Category Archives: on reading

Nora Roberts — Shelter in Place

This month my library “books-by-mail” service sent two books by romance writers—Shelter in Place by Nora Roberts and Shattered Mirror by Iris Johansen. I’m not a fan of romance novels and had both authors categorized in my brain as a romance writers. But I read both, and neither were romance novels. I wasn’t thrilled with Johansen’s book. The characters felt flat to me. But Robert’s book was a different story.

I haven’t read anything by Nora Roberts in many years. Shelter in Place was a very pleasant surprise. The plot was intriguing, the characters pulled me in, and I enjoyed the visit to the Maine coast.

The story starts with a mass shooting at a Mall in Portland. We see this horrible event from several characters points of view. Robert’s follows some of the survivors through the next few years, all dealing with the shock to their lives in different ways. Then a serial killer starts murdering survivors.

In the last third of the book there is a romance blossoming. But that’s forgivable. Many good thrillers and mysteries serve up a side dish of romance.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shelter in Place.

Science Fiction

I know people who like reading fiction but say they don’t like science fiction (SF). But how can you write off a huge genre that contains everything from literary to trash? There are so many subgenres in SF as there are outside SF—genres and subgenres combined.

I just finished another SF novel that kept me up until 4 AM to finish it—The Man in the Tree by Sage Walker. I started to write another post about science fiction and realized I had already done that, so I am reposting it.

Science Fiction posted Jul 29, 2014.
I love SF books. At least some of them. They cover so much ground. The range from great to boring. But isn’t that true of all novels? There are many genres within SF: Adventure, Space, Hard SF, Soft SF, Paranormal, Cyberpunk, Alternate History, and many more. Some cross over genres into romance, mystery, fantasy, or mainstream fiction. Now they are sometimes calling it speculative fiction, which appears to covers more genres than even science fiction.

I first wrote my novel, The Janus Code, as science fiction or speculative fiction in 1995. When the world caught up with my imagination, I edited it to bring it up-to-date and published it as a suspense thriller.

Getting back to why I started this post, I stayed up ‘til 4AM a couple of nights ago reading a SF book – The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett. This is soft or social SF. I found the book fascinating for several reasons. One is the fact that it is a collaboration between three authors. Something that caught my attention was that the story was originally written as an iPhone app. Another reason is that they wrote in first person, but each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. You don’t see many books written multiple first person.

An interesting point is that these characters may show up in only one or two chapters or they may continue to appear throughout the book. This made the story a bit difficult to follow when I started reading. I kept thinking, “Did I see this person before?” But that didn’t last when I got into the story.

The plot: Children are born without language capability. It turns out to be a virus and more and more children are born with this condition.

I could get into the story and the characters’ reactions. I could tell you how it relates to the way people today respond to anyone who is “different.” I could tell you how the story progresses. Instead, I’ll let you read this very absorbing story.

I’ve started another SF novel – Mars, inc.: The Billionaire’s Club by Ben Bova, one of SF’s most accomplished and prolific writers. This is hard science fiction or maybe even mainstream fiction. The science is real; it could happen today. One man convinces a group of billionaires to finance a crewed mission to Mars. I can’t give you much more on this one because I’ve just begun reading.

For those of you who don’t read SF, give it a try. There are many variations and lots of good writing.

Stephen King — On Writing

Without electricity after Hurricane Irma, I read the two library books I had in two days. The library wasn’t open so I perused my shelves for books to read. I went through a few books I hadn’t read, some I’d bought from authors and some people had given to me. One that I read many years ago and remembered liking was Stephen King’s On Writing. I may have gotten more out of it this time around.

The book is a combination of memoir and advice about writing. The first section, “C.V.,” is a condensed life story as it relates to being a writer—an interesting story in itself. The second section, “On Writing,” is all about the art and craft. He starts by giving us the Great Commandment, “read a lot, write a lot.”

King lists four levels of writers—bad writers, competent writers, good writers, and geniuses—and believes there is no way to make a competent writer from a bad one or to turn a good writer into a great one, but a competent writer can become a good writer. This requires a toolbox: the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, and elements of style) and a second level (hard work, dedication, and timely help). He also emphasizes rewriting and editing. Two of his rules:  “Omit needless words” and “2nd draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

You’ve probably heard of the two types of writers—“plotters” who plan their books in advance and “pantsters” who write by the seat of their pants. Stephen King is the later and so am I. He claims he never plots a book. I like King’s ideas about writing is that they coincide with my own. And what he produces is very good storytelling.

The third section of the book, “On Living,” is back to memoir. He talks about his accident (he was hit by a car), recovery, and return to writing. This is followed by “And Further More, Part I and Part II.” Part I is about editing and Part II is a book list. And I forgot to mention the three forwards in the beginning of the book.

I enjoyed the first reading and again the second time around.

Michael Chabon — Moonglow

Moonglow is a very different book—a fictionalized memoir or autobiographical novel. We don’t know how much of the novel is true (or true as remembered) and how much is Michael’s imagination.

Michael visits his dying grandfather, a man who has never talked about his life. But whether because he is dying or the effects of medication, the grandfather pours out stories of love, war, prison, of working as an engineer in the space industry, and stories of Michael’s grandmother and mother. Mixed in with the stories told by the grandfather are Michael’s own memories and stories told by his mother. The events are in no particular order, but they weave a picture of a family.

I enjoyed the read and came to admire the grandfather, even though he was not always likeable. I recommend this book for someone who likes a book off the beaten path.

One book spoils the others…

Did you ever read a book that was so good, so absorbing, so well written, that you couldn’t get connected with the next book? After finishing New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, I breezed through the first chapters of four different books before I found one that held my interest. Maybe part of the problem was New York 2140 was so long and dense with ideas that it took many days to read, and I found myself still caught up in the story after finishing the book. It even invaded my dreams.

The good part of this phenomenon—I wasn’t staying awake reading until 1 or 2 am while I couldn’t find a book to hold my attention.

J. D. Robb — Apprentice in Death

This review is more about the author (J. D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts) and her writing style than the story. First, let me say I am in awe of a woman who can publish over 200 novels in 36 years. That’s an average of almost six a year. And she writes well!

I haven’t read a book from the “in Death” series for many years. Long enough that I wasn’t at all familiar with the series protagonist, Lieutenant Eve Dallas. I imagine she’s changed over the years. In this story, she is a driven, very smart cop. She was in control of the investigation from beginning to end. She kept everyone moving in the right direction. She is also in a loving relationship with her husband, Roarke. He is rich, brilliant, and of course handsome. He treats her unbelievably well, and he even helps with the case with his money, ideas, and inventions. But Robb pulls this off without making it feel “over the top.”

This is a crime novel or a police procedural, and you know who the villains are very early.  But tracking them and preventing more killings keep the pace hard and fast. The author doesn’t let you pause for breath except for a few short breaks with Dallas and Roarke at home.

Two things about the writing were strange to me. First is the point of view. Robb uses omniscient POV. She knows what everyone is thinking…more or less. At times she seems to be using third person for long passages, especially with Dallas. Other times she switches back and forth rapidly between characters. This would normally drive me crazy. But Robb does it almost seamlessly.

The second strange idea in the novel is the time frame, 2061. True there are some tools, weapons, etc. that don’t exist today. But the story could be written in today’s world losing nothing. If I were to pick a time without knowing the date, I would guess ten years from now. Many of the special tools are available now or will be in a few years. Transportation was strange. Even in 2061, they weren’t using self-driving vehicles. The one thing we probably won’t have soon is off-planet prisons.

I enjoyed Apprentice in Death. It kept my attention, I liked all the characters, and the setting brought me back to New York City. Mainly, it was a good story. I’ll probably go back and read some of the previous books in the series.

Liz Kay — Monsters: A Love Story

I don’t read romance novels…or I should say, I usually don’t read romance novels. I’m not sure why I picked this one up to read. Look at the name; it’s obviously a romance. But that name was probably why I brought it home with me.

Why don’t I read romance? Mostly because I like surprises. Apparently romance readers like the stories because they know what to expect and they like happy endings. I like stories with twists and turns and surprise endings. I know some people swear that romance stories are not written to formula, but one thing you can count on is the happy ending. The stories may differ; the characters (heroine and hero in romance) may have different personalities in each one; the plots or subplots can be interesting. But to me the main story is heroine meets hero, heroine is attracted to hero and hero to heroine, conflict—conflict—conflict, heroine and hero end up together in the end. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget, both heroine and hero are supposed to grow and become better people by the end.

Monsters: A Love Story is a good read, even if it does follow the formula. Liz Kay writes interesting complex characters and the story is fun. Stacy Lane is a recently widowed mother of two boys and a poet who has published a novel-in-verse. Tommy DeMarco is an actor and movie producer who has read her book and loved it. He wants to turn it into a movie. The story bounces back and forth between calm, suburban Omaha and wild, partying Hollywood. Tommy is laid-back and has no boundaries. Stacey is nothing but boundaries.

I enjoyed the story, although I did get a bit aggravated towards the end with the two main characters not getting together. I guess that’s part of the romance genre. If you don’t approve of rough language, don’t read this book. (It doesn’t bother me.) You can decide if either Stacey or Tommy (or both) are the monsters.

Alexander McCall Smith — The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

bots-MMAP-md

The author has a unique voice and style of writing. The pace is pleasant and meandering through the heat of Botswana in southern Africa. This is the latest in the series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

His main character, Precious Ramotswe, owner of the detective agency, wanders through the story with her mind drifting to related and totally unrelated subjects from whatever problem she is trying to solve. She is a big, warm-hearted woman who is always concerned with doing the right thing for her clients, her friends, her employees, her husband, and most anyone she meets.

In this novel, Mma Ramotswe has been persuaded to take her first vacation since she started her business. She is leaving the agency in the hands of her partner, Mma Makutsi. She is concerned about how the office will be run while she is away and not enjoying her vacation. She encounters a young boy on the streets of Gaborone and feels obliged to help him. Then Mr. Polopetsi, a school teacher who works part-time for her agency, asks her for help with a new client. She doesn’t want to interfere with her partner and how she is running the business, but ends up helping. She may not be going into the office, but she is not on vacation.

The setting is wonderful. I can feel the dry heat of the land, can almost smell the cattle when Precious goes into the country. The author captures the culture of Botswana. I can visualize the people in the streets of Gaborone.

The point-of-view is different. It is mostly third-person subjective from Precious’ viewpoint. But when she is in conversation with other characters we are sometimes privy to their thoughts as well.

Alexander McCall Smith’s writing is slow-paced, scattered, and delightful at the same time. I normally read books that are fast-paced thrillers. His writing is a pleasing change of pace.

Walter Mosley — Inside a Silver Box

I’ve read Walter Mosley novels before, usually mysteries. Knowing he writes science fiction too, I thought Inside a Silver Box was one of his SF works. But it is much, much more. I’ve posted about mixed genres; this is the ultimate mix. It probably can’t be classified. Try fantasy, SF, mystery, thriller, quest, literary, psychological, philosophical…. It also fits all of my three H’s—Head, Heart, and Humor.

Two people, black thug and rich white girl, are perpetrator and victim brought together when he saves her life. They become friends and together they set out to save the world from the Silver Box and its evil alter ego. If it sounds like a wild tale, it is. But Mosley is an excellent writer who makes you think.

The book is unique, strange, and for me captivating.

Daniel James Brown — The Boys in the Boat

Olympic rowing 1936

This nonfiction story of the Olympics-winning nine-man rowing crew is fascinating. When I lived in Boston, I always enjoyed watching the crews rowing their shells in the Charles River. What I didn’t realize was how much mental and physical work was required to make that beautiful synchronized boat skim the water.

This is a story of Joe Rantz, one of the crew of the Husky Clipper in which nine men from Washington State took the gold medal for the United States in the German hosted Olympics of 1936. But it is also the story of the whole crew, their coaches, the boat builder, a local newspaper reporter, plus the story of life in the Northwest U.S. during the great depression, the dust bowl, and the beginnings of the Nazi Regime in Germany.

I’m not usually a fan of nonfiction. I find most of it dry and boring. I’m not a sports fan, either. But a friend recommended the book and loaned it to me. I took me a couple of chapters to get caught up in the story, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I learned a lot. It is packed with history, and it captures the effort and cooperation required of the crew in order to make the boat “swing.”