Category Archives: setting

Characters — Part II

I’ve read a lot of novels lately and I’m getting behind in blogging about them. The best ones for me all have one thing in common — good characterization.

From Wikipedia:

There are two ways an author can convey information about a character:

Direct or explicit characterization

The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.

Indirect or implicit characterization

The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, way of talking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.

For me, direct characterization doesn’t cut it. I like to be in the characters head. Show, don’t tell.

Some of those books I’ve read recently: Lies That Bind, by Maggie Barbieri; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert; Cuba Straights by Randy Wayne White; and there were more. There is one in my pile of books to go back to the library that I didn’t finish: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

The characters in each of these books were probably the main reason I kept reading and enjoyed the stories, or not. In Lies that Bind, there were many things I didn’t like about the protagonist Maude Conlon. But she was interesting and likable even though she had a bad temper, sometimes treated her daughters badly. She kept secrets but didn’t like others keeping secrets from her. The story had a good plot; Mauve looking for a sister she didn’t know existed until her father died. I would like to read other novels by Maggie Barbieri.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF authors. He writes epic novels that are more about science than characters. But Aurora had a unique main character. (There were two, maybe more protagonists.) This unusual character is the starship’s quantum computer. We meet him/her/them (the computer calls itself we for a long period of time) as a child being taught to think in human terms by the ship’s chief engineer, Devi. By the end of the story he has a very distinct personality, even a sense of humor. The other main character is Devi’s daughter, Freya, who (like all the others currently on the spaceship) was born in space. The plot is good. What do you do when you arrive at your destination and the planet you are supposed to live on is poisonous to humans? The science goes way beyond what I understand but didn’t bore me.

Bittersweet: A China Bayles Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert is part of a long series. In this book China Bayles, a police detective, is out of her territory visiting her mother when she becomes involved in two murders, plus game theft and smuggling. The characters are interesting and real, including her game warden friend Mack Chambers. The plot is good and the settings are wonderful. It makes me want to visit central Texas, a place I never before had a desire to see.

In my opinion Cuba Straights, Randy Wayne White’s latest Doc Ford novel, is not his best. The settings kept my interest (Cuba and Florida history included), but the plot was somewhat disjointed. I felt that Doc Ford has devolved into a typical macho male, his friend Tomlinson, who used to be interesting, has turning into a drugged-out freak show, and some of the other characters are two dimensional. I probably won’t read the next one. White has lost touch with his characters.

I don’t usually give bad reviews here, but here is a second one to go with the one above. Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald drove me crazy and I couldn’t finish it. Her main character is apparently ADHD. Off the wall, bouncing around, can’t complete anything, not even the email she is trying to write. Maybe it gets better but I couldn’t follow the story and quit after a couple of chapters. Could the author be like that? In this case the character is what kept me from reading this book.

Carolyn Baugh — Quick Sand

Ms. Baugh is an excellent writer. She engaged me with her characters and her story to the point where I was dreaming about them at night. This is unusual for me even though I read most every night before falling asleep

Quick Sand is a crime novel featuring a young Muslim woman from the Philadelphia police. She is assigned to a joint task force with the FBI and the sheriff’s department to fight drug trafficking. The job evolves into investigating murder and the human trafficking of young girls.

There are themes running through her writing about prejudice toward Muslims and the treatment of women. The protagonist is struggling with her feelings about her culture and a protective father. Baugh’s writing is very visual. At times I felt as if I was watching a movie or TV program.

I highly recommend this book.

Carolyn Ives Gilman — Dark Orbit

Nothing I enjoy more than a good science fiction novel. I’ve been reading SF since I was about ten. There are many subgenres of SF. Almost as many as there are genres and subgenres of fiction. I’m not into the war games or monsters type of SF. My favorite is “hard science fiction,” based on scientific accuracy and technical detail. I also like the category called “soft science fiction,” which explores the social sciences. This book probably falls mostly into the “soft” genre, but it also includes hard SF (space folds and gravitational anomalies, etc.).

Dark Orbit tells a tale about finding a new “habitable” planet where people are living underground who cannot see. If we are missing one of our senses do we develop others? Does our hearing become sharper? Are there senses we don’t know about or use that can develop in the absence of sight?

The book also shows us different cultures and how people tend to categorize others and react to those differences.

It’s a great read. Gilman is a creative and talented author.

Donna Leon — Falling in Love

It occurred to me that most of my reviews on this blog are more about the authors and their writing style than the novels. Maybe that’s true of most reviews.

Donna Leon’s writing fascinates me. She writes about Commissario Guido Brunetti and his police cases in Venice, Italy. I have read several of her books and feel as if from her writing I could visit Venice and feel at home. I also feel I know Guido Brunetti and several of the other characters in her stories.

The laid-back atmosphere of the Venice police permeates the book, interwoven and contrasting with a chilling plot. Brunetti takes long lunches at home with his family. He sits in his office contemplated the case he is working on, wanders the streets (or canals) of Venice not always knowing what he is looking for, and appears to socialize with others in his department as much as working. He has an appreciation of old Venice, its art, architecture, culture, people…and at times bemoans that it is becoming too much of a tourist destination.

The name of this book is misleading. It is a crime novel, a mystery, not a love story. The plot involves an opera singer who is being stalked. I won’t go into details about the book, but will tell you it ends with a powerful climax. Very unusual. Most novels give us at least one chapter of wrap-up after the climax. But none was needed.

S. J. Gazan – The Arc of the Swallow

I like reading authors from other countries. It gives me a glimpse into unfamiliar cultures and settings. Of course, some of them are good and some are not, like writers anywhere. Gazan, from Denmark, is one of the good ones. His style is different than what I’m used to, whether that is because he is Danish, or just his personal style. His pace is slower and he covers more detail than many of the US authors I’ve read recently.

Gazan weaves a story with multiple points of view and multiple timelines, jumping back and forth in time to cover a different POV of the same event. Marie Skow, PhD candidate in biology, is faced with two apparent suicides: her mother and her professor and mentor, Kristian Storm. Police detective Soren Marhaunge is not only connected to Skow because of the suicides, but finds that they were neighbors as children. There are other POVs, woven through past and present, family, friends, and colleagues. Gazan even feeds us part of the story through deceased Dr. Storm.

It is an interesting and complex mystery and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Michael Perry — The Jesus Cow

This book is FUN! It’s full of wonderful, quirky characters and situations. It all takes place in a tiny town at the off-ramp of the interstate somewhere in Wisconsin. You have a quiet, unassuming farmer, Harley, left with only 15 acres of his father’s farm. There is a literary professor turned environmentalist, living at the bottom of an old water tower on Harley’s land. A greedy developer is trying to buy up Harley’s property so that he can take advantage of the location off the interstate. A woman who is a hard working scrap metal yard owner shares the intersection. Harley’s best friend, Billy, lives in a trailer on a corner of Harley’s land with a multitude of cats. And there is this woman who shows up in a red pickup truck that turns Harley’s head.

One of Harley’s cows has a calf on Christmas Eve at midnight with an image of Jesus on its side. You can only imagine the kind of stir this causes.

The book is a romp. It’s Michael Perry’s fist novel, although he’s a bestselling author of nonfiction books. I hope he writes more fiction.

Philip Donlay — Aftershock

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A USGS team is murdered as they are placing instruments on a volcano that is about to erupt. The photographer accompanying them is abducted and held for ransom. She is the lifelong friend of Donovan Nash and of course he goes to the rescue.

The story is a fast-paced thriller set in Guatemala. Plenty of action in the middle of earthquakes, volcano eruptions, shootings, chases on land and in the air… It kept me reading. I liked the characters, tough and determined but with heart.

The thing that always amazes me about some novels, movies, and TV shows is the seemingly coincidental connections between characters and events from the past and present. This book is full of them. It appears everyone in the book, good and bad, is connected in some way to Donovan Nash’s past.

I’m not complaining. I’ve been known to write a few such instances into my own books. J

Gregory Benford & Larry Niven — Shipstar

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Larry Niven is one of my all-time favorite science fiction authors and Gregory Benford is not far behind. Shipstar is hard SF based on science and technology pushed beyond our imaginations, but not beyond Niven’s and Benford’s. An Earth starship visits a huge bowl in space, powered across the galaxy by a star, filled with multiple forms of alien intelligent life. We are not only entertained by the humans’ reactions to this wonder, but we are exposed to aliens point of view trying to figure out what these strange primates are all about.

This is the second of a two volume saga. You can read it alone but will understand much more if you read the first volume, Bowl of Heaven, first.

M.P. Cooley — Ice Shear

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Upstate New York is cold in winter, and Ms. Cooley makes you feel it. It makes me want to go curl up in a blanket in front of a fireplace to warm up, even though I’m reading here in sunny Florida. The story begins with the discovery of a body impaled on the ice at the bottom of a frozen waterfall. Ice Shear is a mystery that keeps you interested from beginning to end. The protagonist, June Lyons, is a local police officer, ex FBI, and single mother in a small town. Cooley’s characters are diverse and interesting, her plot twists and turns, and her settings make you believe you are there.

This is a first novel by Ms. Cooley. I can’t wait for her next.

Christopher Fowler — The Invisible Code

How many times have you read a novel with a pair of police detectives as protagonists? I must have read hundreds. But these two are old men who should have been retired from the police years ago. One is well dressed and organized and follows the facts. The other is beat-up, rumpled, intuitive, and he consults with psychics, historians, museum curators… He’s more of a historian than a detective. They work out of the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London.

Author Fowler brings us the English culture, atmosphere, history, social mores, foibles, superstitions, and more. His characters are humorous, interesting, quirky, and intelligent. His plot twists and turns. The two detectives, Bryant and May, start with their boss requesting an investigation of his wife who is behaving strangely and circles into investigating the boss for murder and more.

The Invisible Code is a delightful read.