Tuesday, December 6, 2016

read: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders (4 stars)

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden WondersAtlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book that I browsed, rather than read. It seems more like an encyclopedia than an atlas, listing and describing various locations with enough photos included to tantalize the curious traveler. It's organized by continent/country/city with some small maps to keep the reader oriented. The trick is that these are obscure attractions. So by definition, the reader/traveler will need to travel a little afield to get to many of the more interesting places.

I'm a browser by nature, which makes this an ideal book for me to spend days perusing. But I dared not spend days in it, only dipping my toes to get a feel. Perhaps I'll return and drink more deeply. For now, I'll just recommend it to the curious and to my future self.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016

I'm doing it again: National Novel Writing Month. 30 days. 50,000 words. This is my twelfth year in a row of trying to write a novel. I've only come up short twice (although calling any of the 'successes' a novel is generous beyond words).

Why do I do it? Why do I get up early and try to stay up late, staring at my computer screen, pounding out my 1,667 words a day? Why do I go into panic mode during last few days, sometimes forcing my self to crank out up to 6,000 words in a day?


Because I love it. Because when I finally push aside the distractions and focus on the page and get into the flow, the characters speak to me. They tell me their story and I try to get it down as fast as I can. Some days they are quiet and I have to coax and cajole the stories out of them and only get a few hundred words. Other days I simply neglect them and feel rotten about it. But that's just too bad because I have a life, too. This isn't just about them.

I told myself that this year I would have an outline.

I don't.

I told myself that I would be ready.

I'm not.

I had to spend part of my writing time getting my tools ready: 
  • a brand new OneNote notebook to capture my words and my research and my notes. I love OneNote because I can access it from anywhere, keep everything in one spot and (most importantly) keep all my work automatically backed up.
  • copy notes from the first novel in this series to the new notebook so that I can keep them as consistent as possible.
  • connect my Surface 3 to the network at work so that it has all that latest stuff and I can work on my new novel just about anywhere.
  • update the NaNoWriMo site, all my social networking sites, and this blog, just in case someone besides my family and close friends is keeping tabs on my progress. I don't want it to look like I'm neglecting any channel.
As a result, I am about 300 words short of my goal. But my eyes are starting to slam shut. Time to get to bed so that I will get a few more minutes of sleep before my stupid author brain wakes me up at 0-dark-it's-way-too-early with ideas on how to change around all the words that I've already committed to bits today.

My plan, as usual, is to shoot for at least 1,000 words a day on work days and 3,500 words on each weekend day. That averages out to the 1,667 per day that gets me to 50,000 words by the end of the month. Of course, as usual, there are complications. I don't just mean Thanksgiving. I mean extra commitments on top of Thanksgiving that will make it nigh impossible to get much writing done for four or five days. So that word count has to get added into the other days of the month. And then there are those unforeseen unproductive days.


Why do I do this to myself?

Because I love it.

Words written today: 1,354
Monthly total: 1,354


Saturday, September 17, 2016

read: A Whole Latte Murder (4 of 5 stars)

A Whole Latte MurderA Whole Latte Murder by Caroline Fardig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm three books into this entertaining series and still not regretting it, even though I'm a guy. The writing is light and airy and smooth. The characters are likable, the situations are mostly believable and the mysteries are intriguing. This time around there is a higher body count and fewer clues and suspects than ever before. There is also more trouble for the first-person narrator, Juliet, and more complications to her love life.

It's not rewarding to overthink the motivations and actions of amateur sleuths in this sort of book. You have to suspend your disbelief and you want them to get involved and push the story along. In retrospect, though, Juliet might go a step too far in a couple of cases, including breaking and entering a crime scene and interrogating suspects. It wasn't enough to knock me out of the story, though. I did struggle a bit with the plethora of characters and names to keep track of. And the extended sequences of searching for a missing person could have had a better payoff in how it explored the City of Nashville.

On the whole, I can recommend this book to fans of cozy mysteries.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Alibi/Random House for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

read: The Family Plot (4 of 5 stars)

The Family PlotThe Family Plot by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn't typically seek out a straight up haunted house story like this, except it was written by Cherie Priest. I'm a fan of her Clockwork Century series and I knew this would be good. She strikes just the right note of HGTV spiced up with a little Southern Gothic mystery and charm.

The story begins, as it should, with an innocent enough situation. An proposal is offered to salvage the fixtures of an old family home. Questions should be asked, but aren't. A decision is made in haste. The need is too great to be postponed. The offer has too much upside potential to worry too much about the downside. Besides, it's just an old house. What could go wrong?

At first, everything seems to go well. There are only minor obstacles to overcome. But the story is still interesting enough to keep the pages turning. Then the mysteries start piling up. Standard haunted house stuff. Is the house itself trying to communicate? Was there another presence in the attic, in the woods? Is that a graveyard where one was not expected? What's the deal with this family?

This could have been a stereotypical story of incompetents who are completely unaware that they might be dealing with the paranormal before it's too late and it completely consumes them. Or the reader could have been inflicted with characters so obsessed with the paranormal that it warps their perception of even normal events, turning them into screaming idiots jumping at every unexpected noise. Instead, the author creates a much more interesting world of competent, fairly intelligent human beings who talk to each other, consider the evidence, investigate the situation and react fairly reasonably. It makes sense that the team decides to stick with the job, despite the growing evidence of the weird. They need the money and things are manageable. Until they aren't.

This is a good book for anyone interested in old houses and old Southern families.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Tor Books for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

read: The 7th Canon (4 of 5 stars)

The 7th CanonThe 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Dugoni can flat out write. I have no idea how good this book was when he wrote the first draft in 1996. But he's had twenty years to polish his craft and it shows here. The plot is intricate. The setting, characters and mystery are all intriguing and troubling. The prose is crisp and clear and engaging. There is a lot going on. But nothing is extraneous.

The setting is a seedy neighborhood in San Francisco thirty years ago. A boy is murdered in a flophouse run by a priest with a shady past. The priest discovers the body and the police immediately charge him with the crime. The evidence seems overwhelming. Almost as quickly, Peter Donley, a young lawyer working for his uncle, finds himself drafted as the priest's defense attorney, dropped into the deep end of the pool on his first criminal case when his uncle is sidelined with a heart attack. It would not be a wise career move for Donley to keep the case. But he finds himself drawn in and we are off on a harrowing ride.

And I mean harrowing. Dugoni is not kind to his characters. They come with complicated backstories and are weighed down with emotional baggage. The good guys make bad decisions. And the bad guys are the heroes of their own stories. There is cost for everything and the piper is always paid in full. This book is not for the squeamish. But I recommend it for readers that can handle it.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

read: Mata Hari's Last Dance (4 of 5 stars)

Mata Hari's Last DanceMata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this to be a very enjoyable, light summer read. It is definitely more of a fictionalized account of a historical life than a revealing study of a historical figure. Situations are invented. Complications are glossed over. But the author does an admirable job of finding a winsome voice for Mata Hari and setting the scene in pre-World War I Paris.

Readers seeking a complete biography of Mata Hari and an deep introspection into her life will not find that here. This novelized memoir catches up with the exotic dancer just as she bursts onto the Paris social scene around 1904. It follows her life, as if she were telling it to a trusted friend, through her execution for espionage in 1917. In between, her dance career waxes and wanes, her assignations with various sponsors and lovers are vaguely documented and dispatched dispassionately, and her desire to rejoin her daughter and take her to America becomes her mantra.

Despite the light tone and lack of historical rigor, I found Margaretha's story to be fascinating. The tiny insights into the European social scene and pre-war history were intriguing. Before reading this book, I only knew the stereotypical popular myths about Mata Hari and her exotic reputation as a spy. I now feel like I have a greater empathy for this well-known, yet little understood, historical figure. Her life remains as veiled in mystery as the characters she portrayed in her dance.

This would be an easy book for a reading group to consume and discuss over a short period of time. There are even discussion questions provided. Four stars for being a good, entertaining read.

[Disclaimer: Thanks to Courtney Brach and Touchstone / Simon & Schuster for providing me a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.]

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

read: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3 stars)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's not much I can add to a discussion of this book other than my own reaction. I enjoyed it. The storytelling and world-building is still very strong. The characters and their adventures are still engaging. If the book was 20%-25% shorter, it might get 5 stars. But I have to knock off a star for just plain being too long--twice as long as the first book in the series.

I'm also taking off another star for the writing. It's not bad. It's just indefinably and adverbially not up to the quality I was expecting. But onward to books 5 to 7.

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