Category Archives: style

Lee Child — The Midnight Line: A Jack Reacher Novel

A few days ago I watched a video of Stephen King interviewing Lee Child. Two of my favorite authors talking about writing—I loved it. In the interview, Lee Child talked about his lack of plotting. He said he asks a question at the beginning of the book and answers it by the end.

A friend had dropped off a copy of Child’s The Midnight Line and it was at the bottom of my “to read” pile next to my bed. I moved it to the top of the pile and quickly consumed it. I found that not only is there an unanswered question at the beginning, but there are more questions cropping up throughout the book. Each question needs to be answered, not necessarily in the order they appear in the story. The original question is answered long before the end of the book, but there are so many more that need answers, which kept me reading to the end.

In The Midnight Line Reacher finds a woman’s West Point class ring in a pawn shop in Wisconsin. His curiosity about why someone would pawn a ring that is so difficult to earn leads him to track her down and find out why. Reacher smells trouble and in his usual vigilante style sets out to solve the mystery and save the damsel in distress. His trek takes him through South Dakota into a sparsely populated corner of Wyoming.

Pronghorn in Wyoming

I read some reviews on Amazon and found a number who were not happy with this book. (Many more gave it high ratings.) The low raters all seemed to think it didn’t have enough action and violence. To me, there is much more to a Reacher novel than violence, and this one had plenty of action even though he wasn’t killing a lot of people.

I find Child’s unique writing style fascinating. I’m not sure I can describe it. Rhythmic, quick, and precise are words that come to mind. This book has an underlying theme about the current opiate addiction crisis and the government’s poor treatment of veterans. He gives in-depth pictures of characters and lets us follow Reacher’s calculation and planning. We even get a look at the possible thoughts and behaviors of addicts. Child took me on a journey through the back-country of Southern Wyoming.

The book has all of my three H’s—head, heart, and humor. I feel he’s an excellent writer and storyteller. He doesn’t follow the rules, but that makes the reading more interesting. You never know what to expect.

Laura Lippman — Wilde Lake

I don’t usually review a book I don’t like, but this is an exception. I want to talk about the writing style, which is a big part of the reason the book didn’t grab me. I don’t finish most books unless they hold my attention to the end and don’t feel I should review them without finishing. For some reason, I finished this one. I kept expecting it to get better.

Lu (Louisa Brant, state’s attorney for Howard County Maryland) is the narrator. She is not a likeable protagonist. She is all about winning—beating her boss out of his job, doing better at everything than her brother, winning the murder case she’s trying, etc. She has two children, twins, that we never meet. There is a housekeeper/nanny that Lu doesn’t like. Her brother and father could be interesting characters, but we don’t get to know them.

A big distraction was the author’s use of switching from first person to third person and back with the same narrator. The book even uses a different font when switching from first to third person chapters. I noticed this diversion right away, because I format books for self-published authors. Lippman uses third person present for current happenings and first person to tell us about past events. There is little or no connection between these chapters until close to the end of the book.

This is a murder mystery where we know the killer early but not his motive. It’s more about Lu trying to make her case for court than about the mystery. The story drags and is full of gimmicks. There is even an affair between Lu and one of her brother’s married friends which has nothing to do with the story.

This is a dark novel. Dark stories can keep my interest, but not this one. It lacks a good plot, interesting characters, and a satisfying ending. I read Wilde Lake right after Lippman’s Sunburn, which I enjoyed. You wouldn’t know they are by the same author.

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.

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.

Lee Child — Night School

Night School is the twenty-first Jack Reacher novel. Not the usual lone wolf story with our hero wandering the Midwest, finding small towns with trouble to solve. The story takes place in 1996 when Reacher is still in the army. After quietly receiving a medal for a black ops assignment, he is sent off to school. But the school is a cover for an assignment with two others, FBI and CIA. They not only need to find a traitor who is selling something for $100 million but what he’s selling.

I’ve seen mediocre to bad reviews of Night School (good ones too). Some readers don’t like the change of pace with Reacher working on a team. To me, it makes perfect sense that a younger man still in the service will be different. He still has the same personality, and I enjoyed the variety of story line. I devoured the book. For me it rates five stars.

Night School is like a musical work. It has a rhythm, a cadence. It builds to a crescendo.

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.

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.

Lydia Netzer — How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky

nightsky

Ms. Netzer is an author with a unique twist to her storytelling. I don’t know how to classify this book. The genre could be science fiction, fantasy, romance, humor…take your pick. Whatever you call it, the book is enchanting.

The story revolves around two people who have much in common (both astronomers, born at the same time in the same place) but whose personalities are polar opposites. Irene is all about facts and science, doesn’t believe in love, and is creating black holes. George is a dreamer, mixing astronomy and astrology, trying to prove the gods exist. They are drawn together like magnets, but neither realizes that their mothers were best friends who plotted and planned their children’s lives.

The fabric of the story is woven with family and friendship, sex and love, science and fantasy, romance and loneliness, humor and heart.

The author’s previous novel Shine, Shine, Shine was also a delightful tale combining science fiction, fantasy, romance, and humor.

Marie-Helene Bertino — 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

A delightful novel filled with a neighborhood of characters — from old reprobate musicians to a rule-minded Catholic school principal, shopkeepers, beauticians, policeman, teacher, dog, and more —all touching the life a motherless nine-year-old girl (almost ten) who only wants to sing. Most of these characters end up at The Cat’s Pajamas, a run-down jazz club in Philadelphia, at 2 A.M. on Christmas Eve.

The story takes place in one day and night, “Christmas Eve Eve,” swinging between disappointments and hope, realities and fantasies. Bertino brings the people to life and makes you feel you are wandering the streets of Philly, popping in and out of shops and homes. The book is filled with laughter and sadness, setbacks and triumph, love, music, and dreams.

(I believe the genre is literary again. I know…I said I don’t like literary. But it seems I’m running into more of them that are excellent writing. I guess it’s like any other genre — they come with a large variety of good, bad, and in between.)

Martin Cruz Smith — Tatiana

I hadn’t read one of Smith’s novels for a while. I’m not sure why since he’s one of my favorite authors. Tatiana is one of his Arkady Renko novels. Most of the story takes place in a little piece of Russia called Kaliningrad (which I’d never heard of) on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland.

I can’t decide what I like best about the author’s writing. He paints fantastic scenes (with words), sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. You can feel the cold wind from the Baltic, moving the sand, blowing it into your hair and eyes. You can hear the sounds of the city; see the people and the buildings old and new. He gives you a picture of Russia and its culture that feels like reality. He makes you believe he is Russian, not an American looking in. Of course, I don’t know if a Russian citizen would feel the same.

His characters are quirky and sometimes outrageous, yet believable. Renko is a police detective who doesn’t follow the rules or politics and is always in some sort of trouble with the authorities. He carries a bullet in his brain which could kill him if it moves in the wrong direction. He loves mysteries and seeks the truth. In this book, he is chasing Tatiana’s reported suicide, which he believes is murder.

Tatiana is also an interesting character. She is a reporter who chased corruption. There is also a poet, Renko’s teenage chess playing ward, and several Russian mafia characters — all intriguing. One object (almost a character) central to the story is the notebook of a dead interpreter, which no one is able to interpret.

His plot twists and turns — not a typical plot. It’s a mystery — a puzzle with Renko seeking all the pieces. Underneath you find dark humor, politics, romance, and more.

He has all of my three H’s: head, heart, and humor.

I find his books don’t grow old. Some of our best known authors, especially those who write a series with the same protagonist, lose some of their sharpness with time. I don’t feel that way about Martin Cruz Smith. As I said in the beginning, one of my favorite authors — one of the best.