he also submitted stories for publication. I think he started in his early teens. He has been refining the craft of writing for decades and decades. Seemingly he has done little else. My work friend had a similar story. When I worked with him I was amazed by how driven he was. How could anyone be so focused on hazardous waste and industrial cleaning?

Throughout my life I've lacked the necessary seriousness to take my career to the next level. In the Army, all of my comrades were there striving for purpose and long careers, I was there for fun. Now, many of them are contractors, pilots or better in the Army. The remains of the five different jobs that I've had over the past ten years seems to point to a lack of seriousness in my professional career. It's only now, almost 40, despite having written to varying degrees throughout my life, that I've become at all serious about writing.

That makes me what? 30 years behind Stephen King's power curve. So I should expect fame in riches when I'm 80. Bully for me!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back to the Last Lines Thread

“The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”

Joseph Heller - Catch 22

The first line is in the first lines thread. I was reminded that I've not updated this thread for a while after reading The Danger last week, with its clipped, almost immediate ending. Expect more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two Fun Articles

Two different articles caught my eye this morning as I perused the Journal. The first was a review by Eric Felton of a new book called Euphemania by Ralph Keyes (here). Anyone who knows me or reads this blog even semi-regularly will know that I love the Wall Street Journal each morning primarily for the book review article in the Op-Ed pages. I love Saturdays because the Weekend Journal section is all about books. I've yet to find a daily publication that provides as much information and reviews of books as the Journal. Today's review of Euphemania is probably the most scathing review I've yet read.

In Ratatouille, the restaurant critic Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O'Toole, has an epiphany regarding food that he relates to his readers by discussing how fun it is to write scathing reviews. The review of Euphemania does not come across as having been fun to write. It isn't even all that fun to read. It's a decimation of the book by Felton, and based on his arguments it seems that it was well deserved. I came away thinking that Mr. Felton had put more time, study and research into his review than Mr. Keyes put into his book. Well worth a quick read. Quite memorable.

The second article is a bit cringe worthy. Room Service for Running Shoes by Kevin Helliker (here) discusses how higher end hotels are now offering running togs to include socks and shoes to guests who don't wish to tote around workout gear when they travel. I don't know about you, but when I traveled I didn't mind taking my own running gear and would not quickly give that up to wear anything the hotel might give me. At one point in the article Mr. Helliker states the hotel's case:

"Westin's program is part of a larger move by the hotel industry to beef up fitness offerings and cater to the frequent business travelers who tend to use hotel gyms the most. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts recently introduced a gear-lending program with an MP3 player and Adidas shoes and apparel. It, however, is only available to Fairmont's most-loyal guests and, in most cases, requires a small fee. Hotel companies have also recently put more resources into their gyms, transforming many of them from cramped, windowless spaces jammed with old treadmills into spacious centers stocked with high-end equipment, flat-screen televisions and free yoga classes."

It's this second half of the quote that should be most telling. I hate going to those small fitness rooms. Usually if there is even just one other person the place is too crowded. If hotels want to attract more people to their fitness areas and to return stays just increase the size of their fitness rooms, don't give out used gear.

Monday, December 13, 2010

First Line I’m Reading Now

"Show business and death don't mix. Unfortunately I discovered this while hosting a TV cooking show."
Diane Mott Davidson – Tough Cookie

Not a huge fan of these books, but they're fun and quick. A nice break. Not a great first line, but like the book, fun and quick.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Review: The Danger

I finished The Danger by Dick Francis at about midnight on Tuesday. I don't know if I've read this one before or not. I suspect that I have as there were one or two scenes I felt I could just about have predicted before they were complete, but that could be because I consider myself such a Dick Franciscan.

One of the aspects of his writing that I enjoy, and have a new respect for now that I've tried it myself, is Francis' ability to have a story that revolves around horse racing and not have the main character be a part of the horse racing world. In The Danger, the main character is a hostage negotiator. He happens to fall into the racing world when a spate of kidnaps infects the horse racing world.

Not much in the way of vocabulary, but I highlighted some passages.

In this first the main character is describing to another character a father who is upset by the kidnapping of his son. A great sample of an interesting simile.

"John Nerrity is like one of those snowstorm paperweights, all shaken up, with bits of guilt and fear and relief and meanness all floating around in a turmoil. It takes a while after something as traumatic as the last few days for everything in someone's character to settle, like the snowstorm, so to speak, and for all the old patterns to reassert."

This next describes the main character talking to the police chief. I like the way Francis allows his own character to describe a dominant feature of himself, phrasing suggestions as questions.

"'Andrew!' The beginnings of exasperation. 'What's been going on?'

'Will you be coming here yourself?'

A short pause came down the line. He'd told me once that I always put suggestions into the form of questions, and I supposed that it was true that I did. Implant the thought, seek the decision. He knew the tap was on the telephone, he'd ordered it himself, with every word recorded. He would guess there were things I might tell him privately.'"

This final passage describes the way that the main character feels about America.

"I felt liberated, as always in America, a feeling which I thought had something to do with the country's own vastness, as if the wide-apartness of everything flooded into the mind and put spaces between everyday problems."

It's a good, solid, Francis book. I enjoyed it. Unlike many of his and other mystery books, this one ends rather abruptly. There is no denouement, just a quick sentence or two after the climax. The reader is forced to imagine the rest. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Couple of Links

Unimpressed with the screensavers on the Kindle? I am. I've written about that before. Seriously, I don't like some of the authors that are on that screensaver,…doesn't seem like it would be too hard to have the screensaver be the cover art of the books on the Kindle, or pictures of the authors that the reader downloads the most. Well, since Amazon won't fix it, others have (here). Not as simple as a cut and paste AND I will have to make my own art, but at least it provides options. A smart entrepreneur would go out and start making some screensavers and selling them to Kindle owners. I suppose that will be my last Google search.

Secondly, another blogger has discussed his NaNoWriMo experience (here). It's a good summation. Similar to my own.

Last thing, I plan on contacting this fellow (here). If he can make e-reader publishing worthwhile, why can't I?


Monday, December 6, 2010

Most Recent First Line

"Kidnapping is a fact of life."

Dick Francis – The Danger

It's not the best first line of Dick Francis' career but it catches your eye and makes you think. Also lets you know what the rest of the novel is going to be about. A couple of lines later he uses a pretty great metaphor.

"All kidnappers are unstable, but the political variety, hungry for power and publicity as much as money, make quicksand look like rock."

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Book – Dead Or Alive

I used to be a HUGE Tom Clancy fan. For years one of my favorite books was Debt of Honor. I think I read it twice in one year. Once I read Without Remorse and Rainbow Six, I found the bloom had fallen off the rose. I never did read The Bear and the Dragon or Red Rabbit. I think that might change. Tom Clancy has a new book coming out, Dead Or Alive (see here). Saw in the WSJ that they are planning an initial print run of 1,750,000 copies for $28.95, e-book . . . just $14.99. Sign me up for the e-book version.

What I Couldn't Say

Sometimes I love when I read someone write something that I wish I had said. Sometimes I hate it. In the case of Sarah Millar's article iPad vs. Kindle, which would you prefer? (here) she says what I've tried to say in a concise and brief manner. The column addresses why a Kindle is worthwhile and ends with this passage:

"In her column this week, Ellen Roseman said she favoured the iPad over her Sony e-Reader because her iPad does so much more than just lets you read books on it. But that’s exactly why an e-reader is better than a tablet. A tablet is a device that does many things, but is not dedicated for one use. An e-reader, on the other hand, does one thing and does it very well."

Couldn't have said it better, . . . tried to.

Secondly, this article (here) about my alma mater, Lamar High School in Houston, is pushing to go e-book in their library. I spent alot of time in the Lamar library. When I was in school I spent my lunch hours in the library. When the library was closed I sat on the steps outside the library and read. Would be nice to be a student there again and be able to download any of those books to my Kindle or Droid.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review: Hard Rain or “Man This Guy is Good”

When I was younger, teenage years, one of my favorite authors was Pat Conroy. I loved reading the Prince of Tides, Lords of Discipline, The Water is Wide and The Great Santini. I thought that Conroy had a lyrical voice and style that was engaging and interesting to read. In college I found the same style in James Dickey of Deliverance fame. Serendipidous then that I have run across Barry Eisler and his John Rain series. Hard Rain in this the second book of Eisler's that I've read and this series of his is easily my favorite series of the moment. His prose, particularly in the first chapters, are incredibly rich and he uses a vocabulary that makes you think. Perfect to read on a Kindle with a dictionary application. The story and plot are gruesome, his main character is an anti-hero, an assassin who although a murderer and killer is out to do good, but the story is wide in scope and has a tight POV that keeps me wanting to read more.

First the vocabulary. A majority of these came in the first thirty pages. Makes me think about all those books on writing where-in they tell you to make the first few chapters as perfect as you can make them. Sadly, the twenty-five cent words trailed off throughout the book.

Demimonde - A class of women kept by wealthy lovers or protectors; women prostitutes considered as a group; a group whose respectability is dubious or whose success is marginal.

Antedeluvian - Of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible; made, evolved, or developed a long time ago; extremely primitive or outmoded an antediluvian prejudice.

Ambit - Circuit, compass; the bounds or limits of a place or district; a sphere of action, expression, or influence : scope.

Anodyne - Serving to alleviate pain; not likely to offend or arouse tensions : innocuous.

Solipsistic - A theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing; also : extreme egocentrism.

Amanuensis - One employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript.

Quotidian - Occurring every day; belonging to each day; commonplace, ordinary.

Fulgent - Dazzlingly bright : radiant.

Soporific - Causing or tending to cause sleep, tending to dull awareness or alertness; of, relating to, or marked by sleepiness or lethargy.

Some lines that caught my eye.

First, despite the sometimes lowly descriptions, Eisler, a westerner, describes Tokyo in such a way that I can't wait to go visit it. Here is his description of a cemetery in Tokyo:

"I moved deeper into the comforting gloom, along a stone walkway covered in cherry blossoms that lay like tenebrous snow in the glow of lamplights to either side. Just days earlier, these same blossoms had been celebrated by living Tokyoites, who came here in their drunken thousands to see reflected in the blossom's brief and vital beauty the inherent pathos of their own lives. But now the blossoms were fallen, the revelers departed, even the garbage disgorged by their parties efficiently removed and discarded, and the area was once again given over only to the dead."

Then this:

"Everywhere were metastasizing telephone lines, riots of electric wires, laundry hanging from prefabricated apartment windows like tears from idiot eyes."

Finally, after he has used a disguise to kill someone, the hero, John Rain, gets rid of the elements of his disguise by leaving it for the homeless:

"Within days, perhaps hours, the discarded remnants of this last job would have been bleached of any trace of their origin, each just another nameless, colorless item among nameless colorless souls, the flotsam and jetsam of loneliness and despair that fall from time to time into Tokyo's collective blind spot and from there into oblivion."

I wrote about a Nero Wolfe story I read wherein Archie describes then watches a character continually replace his glasses ontop of his nose. Eventually Archie's narration boils down to nothing more than his saying, "specs again" or "glasses" and the reader knows exactly what the author is referring to. Eisler does a similar thing as Rain watches the people with whom he interacts, in this case catching someone lying, something I've always been intrigued by.

"He glanced to his left, which for most people is a neurolinguistic sign of recall rather than of construction. Had he looked in the opposite direction, I would have read it as a lie."

Then much later all Eisler has to write is the following, and the reader knows what he is referring to:

"He glanced to his right. The glance said, think of something."

Loved reading this book. Not quite as good as the first if only because the reader can tell that the first was meant as a singleton, and this is an expansion of a story that came to a nice tight end with book one. That being said, I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Google Editions

There was an article today on Google Edtions (here) that discusses Google's foray into the e-book selling world. More open to multiple formats seems to be the key.

"Google Editions hopes to upend the existing e-book market by offering an open, "read anywhere" model that is different from many competitors. Users will be able to buy books directly from Google or from multiple online retailers—including independent bookstores—and add them to an online library tied to a Google account. They will be able to access their Google accounts on most devices with a Web browser, including personal computers, smartphones and tablets."

But beyond this is Google's desire to route all searches for books to their site to buy it.

"Google says it is on a mission to reach all Internet users, not just those with tablets, through a program in which websites refer their users to Google Editions. For example, a surfing-related blog could recommend a surfing book, point readers to Google Editions to purchase it, and share revenue with Google. Through another program, booksellers could sell Google Editions e-books from their websites and share revenue with Google.
"Google is going to turn every Internet space that talks about a book into a place where you can buy that book," says Dominique Raccah, publisher and owner of Sourcebooks Inc., an independent publisher based in Naperville, Ill. "The Google model is going to drive a lot of sales. We think they could get 20% of the e-book market very fast."

That first quote is ho-hum. I am, and most people are creatures of habit. I like my little Kindle, have gotten use to it, and from time to time enjoy downloading my Kindle books to my phone. That's about all I need. Multiple by thousands of people and across different platforms. Still, it doesn't necessarily effect me. Quote two does. That is the insidious part. The passive influence of Google to reach into every search that you might do in order to sell you your book.

I take the Norm Peterson of Cheer's approach when they were talking about changes to the bar. "Is this going to affect the price of beer? No? Then what do I care?" If anything I suspect it will make books easier to find and procure. Secondly, the competition will drive the price down. Win -Win for the reader. Not sure yet what the writer side of me thinks.