I was recently saddened to learn that author Brian Sfinas had died after a short illness. Although I never met Brian face to face, I considered him a friend. He helped me redesign my old blog, Ancient Children—in fact, he did the heavy lifting on that job—and we worked together during the time that he managed Awesome Indies, a website supporting self-published authors. A talented writer with an exuberant, original, and fearless imagination, Brian published two speculative novels before his death, The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space and The Darkest of Suns Will Rise. I read and reviewed both books with much admiration. In memory of Brian and a brilliant voice that fell silent much too soon, I’m republishing my review of The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space.

 

In The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space Brian Sfinas has written an ambitious and compelling piece of fiction. The story centers on Michael Thorn, a twenty-something drug user obsessed with lucid dreaming. He and his friends devise a sensory deprivation chamber where, under the influence of sodium thiopental, they sleep for days exploring their private dreamscapes.

The novel is a cautionary tale of the lure and danger of solipsism.

It consists of a series of excerpts from Michael’s journal. A brief note at the start informs readers that the excerpts are evidence in the trial of his friends and the drug dealer who had supplied the sodium thiopental, so we know from the beginning that something has happened to Michael. We can only guess the crime with which the others are charged. The novel’s suspense grows from these unanswered questions and from our growing immersion in Michael’s inner life.

The journal provides the ideal narrative vehicle for this story. Not only do we experience events from Michael’s perspective, but the world is one step removed from his account. We aren’t shown his experience, only what he chooses to says about it. And the journal itself is incomplete. We are given excerpts, passages taken from a larger whole that are relevant to the upcoming trial. The journal creates the sense of a far larger world that we can’t see because we’re trapped in Michael’s head.

Even before lucid dreaming takes over his life, Michael is disengaged from the external world. Obviously intelligent, he harbors vague dreams of accomplishing something and making a contribution to the world, but he has no concrete goals. His job means nothing to him. People in general seem to bore or anger him. He does have a childhood friend, Kyle, and he’s on decent terms with Kyle’s girlfriend, Kate. These two share his enthusiasm for dream “vacations.”

Michael also has a girlfriend whom he meets after beginning his experiments in lucid dreaming. He conceals her real name and calls her Dorothy—not, he explains at length, after the heroine of The Wizard of Oz. Yet the connection fits his image of her. She’s a creature of fantasy, a figure from a dream. They are sexually intimate, of course, but they spend too much time asleep to know each other well. But Sfinas reveals enough about Dorothy to hint at her complexity, intelligence, and deep sadness.

At the heart of The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space is a tragic love story. Michael and Dorothy are young and lost and could have given so much to each other. If they only stayed awake.

noir mystery

Vu Tran’s novel Dragonfish combines a noir mystery with a family saga and adds a dash of ambiguity of the kind usually associated with literary fiction. Written in elegant prose, it begins as a familiar kind of detective story, the search for a missing person, but Tran seems more concerned with the mystery than its solution, with what cannot be known rather than what can.

Two husbands—or rather, three

Robert, an Oakland cop, and his ex-wife Hong a.k.a. Suzy are the story’s two first-person narrators. Hong abandons Robert for a man she met during her journey to America. Sonny has become a gambler and smuggler in Las Vegas. He’s a brutal villain but also a victim of his past. When Hong runs away from him too, he blackmails Robert into looking for her. The search leads Robert into a violent world that he doesn’t understand. The more he learns about his ex-wife, the more he realizes how little he knows her.

Not that he tries hard to know her during their marriage. He accepts her strange behavior without much caring what causes it. He calls her Suzy rather than her true name, creating a superficial American identity for her.

Her real name was Hong, which meant “pink” or “rose” in Vietnamese. But it sounded a bit piggish the way Americans pronounced it, so I suggested the name of my first girlfriend in high school . . .

It seems that Robert prefers his wife without the baggage of her past. Now, searching for her, he is forced to confront it.

Bad mother?

Hong is as much a mystery to herself as to Robert. In flashbacks she recounts her immigration to America and her deep ambivalence about motherhood. She gives birth in Vietnam while her first husband is imprisoned at a re-education camp. Although she loves her daughter, she feels alone and unable to be a good mother.

There are things that people do poorly for lack of talent, and things they do poorly for lack of desire. Then there are those things that all the desire and talent in the world cannot make fit, no matter how often you pray and how hard you pretend.

After the government releases her dying husband, he urges Hong to leave the country. She’s cast adrift on a crowded, barely seaworthy boat carrying her and her young daughter away from Vietnam. Two things that happen on the journey dramatize Hong’s ambivalence about motherhood. A woman thinks her son has fallen overboard. In a paroxysm of despair, she jumps in the ocean to drown with him. The boy is found soon afterward sleeping below deck. The woman’s devotion to her child backfires. It is extreme—and inept.

If the other mother loves her son too much, Hong fears that she may love her daughter too little.

The second incident occurs on an island where the refugees await sponsorship in America. Hong watches her daughter going into deep water, where she would likely drown, and does nothing to stop her. Hong cannot understand her own failure to act. It troubles her. These two incidents do not explain her ambivalence, but they suggest a disquieting answer—that Hong is incapable of the steadfastness and self-sacrifice that motherhood requires. She loves her daughter, yet leaves her to be raised by a relative.

Mysteries with no solution

Robert’s search for Hong brings him into conflict with Sonny and his clan, a conflict that ends in a violent resolution. But Hong remains in the shadows. She asks an ancient question—Who am I?—and cannot find an answer. Nor can the reader who wants to know how her story ends.

While the mystery of Hong’s character serves the plot and theme, the blurred edges of Robert’s character detract from the story. He’s not altogether believable as an Oakland cop, appearing remarkably untouched by a career full of stress and danger. Almost nothing is shown of his life apart from his marriage to Hong. True, the story isn’t about him, but as a major point-of-view character, he should be more fully developed.

Dragonfish does not deserve its low ratings on Amazon. Its combination of genres and ambiguous ending may explain the mixed reviews. Some readers apparently expected a more pedestrian novel. They complain that the plot moves too slowly and seem to resent the lack of resolution to Hong’s story. In another post I write about some readers’ dislike of ambiguity, a preference to which they are entitled. But plenty of other readers love Dragonfish and you can count me among them. I will not soon forget Vu Tran’s powerful novel.

Norse Mythology

As a child I loved myths. Magical stories that existed beyond my world and outside of time, they just were.  In my post Return to Tanglewood,, I wrote about my love for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, classical myths for children. My love for Norse mythology came a few years later and captured my imagination more profoundly.

While sunny Olympus endures forever, snowy Asgard lives in the shadow of Ragnorok, the death of the gods and the destruction of the world. Having lived through my parents’ violent divorce, I could imagine an inevitable and cataclysmic battle that destroys the world.

I don’t remember what books of Norse myths I read back then, but the stories riveted me. But the books I encountered as an adult seemed flat and academic. I figured the problem was me, that my adult self had outgrown the enchantment of Norse mythology. But when I reread the Tanglewood books, Hawthorne’s narrative rekindled my childhood delight.

A myth, like any other story, needs a skilled storyteller.

The Norse myths have found their storyteller in Neil Gaiman.

I rediscovered the magic of the Northern myths listening to the audio version of his Norse Mythology. Gaiman reads the book himself, with a wonderful understated expressiveness that never strains for effect. I listened every night in bed before off to sleep—like having my own personal reader of bedtime stories.

I remembered some of the myths from childhood—the fleet-footed peasant boy who can’t outrace Thought, the frost giant who tricks Thor into trying to drink the ocean, the time Loki vanishes Sif’s beautiful hair and leaves her bald.

Of all the characters in Norse mythology, my favorite was Loki, the trickster.

From my middle school perspective, Loki was like the class clown, always pranking the other gods. He can talk anyone into anything. He changes his shape at will. I failed to understand fully the darkness in Loki. His malice seemed containable because he fears the wrath of his fellow gods enough to undo the damage he causes—for a time, anyway.

Punishment of LokiI forgot the dark conclusion of Loki’s story, perhaps because I liked him so much. In the end, his envy and malice overwhelm fear of punishment. He contrives the death of the god Baldr. For that crime he’s doomed to suffer torment, bound in a cave while poisonous serpent’s venom drips on him, until the coming Ragnorok frees him to fight with the armies of darkness.

Norse Mythology captures all the grimness, heroism and humor of the Northern myths. Neil Gaiman has drunk deep of the Mead of Poetry.

 

Two paragraphs into Joe Hill’s novel Horns, I thought the author must have been influenced by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Both stories begin with a dramatic transformation. You may already know how Kafka’s novella opens:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Hill’s novel opens with a transformation as well:

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances . . . [W]hen he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Like Gregor, Ig has uneasy dreams before his transformation. Later in the story, we learn about the dreams and their connection to the “terrible things” he has done.

Why Gregor becomes a cockroach

Gregor is confined to his bedroom. At first his family grieves over his misfortune and takes care of him, but gradually he becomes a burden and they neglect and ignore him. When he leaves the room to join them, they chase him back in. He concludes rightly that they find him repugnant. In the end he dies.

To understand what all this means, it helps to consider the title. A metamorphosis is a creature’s radical change in form as it moves from one stage of life to another. For instance, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It’s a natural change, to be expected. Readers might wonder whether Gregor has been an insect all along. An insect disguised as a man. His life hasn’t exactly been bursting with meaning. He has plodded through one day after another, working in an office to support his family, and their love for him dies when he’s no longer earning a paycheck.

Why Ig becomes a devil

Ig is a devout Christian until his girlfriend is raped and murdered. Suspicion falls on him, but his wealthy father hires a lawyer and forensic evidence is destroyed in a mysterious fire. Although never charged in the murder, Ig remains a suspect. Paralyzed with grief, his life drifts into meaninglessness.

The horns change everything. Under their influence, every person Ig encounters is moved to confess their deepest feelings and desires. He discovers that his priest and his family secretly believe that he did the murder and wish he would just disappear—except his brother, who has been protecting the real killer.

Embittered and angry, Ig sets out to punish the guilty man. Vengeance is what he’s wanted since his girlfriend died. His transformation into a devil makes vengeance possible by giving him the power to fight a ruthless psychopath. The transformation is rooted in his sinful life although it’s unclear why until the novel’s end. He isn’t altogether innocent of the murder of his beloved.

Horns and The Metamorphosis

Hill’s lengthy novel obviously lacks the economy of Kafka’s novella. Horns certainly lacks the mystery and thematic richness of The Metamorphosis. Hill keeps pointing to the novel’s religious symbols as if afraid you’ll miss something and trip over it.

What happens to Gregor is more profoundly horrifying—forced to choose, I’d rather be a devil than an insect—but the horror in Horns is riveting. While Gregor sickens and dies quietly in a mundane apartment, Ig is drawn into terrifying conflicts that make him doubt his sanity. He suffers brutal violence that would kill an ordinary human.

The germ of both stories is the same—a fantastic transformation that turns out to be less absurd than it seems at first. Maybe Gregor and Ig don’t deserve their fate, but each character’s metamorphosis makes sense in the context of his life. The inevitable next stage of his existence, the transformation reveals his true character and renders his inner reality visible.

Recently I read two thrillers, Robert Bailey’s The Professor and Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye. When I related the plot of Connelly’s latest to my husband, he remarked, “Seems like it’s pretty much by the numbers.”

“By the numbers” alludes to the old-time hobby kits in which a painting—usually a famous one—is reduced to a schematic of numbered parts that correspond to its colors. Using paints included in the kit, the hobbyist dabs the correct color on each part to reproduce the painting in all its glory. Well, kind of. No matter how carefully the hobbyist applies the paint, the reproduction lacks the magic of the original.

“By the numbers” is a disparaging way of describing a novel that mechanically reproduces a plot line, tropes, or characters common to its genre.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

I bristled at hearing The Wrong Side of Goodbye described as a “by the numbers” crime thriller. Okay, it’s not my favorite Harry Bosch novel. Like all of Connelly’s recent books, its sparseness leaves little room for contemplation or emotional resonance. Still, I enjoyed the story and cared what happened to the characters, who have enough complexity to be believable.

Forced into retirement from the LAPD and working as a private detective, Harry is hired by a billionaire to find the illegitimate child that the billionaire fathered with a Mexican cafeteria worker in the 1950s. The billionaire wants to leave his money to this child, his only offspring. Harry uncovers the heartbreaking and inspiring story of this woman and the son she bears. I anticipated much of the story (but not the rather neat twist at the end).

Harry Bosch—one of the great detectives of fiction

After a dozen or more books, I feel as if I know Harry, a stubborn man with a troubled past, a quick temper, and even quicker mind. He’s changed a lot since the beginning of the series. He’s much less hotheaded these days. When he receives a profanity laden email from a cop angry at him for suing the LAPD, he pounds out a sarcastic reply . . . and then deletes it.

Being a single father has also changed Harry. He’s become more patient and sensitive, as shown when he and his daughter negotiate where to meet for dinner. She wants to try a new Vietnamese restaurant. Harry’s blunt refusal offends her. Being a man who keeps his feelings under wraps, he’s not used to explaining himself. But his need for her understanding overcomes his macho reticence. He explains that he had to eat Vietnamese food every day while fighting in the Vietnam War:

“You smell like what you eat. In enclosed spaces. It comes out in your pores. My job—I had to go into tunnels, and I didn’t want the enemy to know I was there. So I ate their food every day, every meal, and I can’t do it anymore. It bring it all back to me.”

The Wrong of Goodbye isn’t “by the numbers.” It’s original Connelly.

The Professor

Thomas McMurtrie, protagonist of Robert Bailey’s legal thriller, is a former star football player and now a venerable law professor at the University of Georgia. Tom is forced into retirement thanks to the machinations of the weaselly dean and Jameson Tyler, a hotshot attorney and one of Tom’s former students, whom he had considered a friend.

An old flame comes to him for help. Her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter died in a collusion with a semi. The driver was speeding and the old flame wants to sue the trucking company for negligence. Tom refers her to Rick Drake, another former student. Although definitely not Tom’s friend, Drake grew up in the town where the accident occurred and the case will be tried.

Enter the villains

The case becomes thorny when Jack Willistone, the owner of the trucking company, hires Tyler to defend his company against the suit. Willistone is a small-time tycoon whose hirelings commit arson and threaten and bribe witnesses.

It’s revealing that he sends the psychopathic thug Bone to intimidate the characters who are low on the social ladder. If they talk to the lawyers, Bone threatens to rape their wives and/or daughters while they watch and other fun stuff. Willistone feels he can have them killed and get away with it. But with the wife of the gas company, he goes after her reputation. He has pictures proving that her dead husband was gay and will make certain that her teenage boys see them unless she keeps her mouth shut.

That old-time machismo

This thriller is saturated with Southern machismo. The women are so hapless. They’re not incompetent, just unable to fend for themselves. They need the men. Even Dawn the law student needs help from Tom. And there’s lots of football stuff about loyalty to teammates and friends, playing to win, and never wussing out. Not that it’s unbelievable or wrong or anything. I just got tired of it.

In addition, I couldn’t buy into the moral simplicity. It’s always clear what’s right and wrong. Wrong actions in one aspect of life indicate a moral rottenness that infects every other aspect of a character’s life. The amoral attorney Tyler dates two women at once, so of course he ambushes his old friend Tom with the charges that cost him his teaching position, and he breaks his promise not to make public the supposedly compromising photos of Tom and Dawn.

Is The Professor “by the numbers”?

The plot rolls along at a brisk pace with the familiar tropes of legal thrillers: the surprise witness, evidence that surfaces at the last minute. But the setting is vivid and the characters transcend their stereotypes. I won’t forget Tom McMurtrie and might pick up another novel in the series sometime.

All thrillers are written “by the numbers” to some extent since writers follow the rules of the genre. I suspect that the term is a way of disparaging genre fiction in general. When critics dismiss novels as “by the numbers,” it means they dislike genre fiction—and not much else.

checking your grammar day and night

Grammar Nazi deplores sloppy punctuation. My own attitude is more ambiguous since I think communication matters more than correctness and nobody is perfect—least of all me. But sometimes punctuation matters. While reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I came across an example of how much a missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

In Cronin’s novel a virus developed by the military changes test subjects into vampires with familiar characteristics: blood hunger, razor sharp teeth, aversion to sunlight, and indeterminate lifespans. The monsters also have psychic powers that enable them to escape from the fortified lab and infect the entire North American continent and perhaps the world. Eventually they number in the millions and and very few human beings or other animals are left, creating a problem. Whose blood are the vampires going to drink now?

Humanity’s only hope is a young girl, Amy, who is infected with a variant of the virus that gives her the vampires’ powers without turning her into one.

A familiar premise, but The Passage is remarkable for the breadth of its story and the depth of its characters.

The second half of the novel concerns a small colony of human beings in California roughly a hundred years after the catastrophe. They survive by following strict social rules and keeping the perimeter outside their high walls flooded with light through the night. But the batteries that store power from a nearby generating plant are failing. It’s just a matter of time until the lights go out. Then Amy arrives. Her unlikely survival outside the walls arouses suspicion and her presence upsets the colony’s social balance.

Cronin provides ample backstory to create characters that become like people whom I’ve known for years. This narrative strategy could have been a drag on the plot, but the histories are dramatically rich and always pertinent to the current action.

One of the colony dwellers, Peter Jaxon, has always felt overshadowed by his older brother Theo. Theo is a leader, a warrior, the inheritor of their father’s mission to leave the safety of the colony and search the world for other survivors. Peter reflects bitterly that while he cared for their mother on her deathbed, it was Theo to whom she spoke her last words: “Take care of your brother, Theo. He’s not strong like you.” Peter feels disregarded, belittled. His mother’s words drive home his belief that he is—and always will be—second to his brother.

Only much later, after a lot has happened, does Peter realize that he might have misinterpreted his mother’s words. Perhaps she said, “Take care of your brother Theo. He’s not strong like you.” In other words, Peter is the stronger of the brothers and their mother knew it. This interpretation is more likely. Unless she was altogether delirious, she would know which of her sons was sitting at her bedside.

Apart from what the misunderstanding implies about Peter’s sense of himself and his relationship with Theo, it shows how important a comma can be. The comma after brother puts Theo in the vocative case and indicates that she was addressing her older son. Without the comma Theo becomes the object of the verb in the sentence, the one with whose care Peter is charged.

(Grammar Nazi reminds me that if Peter and Theo have no other brother, this should be indicated by placing a comma after the word brother. Grammar Nazi has a habit of complicating things.)

Obviously people don’t use punctuation when they speak, so this kind of ambiguity is inescapable. But writers have the tools to communicate with greater precision. They just have to use them.

You may have noticed that I’m no longer blogging at Ancient Children. The blog is now part of my new website, created by Kate McMillan of Outbox Online. I hope you’ll take a look around while you’re here.

A while ago I began a three-month trial subscription to Audible, a company that sells audio versions of books. Instead of staring at a page or screen and risking eye strain, you listen to a narrator read the book. I’d resisted the idea of audio books for a long time. When would I listen? I prefer to keep my attention on the road while driving. I don’t even listen to music.

Then inspiration struck.

I suffer from chronic insomnia. Most nights I struggle to fall asleep and then wake four hours later, my mind revving. It can take an hour or more of reading to lull my overactive brain. I wondered if listening to a book would help. It’s more passive. You can do it with your eyes closed. It would be like a return to childhood, listening to your parents read bedtime stories.

The Girl on the Train Audible CoverI used my first Audible credit to buy The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a popular and widely praised suspense novel. I donned my ear buds and crawled into bed, tapped the “Play” button and began listening. A pleasant female voice with a British accent described lying under a tree, and within minutes I was asleep. Four hours later I woke up to another female reader with a pleasant voice and a slightly different British accent reading . . . I had no idea what. I shut off the book and promptly fell asleep.

Success!

But not really.

When bedtime came, I had no interest in revisiting The Girl on the Train. But I restarted it from the beginning and once again Reader #1 launched into her description of gazing up at the tree. As Reader #2 gazed out the window of a commuter train, I tuned out. I awoke somewhere mid story and shut off the narration. This time I didn’t fall back asleep. And I felt an aversion to plugging myself into The Girl on the Train. Instead I got up (much to the annoyance of my husband, who considers me to be his personal snuggle bunny) and stood in the kitchen reading an entertaining steampunk novel called The Black Orchid on my Kindle.

The third night I picked up my Kindle and wrote off the Audible experiment as a failure. But I didn’t cancel the trial membership and a month later a message arrived in my mailbox. I had another credit available. So I downloaded another book, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, a new science fiction novel.

Dark Matter Audible CoverThis time I listened only a few minutes before drifting off. In the middle of the night I woke up, skipped back several chapters, and picked up the thread of the story. When I fell asleep again, the hero, a physics professor, was leaving a Chicago bar.

The following night he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Sleep ambushed me as the hapless professor walked naked and shivering into an abandoned power plant. I slept until morning.

Success!

A little too much success.

I couldn’t wait until bedtime for more. I went through the day plugged into my ear buds as the hero of Dark Matter discovers he’s been transported to a parallel universe and undertakes an odyssey, wandering from universe to universe to find his way home.

As soon as I finished Dark Matter, I exchanged The Girl on the Train for Stephen King’s 11.22.63, a thirty-hour listening extravaganza. Now I look forward to bedtime.

The takeaway from this experience?

Certain books don’t lend themselves to narration.

The Girl on the Train has THREE first-person narrators, and although the audio book employs three different narrators, the rhythm and tone of the prose stays pretty much the same. I won’t get into the question of whether multiple first-person narrators is a good idea—Hawkins has sold a gazillion more books than I have—but the technique doesn’t work for me as a listener. Add the story’s arty, oblique approach and it becomes even harder to follow. I suspect that reading the novel is far more satisfying.

Dark Matter has ONE first-person narrator and lots of dialogue and action. Crouch vividly describes the many universes that his hero explores. The details are fresh and concrete and succinctly described. Most of all, the reader never has to wonder what’s going on.

The reader makes a huge difference.

As a writer I’ve given readings of my own work, and as a teacher I’ve read the poetry and prose of other writers to my students. I have some idea of how difficult it is to read aloud. It requires talent and extensive training. An incompetent reader would no doubt ruin the whole experience.

The three Audible novels I’ve tried were major releases from mainstream publishers. Unsurprisingly, the readers in all of them are top notch. My favorite is Jon Lindstrom, who reads Dark Matter. He has an expressive voice and speaks the dialogue of every character in a distinctive way.

Audible at bedtime won’t work for everyone.

When I described my experience to my writing group, reactions were varied. One person, already an Audible subscriber, thought it was an interesting idea. Another shook her head. “I move around too much. I’d probably strangle on the cord of the ear buds.” Another person imagined herself swallowing the buds. And I guess a few princesses might have trouble sleeping with giant peas in their ears.

11.22.63 Audible CoverComprehension is poorer than with reading.

I remember what happens in Dark Matter along with some especially striking details, but not much about how the hero moves through parallel universes in his box that turns into a corridor. Something about Schrödinger’s cat and a drug that suppresses key areas in the brain . . . Oh well, the important thing is that the contraption works.

The time travel in 11.22.63 is less of a problem. Stephen King sticks with how it works and doesn’t delve into why. It’s a mystery, a “rabbit hole.” At least so far. I haven’t finished the novel yet.

In spite of the drawbacks, bedtime stories work for me. It looks like Audible has a permanent subscriber. I could use some recommendations for my next book. If you listen to books on Audible or iTunes, I’d love to know about your favorites. Just leave a comment below.

In this post, reviewer Rosie Amber does a solid for authors by encouraging readers to leave book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. She gives some helpful tips to make the process easier. All of us authors rely on feedback from readers, not just to help sell books but to let us know where we get it right and where we fall short.

Authors WANT  Reviews

Simple! How many times have you read pleas on social media for readers to write reviews? – Probably Loads.

Does the thought of writing a book review send you racing to the hills? – I can see plenty of you nodding in agreement.

WHAT holds you back?

Reading Soft edge

6 common replies:

I can’t write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book.

I don’t know what to write.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books.

I don’t have the time.

Let’s turn this around

I can’t write – I bet if you can read, you can write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book – Good News, Amazon accepts one sentence reviews now as do many other sites.

I don’t know what to write – Ah! Quick Question – Why did you like or Dislike the book? Got an answer? Then you have a starting place.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review – Facing fears is part of life, it is hard, but I bet you’ve faced much harder challenges. Authors LOVE reviews, other readers also like to read them to see if they agree or disagree. Every reader will get something different from their experience. An honest review from someone who genuinely read the book IS REALLY APPRECIATED.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books – This one STOPS TOO MANY AUTHORS from writing book reviews and it shouldn’t. In fact if you are an author, one way to hone your writing skills is to READ, READ, READ and from this you will be noting what works, what doesn’t and you will have all the skill sets to write a review. IF YOU WRITE WITH HONESTY AND COMPASSION I can’t see an author would want revenge or to be labelled a TROLL, these are far and few amongst the millions of authors who GENUINELY WANT A REVIEW.

I don’t have the time – time is what you make of it and those who have this as their reply probably won’t have time to read this post, so we’ll say no more.

So BE BRAVE – make a promise that the next book you read you will write a review.

Read the rest for useful tips on how to write a review.

In his international conspiracy thriller Death and Dark Money—the fourth book of the Sabel Security series— Seeley James shows how loopholes in Citizens United open the door for foreign corporations and nations to influence American policy. Pia Sabel, ex-Olympic soccer player, now runs her adoptive father’s international security company. The company receives a contract from an influential firm of lobbyists that includes a mysterious twenty million dollar payment for seemingly nothing. When Pia wants to know where the money comes and what it’s buying, she becomes a target. One thread of the plot traces this money to its source.

Another thread follows the machinations of an underling to seize control of the firm of lobbyists. Spurred by his ambitious wife, a contemporary Lady Macbeth, he stops at nothing to gain control. As people begin dying, Pia and her father become caught up in the struggle for power.

James has borrowed liberally from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the sort of literary allusion that you don’t often find in thrillers, and  handles it deftly.

I literally could not put the novel down. I planned to read for an hour or so and instead read through the afternoon and into the evening. It wasn’t only the story that kept me riveted. It was characters that I loved or detested with a passion.

Sometimes thrillers are so plot driven that the characters aren’t very complex. The nonstop action keeps them so busy that they don’t have time to reveal much depth or nuance. Death and Dark Money provides memorable characters as well as a suspenseful and intelligent storyline.

Unlike the girl with the dragon tattoo, Pia doesn’t possess abilities that verge on the superhuman. Though she has extraordinary athletic ability, it’s sometimes not enough for her to triumph and barely enough to keep her alive. Pia is haunted and driven by the mysterious murders of her parents when she was a small child. Her search for the truth runs through all the novels of the series, a mystery that has me eager to read the next one.

Much of the novel is written in third person omniscient, a common point of view for thrillers since it allows the narrative to move quickly from one location to another and from one character to another, as the plot requires. But James has also included a first-person narrator, Jacob, a possibly crazy ex-soldier who works for Pia’s security company.

Jacob’s voice adds warmth and quirkiness to the narrative. He could have been a stock character. Instead he draws me so far into his hallucinations that I begin to believe they’re real. Who’s to say he doesn’t really see and speak with the Roman god Mercury? Except for conversing with pagan gods and being occasionally obtuse about women, Jacob has a firm grip on reality.

And who knows? Maybe Mercury really does exist.

If you enjoy political intrigue, contemporary relevance, and a dash of originality in your thrillers, I highly recommend Death and Dark Money.

 

I don’t post many negative book reviews. When I’m not connecting with a book, for whatever reason, I stop reading unless I’ve committed to reviewing it. And I don’t feel comfortable judging books that I haven’t finished. I liked Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet and Sherry D. Ficklin’s Playing With Fire enough to finish them. Despite their differences, the two thrillers share one quality that always draws me into a story: an engaging first person narrator with a distinctive voice.

Playing With Fire

This YA novel centers on Farris Burnett, a teenage hacker whose father is a Marine Corps officer. The story begins as he assumes command of Cherry Point air base and she enrolls in a new high school. When someone hacks the base computers and begins wreaking havoc, Farris sets out to find the culprit.

Farris has a strong voice, and the secondary characters are complex and interesting. Overall the writing is good, but the book could have used better editing. The author uses principal in a context that calls for principle, and there are a few confusing sentences.

The main problem with the novel is the plot structure. The hacking problem begins almost halfway into the story. Everything up to that point involves Farris’s life—her dead mom, her somewhat distant relationship with her father, the unfair ostracism she faced at her last high school, the challenge of making friends at the new one, the dilemma of liking two guys who hate each other. The characters introduced in the first half do play important roles in the hacking plot, but the author could have told readers what they needed to know in half the space.

The upshot is that Playing With Fire is more teen high school drama than it is thriller. This might not be a problem for the novel’s teen audience, but the book description led me to expect more suspense and less romance.

The Bullet

Caroline Cashion, a professor of French at Georgetown University, discovers that she’s adopted and has a bullet in her neck. The bullet has been there since she was three years old and her birth parents were shot and killed. I struggled with the premise. This woman is in her 30s and none of her doctors ever noticed the bullet lodged against her spine until it began causing symptoms? And her adoptive parents never told her anything about her origins? I was willing to give the improbability a pass because the first-person narration hooked me from the start.

Caroline flies to Atlanta to find out who her parents were and what happened to them. She learns that they were killed in their home and that the bullet passed through her mother before entering her. Removing it from an infant would have been too dangerous. The killers were never found.

While she’s busy talking with reporters and the detective who worked the case, her doctor shows up at her hotel. He’s flown all the way from Washington because he’s smitten with her. They strike up a romance. Later she finds out he’s married, making the subplot even more irrelevant than it already was. I have nothing against romantic subplots if they somehow advance the story. This one is mostly filler. It shows an aspect of Caroline’s character, that’s about all.

A reporter in Atlanta also tries to seduce Caroline, but he’s not as attractive as the doctor. He writes a story about her, though, and soon after her return to Washington, someone breaks into her apartment with the clear intention of doing her harm. Events escalate from there.

Caroline’s later actions surprised me since they seem to contradict her character. Readers are supposed to believe that the revelations about her past have changed her profoundly, but there’s nothing about her life beforehand that makes her behavior believable. Not to mention the unlikelihood of someone intelligent and mature traveling around the country shortly after dangerous surgery.

The story is well told, but the credibility issues and pointless romance put a drag on its momentum.

In The Locksmith’s Secret, Tahlia Newland has woven several narratives into a complex story about the joys and pitfalls of love and the enduring power of the imagination.

Writer Prunella Smith, whom readers may remember from Newland’s last book, Worlds Within Worlds, has found love with Jamie Claypole, an English transplant to Australia. The two are happy together, but Ella knows little about Jamie’s past. The gaps in her knowledge become apparent when Jamie is summoned home after his brother’s sudden death. All at once he becomes secretive about his family and where they live and how long he intends to stay with them.

The other narratives reiterate in various ways the problem Ella faces: whether to pursue Jamie and uncover his secrets or to reclaim the solitude she lost when he came to live with her.

Memories of unhappy past experience with a lover who abandoned her overshadow Ella’s hope for happiness with Jamie. Ella had been a ballerina with a promising career until a back injury forced her to give up ballet. Her lover, who was also her onstage partner, promptly discarded her once they could no longer dance together.

A Buddhist, Ella mediates regularly, and during meditation she’s transported into the world of Daniela, an Italian nun. On the brink of taking her final vows, Daniela finds herself attracted to the man who tends the nunnery’s garden. Like Ella, she faces an unexpected choice about the direction her life will take.

In addition, Ella has a recurring dream featuring a locksmith who may or may not be Jamie and who holds the secret to unlocking doors into countless other worlds, a metaphor for the creative and spiritual freedom that she seeks. She pursues the locksmith, but he seems always just out of reach.

Although troubled by Jamie’s secretiveness, Ella keeps writing fiction. Woven into The Lockman’s Secret is a steampunk novel that has taken hold of her imagination. The chapters appear as she writes them, and the story of intrepid reporter Nell and her efforts to uncover the villainy of Lord Burnett generates as much suspense as the main narrative. Like Ella, Nell values her independence and strives to prove her worth in the professional world. She worries that marriage to her employer’s son will mean the end of her career.

Newland interweaves all of these threads with consummate skill. Not once do they get tangled. Not once does the suspense flag, which is especially impressive in a contemplative novel like The Locksmith’s Secret. The credit goes to Newland’s mastery of narrative structure, to her concise and transparent prose that is eloquent without ever drawing attention to itself, and to her wonderfully varied and complex characters.

The worlds of Prunella Smith have a clarity and power that you won’t soon forget.

 

I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means. The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty— just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives are supposed to end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.