Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

How to Write a Novel
Using the Snowflake Method
Someone recommended this book to me after I said that I can't plot and have never been able to. I wish I could remember who it was that made the recommendation because I owe her big time. I opened it one night just to glance at it and stayed up past my bedtime reading most of it in one sitting. I rushed to finish it the next day and immediately bought the sequel, How to Write Dynamic Scene using the Snowflake Method. It's a how-to book in the form of a fairy tale and it shouldn't work, but it totally does. I found the techniques simple and easy to understand and, by telling it as a story, I had no trouble seeing how each step worked. I have been using this method for about a week now, and the plan for my novel is coming together. I am a little slow because I only have so many ideas at any one time, but the ideas are coming and I am beginning to see how to put them together.

I have always wanted to write fiction but never could find a way to wrap my head around the how of it all. I can put words together okay. My dialog and descriptions are fine and I even write decent, if not brilliant, scenes. What I don't ever know is what happens next. By separating the who (the characters) from the what/why/how (the plot) and moving you back and forth from one to the other, the plot grows organically and you can focus on what is inspiring you most at any one time. Everything is done in small steps and you can go back to something and redo it or develop it further if an idea is sparked in a later step.

I don't care about being the next big thing. I would love to have people read and enjoy my writing, but I'm not holding my breath. Right now, all I want to do is write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that work together and entertain me and my few readers. If the first one is bad but I learn something then it's a success, as long as it inspires me to keep going. This book, more than most, makes me think that I can actually do that.

Six enthusiastic stars.

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Review: The Forever War

The Forever War
This is the weirdest sci fi book I've read since Ringworld, and just as unlikable. The idea is fascinating - time travel via space travel, but the execution is deeply flawed. The military stuff bored me to tears but at least I don't know enough about tactics, strategy, and physics to know if it makes any sense.

You know what doesn't make any sense, though? The social sciences. We know that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but this author thinks that the more they change, the gayer everyone will get. That's right, people don't get more diverse as time marches on, it's an inevitable march to homosexuality and homogeneity. While the main character is running around in space, fighting completely pointless battles, the people back home are being encouraged and/or forced into homosexuality and sameness of thought, action, and so on. This is the anti-Star Trek view of the future. Embrace diversity nothing, we're all going to be the same, gosh darn it.

Added to that weird concept (which isn't a passing fancy by the way, it's continued for over 1,000 years into the future) there is the extremely problematic issue of sex within the ranks. Women and men are assigned random bed partners and no one gets to say no. If the women don't want to give it up, that's just too bad, they shouldn't have joined the army. Oh, wait, they were drafted.

So, let's get this straight - the army drafts men and women, force them to have sex with each other, and that's okay? This isn't happening 1,000 years in the future, either, this is the near future stuff. This is what this author thought would happen in a co-ed army. All I can say is that I am really glad I don't live in this guy's brain. Even one trip via this novel was one trip too many.

I gave this three stars when I finished it, but can't remember why. It's barely a two star book.

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Review: The Dog Who Danced

The Dog Who Danced
Let me preface this by saying that I'm a fanatic about dogs in general, and blue merle Shelties in particular, so if you're going to write about this breed, I'm going to notice when you're full of it. Let's start with the fact that the author constantly talks about this dog as a blue merle, but everyone describes it as white, silver, and black. No mention is ever made of brown. In fact, at one point she describes the dog as having black eyebrows. There are two blue varieties of Shelties - blue merle, which are predominately gray with black splotches on the back and head and then they have a line of brown between the gray and the white; and bi-blues, which have the same gray and black coat with white ruff, belly, and feet, but no brown anywhere. Blue merles have brown eyebrows, bi-blues have no eyebrow marks at all. The dog that is described throughout this book is a bi-blue, not a blue merle, and it wouldn't have black eyebrows either way. Why does this matter? Well, why does it matter when an author describes a gun needing a magazine when it uses a clip? Or when she has a person driving to Hawaii? If you can't do the most basic Google search about your topic, people will notice. Some dog geek like me, who has loved and studied the breed for almost fifty years, will notice and be annoyed by it.

I could get over the blue merle nonsense, but a bigger problem really took me out of the book. The people who find the lost dog lie about where they got him and do everything they can to steal him! In many, if not most, states and counties, it is illegal to keep a stray. You are legally, not to mention ethically and morally, bound to get that stray to the authorities so that the legal owner can find and reclaim their property. The fact that they were using this dog to heal their heartache was nice and all, but there are millions of dogs being put to sleep every year in the U.S., go help one of them. I kept thinking about how horrible I would feel if Harley were lost and some a-holes thought they were within their rights to keep him just because he was a stray. You do your best to find out where that dog came from before you keep him.

Beyond these two issues, the book was alright. On a human level it was fine, but the dog stuff kept tripping me up. When I forced myself to let go of the problems I had with the dog elements, I enjoyed the book. The characters were well-drawn and I liked seeing things from the dog's point of view.

Four reluctant stars.

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Review: The Secret, Book and Scone Society

The Secret, Book and Scone Society
Nora has a secret and so do her new friends. It's too bad that it was death that brought them together, but now they are getting to know each other's secrets even as they try to find the killer stalking their small town.

This was a cut above the average cozy mystery. The topics are more serious and less frivolous and the author takes things to a deeper place, psychologically. The concept really spoke to me since books have been my therapy for my entire life and I liked the focus on the healing power of literature. The mystery wasn't all that engaging, but I liked the women and their relationships with each other. I liked that their pasts and their scars (emotional and/or physical) inform their characters, they don't define them. They are more than the sum of their parts and they make an interesting group. I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to read more in the series, but I wouldn't run away, either.

Four solid stars

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Harrison Squared

Harrison Squared
Audio books are tough. First, they're expensive so I often take a chance on the Audible Daily Deal just because they are such a good deal. After all, I go through dozens of books a year in audio format and I can't afford to spend $10 to $20 for every one of them. The library helps, but their selection is weak. Besides, sometimes I luck out and find a real gem (Scott Meyer, Drew Hayes, Dennis E. Taylor) that I would never have discovered otherwise. Still, when you buy a book just because it's cheap, you take a risk of reading something you don't like much.

The other side of audio books is it's a lot harder to sit through a bad audio book than it is to skim through a bad print book. You can't skip long, boring paragraphs of description. You can't look ahead to see if it gets better. And the slowness! Oh. My. Gosh. Audio books are so slow. Even at 1.75 speed, it's slow. I can read faster than I can listen so even a good book can tax my patience sometimes.

There are few things more frustrating than listening to a bad book, and even a mediocre book can be painful. That brings us to this one. Harrison Squared was never going to be a favorite of mine. I don't care for Lovecraft at all and when books are too weird, they lose my interest. I can handle a lot of fantastical elements in my books, but they have to be believable on some level. Lovecraftian books break that believability with levels of weirdness that don't even try to seem plausible. It's like listening to a story told by a second grader - nothing makes any sense.

This one started out depressing and dark and just got worse. I disliked the setting, I disliked the main character, and I hated the tone. Then, it takes an odd jaunt to the side into screwball comedy and that's where it lost me entirely. If you're going to write horror, commit to it, don't descend into hi jinks and quirky sidekicks. The tone was so uneven that, if it had been a road, the potholes would have been the size of the Grand Canyon. I have no problem with humor mixed in with horror, but it has to fit and this did not.

Despite everything, I might have forgiven the book a lot if it had landed the ending. It didn't. It fell as flat as a cow patty and was just as unappealing. Look, I get it, horror calls for a downturn at the end, but this wasn't even a downturn. It was more like the metaphorical road from before just petered out into a gassy swamp. There was no payoff for all that came before.

Lesson learned, I need to be a little more discerning about which Daily Deal's I pick up. They may not cost much in terms of dollars, but these are hours I'm never going to get back and that's too costly for me.

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Review: Out of Spite, Out of Mind

Out of Spite, Out of Mind
Even in a series where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, this is the one where the crap really hits the fan. Brit the Elder notices a glitch in the code that is making her memories go out of sync with Brit the Younger. Then her physical form starts glitching, too. Phillip teams up with her to try to solve the problem while trying to keep it a secret from Younger Brit who hates her older self. In the meantime, Martin and Gwen hit a rough patch when he almost, but not quite proposes. Then he gets distracted by a mysterious figure who is attacking Phillip. Everyone's favorite bad guy resurfaces as do the agents tasked with investigating the wizards in the present day. Oh, and there's a bit with Gary attracting minions.

I wish I could say that the whole is better than the sum of its parts, but this is the weakest book in the series. It had a high bar to meet since this is an incredibly fun and inventive series, but it doesn't quite make it. The individual stuff is funny or at least entertaining, but it never coalesces into a whole. The stuff with Brit felt forced and the present day bits fizzled out without going anywhere.

This felt like a transitional book - something needed to get us from one place to another, but lacking the oomph to stand on its own. I am always happy to revisit this world and these characters and Luke Daniels is a talented narrator, but this one isn't quite on par with the rest of the series.

Five stars by the skin of its teeth.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet
Why do I keep doing this to myself? I am positive that Charlie Holmberg is a delightful person. She's probably very kind and loves her family and is nice to puppies and all of that. I have no beef with her, I promise. We just aren't compatible when it comes to writing. She has wonderful ideas - fresh and original and exciting ideas. I think she's a talented writer. I'll bet she even bakes chocolate chip cookies for the elderly. Why can't I love her writing?

To be fair, I really liked Followed by Frost, which is why I keep coming back to her. However, none of the magician books struck my fancy and this one is a strike out, too. On the positive side, this is an amazing idea, truly one of the most original I've ever seen. But the story is so hard to read.

Books on writing talk all the time about torturing your protagonist and not being afraid to be hard on them. Unfortunately, it is possible to go too far down that road. The vast majority of this book is dark and dreary and depressing. The main character is in a hopeless, ghastly position and she's surrounded by other people who are enslaved, raped, and murdered. For most of this book Maire doesn't know who she is or where she came from and the reader is left in the dark along with her. That means that you sit in misery with her for page after page of pain and abuse and despair. The title promises you bitter and sweet but there is almost no sweet. Even when things resolve, it's too little too late and the explanation is original, but also unsatisfying.

The book reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale, which I detest, because the protagonist has so little control over her life and is at the mercy of other's. Even when she escapes, it's because of circumstances rather than her own efforts. Maire is slightly more proactive than the wimpy woman in Atwood's book, but the author has her so bound by circumstances that she really can't do much.

I'm afraid this has to be the end. It's not you, it's me, Ms. Holmberg. I hope that if we ever met we would be friends, but I can't keep reading your books. They're just not for me.

3 depressing stars.

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Review: Dreadnought

Danny Tozer is transgender. That's cool, but I wouldn't have read this book if that had been the focus. I was drawn in by the superhero plot and I appreciated that the gender issues were only part of the character development. As I told a coworker, I don't read issue books. If you want to talk about an issue, you had better have something else going on to carry the story. For instance, Jumper is a book about an teen boy who finds his way in the world after escaping from an abusive home. The fact that he escapes by teleportation is what makes the book interesting. On the other hand, the teleportation alone would not have made for such a compelling and memorable book without the underlying childhood trauma, which is why the book works on so many levels.

Dreadnought reminded me a lot of Jumper. Danny's father is a class-A jerk with all of the stereotypical issues surrounding masculinity and gender. He makes Danny's life miserable even before Danny comes home outwardly transformed into the girl she always felt she was on the inside. Danny finds that life as a girl, even a beautiful one, isn't as great as she thought it would be. Her friends don't know how to deal and her family can't wait to fix her. And they don't even know the full story, not only is she suddenly a girl, she's a superhero, one nearly as powerful as Superman.

The story alternates between Danny's adventures in learning to handle her body's transformation and all that entails with her attempts to learn how to "cape." She has allies and enemies in both adventures and some of the worst enemies come from inside friendly lines.

It's a fascinating book and well worth the read. I love when I get a chance to see inside someone else's experience, after all, that's why we read isn't it? I hated that people were so horrible to Danny just because she didn't fit the mold of what they thought of as normal. Not to say that the situation is comparable, but as a geeky fat chick I certainly faced my fair share of abuse and bullying. At least I had parental support. I don't know that I would have made it to adulthood without it. It makes me so angry when children are mistreated. I don't care what your feelings are about people who are different from you - be tolerant, kind, and loving. It's just the right thing to do.

Four stars of empowerment.

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Review: The Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown
Aerin is mentioned over and over again in The Blue Sword as Harry learns to wield her predecessor's weapon. This is Aerin's tale, set many years before the happenings in The Blue Sword to which it is a prequel. Aerin is the unloved and unlovely daughter of a king. She lacks her cousin's beauty and grace, but she also lacks her malice. She is looked at askance because her mother, the witch woman, bewitched the king and then died bearing him a daughter instead of a son. She doesn't seem to have inherited her mother's magic, however, she doesn't even have the requisite gifts of the royal line. No wonder that she is not heir to her father's kingdom even if they would have overlooked her sex.

Aerin is more than a princess, though. If you've read The Blue Sword, you know that she is destined to be a great hero (it's in the title of the book, after all) and hero she is. I love that the book isn't called the Heroine and the Crown, by the way. That's very progressive for the 80s. I didn't love this book like I did The Blue Sword. The pacing is weird and the story line wanders for a long time. It reminds me a little of Mary Stewart's first Merlin book in that way. It's hard to tell a compelling story that starts in childhood and continues into adulthood. The book has a tendency to meander from the point because of that.

There are few surprises in store. Aerin is a hero. She gets the Blue Sword. She does something heroic related to the crown, also from the title. Still, it's well-written. I just wanted more of a comeuppance for the cousin and other doubters. I also didn't much care for the ambiguous romantic subplot. It's a solid book, but not a favorite.

Four wandering stars.

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Review: The Blue Sword

The Blue Sword
This was the second Robin McKinley book I read, including Beauty, and I had forgotten how good it was. It is set on a earth-like world with many parallels but with a bit of magic. Harry is from Homeland, a thinly-disguised Great Britain, and she is living in Damar, analogous to either Africa or India. Her father has recently died and she is left penniless in a Victorian-like time where women have no value and have no freedom or wealth not given to them by a man. Her only refuge is with the head of her brother's regiment on the frontier.

Damar is my idea of hell. It's dusty, dry desert and is hot and miserable. For some reason, Harry loves it. She's fascinated by the "beauty" of the land and its people, which makes her unusual among the people from back home who all count down to the day they can escape. All except for one old soldier, Jack, who seems to be the only one who appreciates the beauty of the country they've invaded.

For indeed, they are invaders. They have taken over this land to strip it of resources. Because, at its heart, this is a book about colonialism from before a time when this was the new hot issue in literature. Harry's contemporaries do not even try to understand the hill people. They think of them as colorful and unknowable and quaint much like a bunch of tourists on a safari gawking at the natives with a bit of contempt mixed with superiority. Everything changes when Harry is kidnapped by the king of the hill people and she is forced to learn more about these people than anyone from the Homeland has ever understood.

If it weren't for the magic in this book, it would have been depressing. I hate books about the invasion and subjugation of a people by colonial forces. But, the situation is completely different when the natives wield real power that is resistant to the invader's technology. This was the first book I ever read that took me on this particular journey from outside observer to integrated insider and it is still may be the best. While it is a fascinating story of adventure and magic, it is even more a morality tale about not judging a culture by one's own standards. It teaches, without being preachy, that one can never know another's life from the outside. As Harry's perceptions shift, so do the reader's and you will find yourself rooting for the hill people long before the book is over.

It's a lovely book and a powerful one. It should be required reading for anyone who has to cross a cultural divide, and in this modern era, isn't that all of us?

Four ground-breaking stars.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: Sweet Tea and Sympathy

Sweet Tea & Sympathy
By all rights this should be called bittersweet tea because it's coarser and less refined than I expected it to be. The main character, Molly, has a career-ending experience involving shrimp and flamingos and has to retreat to her father's family compound to work at the bait shop and funeral home. She hasn't seen her father or his family since she was a young child. Her mother left because her father was a drunk and she was raised by her cold mother and her equally cold stepfather. Say what you will about her father's family, they're not cold. Being chick lit, of course the family is equal parts charming and maniacal but at least the author was respectful of the Southern setting and didn't show them as a bunch of backwoods hicks. These are intelligent business people who are as smart as they are sassy.

The love interest, because you can't expect there not to be one, is a well-rounded character with more sides to him that hot hunk. He's a widower and father of two young girls and I liked the romance that developed between them. I liked the kids but thought the youngest one was a little too precocious to be real. I loved her name, Juniper. In fact, I could see having a dog named Juniper someday. That's cute.

The book felt a little darker, a little coarser, and a little more realistic than I was expecting. It helps to remember that it's not a romance, it's chick lit, and there is a difference. Yes, there is a romance, but it's not about the happily ever after so much as it is about the main character finding solace and healing for the holes in her heart from an unhappy childhood. The way the author wrote it was more realistic than not, but I wanted a touch more magic - a touch more optimism.

I had a problem, by the way, with the treatment of dogs by the narrative. They're not mistreated by the characters but they are treated as a plot device and not a great one. It's hard to explain but it felt like it was written by someone who doesn't like dogs but felt she needed them for the story. I did love the small town politics, though. That was the most fun part of the entire book.

I give it four stars - it's a good read, but don't expect magic.

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Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

The Lost City of the Monkey God
I don't know why I always feel compelled to tell you why I read a book before I tell you what I think of it, but the trend continues. I went to the library a while back, trying to find books on South America for a story I want to write. I had no specific idea about what part of the continent I wanted to focus on or what civilization would suit my story so I picked up stuff on Mayans, Incans, Aztecs, and so on. For awhile I was sure that Machu Picchu made the most sense but I need a location that is more isolated and more jungle. I happened to see this book on the shelf and the name was so striking that I picked it up. I finally got around to reading it this last week and it was turned out that it had the perfect location and people for my story. On top of that, it's a fascinating read and it's all true.

The author is a journalist/author who writes about archaelogy and other science stuff along with mysteries with Lincoln Child. I had never heard of him but I would happily read more books by him. He's got an easy style and knows how to keep things interesting.

The story begins with some background about the past attempts to find the White City, also known as the City of the Monkey God. One explorer and his partner supposedly found it back at the beginning of the last century, a story that was accepted as fact until this author got his hands on the journals written by these two men in which they detail their time spent in the jungle, panning for gold instead of looking for the lost city. When they returned to civilization they lied about finding it and no one questioned their story. The only reason these journals got out was because the one explorer's nephew went to prison and his wife loaned them to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian people never even opened them so it's entirely possible that no one would have known about the deception if Preston hadn't found and exposed them. That is the kind of stuff you can't even make up and it's just the start.

The archaelogists involved used very expensive military technology involving lasers and radar to identify potential dig sites in the deep jungles of Honduras. These sound like some really awful jungles with deadly snakes, quicksand(mud), killer bugs, and jaguars. Against all the odds, the team makes more than one world-shaking discoveries and along the way encounter all of the dangers listed above. Even when they return to the states their adventures are not over as many of them contract an incurable, potentially lethal disease. The book ends on a sour note as the author warns us that this disease is moving up into the states and may soon threaten all of us. That was a bummer ending I could have done without.

For a non-fiction book, this is a fairly fast-paced story with lots of drama and surprises. The controversy raised by rival scientists when they return reads like something out of the best fiction. For the record, I think their detractors are idiots, but maybe that's because they didn't bother to learn anything about the expedition before denouncing them as publicity hounds. If anything, I think this expedition didn't get nearly enough attention since I had never heard of it before reading this book and I couldn't find anyone else who had, either. This should have been much bigger news.

Don't wait for your news outlets to tell you this story, read the book. I think you'll enjoy it.

4 stars of fascination and horror.

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