Monday, September 21, 2020

read: Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing (4 stars)

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better WritingTake Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been writing first drafts for NaNoWriMo by the seat of my pants for several years. Every once in a while I try a lightweight outline method to 'really be organized, this time' and still wound up with a mess. I quite enjoyed this author's lighthearted approach and I think the light may have finally gone on about how to formulate a meaningful story. This probably isn't the silver bullet for killing the beast of writing a novel. But I'm going to give it a quick rescan and see if I can apply it to this years' NaNo.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

read: Long Bright River (4 stars)

Long Bright RiverLong Bright River by Liz Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up at the beginning of 2020 because it was a best-seller and getting truckloads of good reviews. I figured I should be in-the-know on at least one 'hot' book this year. Then I started reading and wondering what all the fuss was about.

The writing was pretty good--easy to follow and all, even with the author's offbeat way of writing dialog. But it didn't click for me. What started out as a police procedural was suddenly some sort of family drama. And the gritty setting on the streets of Philadelphia was more offputting than I could deal with at the moment. I set it aside for something more appealing.

When I picked it back up, I found it was still the same story. But I somehow found it more engrossing. It's not really a police procedural, even though the protagonist, Michaela ("Mickey"), is a cop. She's not a very good one. She doesn't fit in well with the rest of the department and her street presence is awkward at best. Plus, she's not really trying to solve a crime. She's trying to find her drug-addict sister, Kacey, on those gritty, crime-ridden streets, mostly to make sure she isn't a victim of the same killer.

It's also not quite a family drama, because Mickey is completely estranged from her dysfunctional family and spends little time with them. We gradually discover more about that as we flash back and forth between "Then" and "Now". Most of Mickey's relationships are with strangers and neighbors and her ex-partner. These are also awkward because Mickey's childhood issues and current agendas create barriers for actually relating.

All of this makes it sound like the story is a failure. But it's not. Once I got back into it, I was fascinated by the way the author deftly intertwined the different aspects of Mickey's life into something that worked. During the last chapters, I could almost hear the mechanisms click into place as mysteries were solved, tragedies explained and relationships healed. Some come very close to being cloying, family-drama tropes. But there is enough depth to the background to avoid that cliff.

A thriller reader will have to invest a little extra energy to hang with the slower pace. It's worth it.

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Friday, September 4, 2020

read: The Space Between Worlds (3 stars)

The Space Between WorldsThe Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine you can traverse the multiverse, the infinite number of theoretical copies of our Universe made real, visiting alternate versions of the Earth you know. It must mean your horizons are expanded infinitely. Maybe you can only visit the limited number that are similar enough to your 'original' Earth to make travel there practical. Maybe a few hundred such Earths. That's still a wide canvas on which to tell a story. That's where this one starts. And it begins with some intrigue and interest.

But was disappointed. The story told here is not one that spans hundreds of worlds. It's a much smaller story. We follow a young traverser as she treads on familiar roads on a few of the Earths she visits. She encounters basically the same people and the same places, with just a few variations. The only civilization we are shown on all of these Earths is confined to a single familiar city, a nearby wilderness and an intervening country town, all ruled, for some reason, by a single despotic family. We see almost nothing about what is happening on the rest of the Earth. It's all very confining and all overly simple.

The characters and relationships, though simple and repetitive, are presented in a story that is intriguing and written well enough that I did follow through to the end. But I always felt that there story could have been so much more.

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

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

read: Murder in the Sentier (3 stars)

Murder in the Sentier (Aimee Leduc)Murder in the Sentier by Cara Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the story was interesting, the main character, Aimee Leduc, was engaging and a reasonably reasonable detective, and the setting in Paris was enchanting. On the other hand, the supporting cast was difficult for me to track, the constant barrage of French-in-italics was distracting, and the incessant descriptions of locations, buildings, characters and Aimee's thoughts were just a touch overwrought. Taken as a quick, vacation read, this could be quite enjoyable.

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

read: Stories of Your Life and Others (4 stars)

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A consistently excellent and enjoyable collection of short stories. All of them are fascinating investigations into mythologies and world views. Several follow completely unscientific beliefs to somewhat inevitable conclusions: actually building a tower to the vault of heaven, a clay-punk Victorian England with actual golems and a terrible idea involving preformation theories and a soul searching examination of God, angels, heaven and hell. Several stories play with language and ideas and time and memory in twisty ways that challenge the reader as much as the characters in the stories. I was especially moved by "Story of Your Life", which made so much more sense than the film inspired by it, "Arrival". Recommended.

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

read: Target 100: The World's Simplest Weight-Loss Program in 6 Easy Steps (4 stars)

Target 100: The World's Simplest Weight-Loss Program in 6 Easy StepsTarget 100: The World's Simplest Weight-Loss Program in 6 Easy Steps by Liz Josefsberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Katie Couric recommend this book on her podcast and checked it out. It's pretty legit. Nothing too Earth-shattering here. But it does present many well-known principals in a way that's easy to read and digest and implement. The author has long experience in this field, distilling and refining this approach over many years.

The trick is that there are only 6 things to keep track of and they all use 100. And they are all just targets. No beating yourself up if you don't hit them all the time. But they are all supposed to work together to set you up for success in losing weight and being a happier, healthier person. And you're not supposed to jump into all of them all at once. You ease into them over a period of several weeks, tackling one (or even just part of one) at a time.

I like how another reviewer called this an 'anti-fad' diet. I'd also add that it's really an anti-diet. Only some of what is discussed is food. This is all about making lifestyle adjustments (less scary than changes) that should bring success. It's worth checking out and probably worth a try.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

read: The Last Agent (5 stars)

The Last Agent (Charles Jenkins, #2)The Last Agent by Robert Dugoni
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a direct sequel to Dugoni's excellent first spy novel, The Eighth Sister and somehow it's even better. The stakes are higher. The suspense is heavier. The twists are twistier. It's Mission: Impossible with a team of one.

Ex-CIA agent Charles Jenkins is home from his previous, disastrous trip to Russia, recovering physically and emotionally from the ordeal, enjoying life with his loving wife and two children. Why would he even consider taking on another assignment from the agency that abandoned him and put him on trial for espionage? Why would he ultimately insist on taking the assignment? Such are the questions of loyalty and honor that drive him to discover the truth about the woman who helped him escape Russia the first time. At least this time, he's going into the situation with eyes wide open and an apparently trustworthy ally. But all the odds are stacked against him, too.

How is a known spy, who is physically unable to disappear into the dominantly white population of Russia, supposed to infiltrate the country, get information about a prized prisoner at their most secure military and political prison that the CIA can't even obtain, possibly help that prisoner to escape an inescapable facility, and get out of the country alive? Why he turns to his previous adversary in Russian intelligence, ex-spy Viktor Federov. Along the way in and out, Charles also relies on old and new allies and friends and his top-notch spy craft. This is a non-stop thrill ride. Hold on.

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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Monday, July 13, 2020

read: The Relentless Moon (4 stars)

The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut #3)The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit right up front that Mary Robinette Kowal is one author whose books I will buy practically sight-unseen. This goes double for books in this series, which are already tickling my desires for hard science fiction, retro settings, alternate history and realistic space flight action. This book did not disappoint.

But it did surprise. Since I obtained the book without learning too much about it, I didn't realize that the first-person narrative had shifted to a different astronaut in the IAC, International Aerospace Coalition. The scene switches from Elma York, The Lady Astronaut, currently on her way to Mars, to Nicole Wargin, who is not only a veteran astronaut, but the wife of the governor of Kansas, who may also be considering a run for President. Nicole is just as capable as Elma, but she comes with a different set of strengths and weaknesses that the author uses to great affect throughout the story.

One of this books unique charms is that it becomes essentially a locked-room mystery. After plenty of politicking and setup on Earth and an almost routine flight to the Moon, the action is firmly set at Artemis Base, a growing and thriving outpost of mankind. The first step of our escape from a soon to be uninhabitable Earth. Soon, what seem to be a set of unrelated accidents start developing into a pattern of sabotage and attempted murder that is probably the work of an outlaw group known as Earth First. But who among the highly trained astronauts and specially picked colonists is or are the saboteurs? The clues come slowly, but compellingly. This is a great story with almost everyone acting rationally.

Recommended for fans of early space flight, NASA and good writing.

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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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

read: Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre (4 stars)

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch MassacreDevolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on the description (Bigfoot!) and how much I liked Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (another epistolary horror novel), I expected to like this one more than I did. However, the first half of the book didn't do much to meet my expectations and I came close to setting it down. It was slow and much too focused on a cast of characters that I found hard to like (I already hate hipsters in the woods), rather than much action and plot. But the author kept dropping just enough tension into the story to keep me motivated and I stuck with it.
The second half of the book (mostly) made up for the slog. There was action. There was tension. There were predators acting like predators and humans acting like humans (good and bad). The ending is satisfying in its own way (a little like Jurassic Park), without being too pat.
I almost knocked another star off of my 4-star review because of a nit I have with the writing style. The impression is supposed to be that the book is essentially the journal of the protagonist, the only survivor of an apparent massacre. But each journal entry is much too long and the style quickly slips into standard first-person narrative, knocking me out of the epistolary mood. The additional interviews and excerpts from experts and witnesses hearkened back to WWZ and restored a star for style. This could make for some great Summertime reading if you're in the mood for it.
Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Del Rey Books for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

read: Great Stories Don't Write Themselves (4 stars)

Great Stories Don't Write ThemselvesGreat Stories Don't Write Themselves by Larry Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An effective (for me) tutorial on some aspects of story that had been eluding me. Most of the focus is on understanding the criteria involved in the macro aspects of story: premise and concept, along with the related concepts of character, setting and plot.
Then he uses those criteria to present and break down story structure in way shows why even an organic writer eventually succumbs to structure in order to succeed (as a opposed to a outliner who struggles with the structure up front).
It's all nicely down-to-Earth and friendly and something that can be referred to again and again. There are no real surprises here. It's all been said before. But the author presents it in a way where several light bulbs finally illuminated for me.

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read: Memories Before and After the Sound of Music (4 stars)

Memories Before and After the Sound of MusicMemories Before and After the Sound of Music by Agathe von Trapp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming, first-person account of the von Trapp family story by the eldest daughter of Captain Georg von Trapp.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

read: Agent Running in the Field (4 stars)

Agent Running in the FieldAgent Running in the Field by John le Carré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another captivating book by the master of spy novels. Once more we are swept into the life of a spymaster, or rather an ex-spymaster, Nat, who is now home in London and feeling as unsure of what to do with himself as his office does. He's trying to reconnect with his wife and his daughter and wondering if he actually agrees with his new badminton partner, Sam, who rails against Brexit and Trump and Putin and anything else that doesn't fit his world view. Of course, Nat soon finds himself drawn into recruiting and running another spy, in London, and the twists of fate soon leave him almost as friendless as Sam.
This is le Carré at his best. Boiled down. Insightful. At turns appropriately humorous and cruel. His spies find action in inaction and waiting. In talking their way through confrontations, rather than shooting. Recommended.

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Friday, April 3, 2020

read: Crash Test Girl (3 stars)

Crash Test Girl: An Unlikely Experiment in Using the Scientific Method to Answer Life's Toughest QuestionsCrash Test Girl: An Unlikely Experiment in Using the Scientific Method to Answer Life's Toughest Questions by Kari Byron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Entertaining celebrity memoir in the guise of a self-help book. I wouldn't want my daughter or granddaughter to follow Kari's example, other than to find their passion in life. And maybe be a bit smarter about following it.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

read: The Splendid and the Vile (4 stars)

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the BlitzThe Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the captivating tale of how Winston Churchill, London and all of England survived the first year of World War II and the relentless bombing raids Hitler and the Nazis inflicted in order to break their spirit. Larsen uses quotes from diaries and letters to elevate the story above the facts and figures and dates and make it personal, populated with well-rounded personalities acting and reacting to events impossible to comprehend. He even almost succeeds at making Churchill himself into someone anyone can identify with. Yet the apparent reality of Churchill defies the attempt and he remains larger-than-life. This is a must-read for anyone interested in this period of history.

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

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Thursday, March 5, 2020

read: Final Option (4 stars)

Final Option (Oregon Files, #14)Final Option by Clive Cussler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another solid action adventure from Clive and Boyd. This time Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon are going up against doppelgangers that are as well-equipped and financed as they are. Before you know it, they are on the run, framed as criminals and hunted by a collection of old enemies will stop at nothing to kill them and destroy their reputation. There are no safe harbors and they ultimately have to consider one final option.

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

read: All We Buried (4 stars)

All We Buried: A Sheriff Bet Rivers MysteryAll We Buried: A Sheriff Bet Rivers Mystery by Elena Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's common knowledge that everyone knows everybody and everything that happens in small town. There are no secrets. But interim Sherrif Elizabeth 'Bet' Rivers discovers that the cliché isn't true. Bet has returned to her home town of Collier, Washington to fill in for her late father. Feeling undecided about staying or returning to the LAPD, her immediate plans are determined when an unidentified body appears in the bottomless lake near town.

The first half of the book is a slow burn. Well-rounded characters are introduced. Solid-sounding police procedures are followed. Questions are raised. Town history and mysteries are hinted at. A break in the case finally pushes the plot into motion. Yet the mystery of the murder victim will not reveal its secrets easily. The plot and twists are well crafted and keep the reader guessing right up to the end.

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

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Saturday, February 8, 2020

read: Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood (5 of 5 stars)

Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to HollywoodBecoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Straczynski has used his considerable storytelling skills to tell his story. It is personal, unflinching and deeply moving, telling a rags-to-riches, hard-work-pays-off Hollywood story without being cloying, sensational  or scandalous. If you're a fan of Babylon 5, Superman, Spiderman, or comic books in general, this is required reading. If you're a writer struggling for inspiration, you'll find it here. If you're just looking for an engrossing story of endurance and overcoming circumstances, this is what you want.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

read; Retirement Homes Are Murder (2 stars)

Retirement Homes Are MurderRetirement Homes Are Murder by Mike Befeler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Loved the premise. Didn't like the implementation. I don't like posting two-star reviews. But here it is.
Paul Jacobson wakes up in a strange place with no memory of where he is or the previous day. He's gruff with the nurse that comes to give him his daily medications and eventually finds his way to breakfast in the retirement home dining room with his table companions from the day before, who fill him in on some of the who, where and what of his new situation. Then he discovers a dead body and winds up the main suspect in the murder.
That's a cool set up. And it could have been the foundation of a both an interesting mystery and an interesting examination of geezer-life. Except... The prose and dialog are as wooden as can be and riddled with ancient cliches and comebacks instead of any attempt at reality. In this reality, a patient that clearly belongs in memory care is living independently, nobody has empathy, and garbage chutes have locks (?!). Most attempts at humor were also passe and trite. Several chapters in, I hoped it would get better and kept grinding through, hitting more and more reality breaks and improbable behavior. Finally, I simply started skimming to get the main points and make it to the revelation of the killer and their motive. Unfortunately, even that is disappointing and barely makes it to the level of a mediocre detective show from the sixties.
Obviously, that's what this is. A mediocre detective story from a time gone by. Except this was written in the 21st Century and misses the mark of modern story-telling.

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Monday, February 3, 2020

read: Elements of Fiction (3 stars)

Elements of FictionElements of Fiction by Walter Mosley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, quirky meditation on the role of character in fiction. There are no tools for the beginning writer here. Just some encouragement to think deeper thoughts about how character can drive story, if that's the type of story you are writing. Glad I got it from the library.

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