Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: End of the Rope

Jackie Calhoun’s End of the Rope focuses on Meg, whose dream of owning her own horse stable is coming true. Meg takes in abandoned horses, a dog, and a kid who wants to learn to show horses. Meg is exhausted all the time because she works all day at a medical clinic and then goes home and takes care of the horses in her care.

Meg’s photographer friend of many years, Nicky, is asked to move out of her own home when her partner of many years decides to campaign for a judgeship, but can’t get elected as a lesbian. Devastated by the betrayal, Nicky leaves her home and moves in with Meg.

The two women consummate a long standing attraction. Their life settles into a routine, but many things go wrong at the stables putting a strain on Meg and Nicky’s relationship. Added to the strain is Nicky’s ex who expects Nicky to help with her campaign and Meg’s thinking that Nicky is not exactly over her ex.

The stable setting is unique and Calhoun imparts knowledge about the care and showing of horses without lecturing her readers. If you are a horse person, you’ll love this book. If you’ve never met a horse up close and personal, you’ll learn a lot about them, and perhaps even gain a new respect for them and their riders.

There are several editorial missteps that take the reader out of the story. The story, though, is interesting enough to keep readers return to the story and turning pages to the end.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Editing is Like a Snowstorm

It snowed today, which is not unusual for January. With a fresh layer of snow on the ground, the world looks clean and new. Each snowflake that lands adds to the illusion.

Editing is like a snow storm. There’s a flurry of changes, words deleted, sometimes even entire paragraphs disappear. At the end of the book, you decide it’s good enough to start querying. But no agent loves your book as much as you do, and no agent wants to read more.

It’s time to reassess. If you’ve sent the book out to say a dozen or more agents with no success, read the book again. Better yet, read it out loud. Don’t make any changes. Read the book like you were someone who paid $25 for it.

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize there’s something fundamentally wrong with the book. You may spot what the problem is. You may even have an idea how to fix it. Sometimes, though, substituting one word for another, deleting and adding paragraphs, changing the season, adding a character or deleting another aren’t necessarily enough to make a mediocre book into a good one. You may still be hiding the dirty snow beneath a layer of new snow.

It may be best to wait until the season changes. Set the book aside for three months. Before you pick it back up, make a list of things you need to look for - POV, lack of character development, overused words, cliches, bad grammar, misspelled or misused words, etc. Then take it down off the virtual shelf and start reading. Read it aloud. Be as hard on yourself as you imagine a big publishing house editor will be. Chances are, you’ll feel the need to make changes - big and small - to the book. If you do, make those changes. When you’re done, send it to new beta readers, not to your friends or family. Send the book to people you don’t know. Specifically ask for honest and detailed feedback. Give that feedback serious thought and learn from it. Make the necessary changes. Read the book again. Is it better? Is it ready?

Like in the spring, your book may emerge like a beautiful bloom from beneath all that snow.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: Mother Load

“Mother Load” by Lambda Literary Award winner KG MacGregor features Anna and Lily Kaklis. The two women have decided to add to their family and give their five-year-old adopted son, Andy, a brother or sister. When the doctor announces they are pregnant, both women are ecstatic, but wish it hadn’t happened at this particular time. Anna’s business has been hit hard by the recession and one of Lily’s clients has been accused of murder so she is facing months of preparation and then a long trial. In addition the pregnancy, Anna must work hard to save her automobile dealerships and Lilly has to find a way to keep her client out of jail for having killed her abusive husband.

This is an unusual book in that the main characters don’t break up. Their relationship is solid enough to withstand the ups and downs at work and of Lily’s pregnancy - the tiredness, the hormone-induced mood swings, and the general crankiness that pregnancy often brings out. At one point, Lily’s brother-in-law gives Anna good advice to help Lily get the rest she badly needs and to deal with other non-pregnant spousal issues.

This is a well-told tale of love - between spouses, between mothers and son, and between extended family members. Some of the most memorable scenes in this book are about Andy. He, too, must deal with Lily’s pregnancy and struggles with whether his moms will love the new baby more than himself and if they will have time for him. How Lily and Anna deal with Andy’s fears is done sensitively and creatively by MacGregor. At each point, the mothers are able to assuage the poignant concerns of the soon-to-be big brother. The other characters, from Andy’s cousin Jonah to Anna’s sister Kim, shine as well.

While this is the fourth book in the Shaken series featuring Anna and Lily, you needn’t have read the first three books to know the characters. MacGregor develops the characters so that readers new to the series will feel as if they’ve known them for years. There is, however, a reference in this book to an earthquake that apparently occurred in an earlier book leaving the reader to wonder if she’d been reading too fast and missed an entire earthquake. Other than that small misstep, there is nothing else to take the reader out of the story.

MacGregor is a talented writer who doesn’t hold back on the trials and tribulations of being pregnant. She tells, with equal force, the ups and the downs. If you’re thinking about getting pregnant or know someone who is thinking about it, this would be a good book to give them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Older Dog Wisdom #6 - Optimism

We had a major snow storm move across our area on its way to the East coast. We got about four inches of snow, not a big deal in comparison to the eighteen inches others got, but for a city that doesn’t usually get a lot of snow at one time, it was a big deal.

Tux, my ten-year-old dog, has become the family optimist. Having grown up in Vermont, a little of the white stuff on the ground doesn’t concern him. However, he hasn’t quite figured out that if the white stuff is in his back yard and it is freezing cold there, it’s probably that way in the front yard as well.

He is convinced that just because it’s too cold for a walk out back, it must be warm enough, i.e., above freezing, in the front. He insists that a walk in the neighborhood park won’t result in frostbitten noses on his human friends. He is deeply disappointed when he’s not invited to join us in the car.

As each day dawns, Tux’s optimism is renewed. He’s sure that today is the day that his humans will get off the couch and take him out for a long walk. He is doomed to disappointment, but that doesn’t stop him from knowing that things will change overnight for him.

There is much to be learned from Tux here.

Lesson One - Remain Positive

Remain positive in the face of physical evidence that says that there’s nothing to be optimistic about. The sidewalks are still treacherous, the temperatures remain in the low 20s, and there is no way a walk is in the works.

Lesson Two - Hope Springs Eternal

Hope remains eternal. Putting a positive face on adversity allows one to hope that the adversity will depart. The sidewalks will be ice free, the temperatures will get above 32, and a walk is possible.

Lesson Three - Spring is Eternal

Spring is eternal. Temperatures will rise, sidewalks will become safe again, and walks will return to be an everyday occurrence instead of an occasional event.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: River Walker by Cate Culpepper

Grady Wrenn is a cultural anthropologist teaching an undergraduate summer seminar at a small New Mexico university. Her students want to investigate the local legend of La Llorona, a River Walker. Known locally as Maria, the River Walker haunts the rivers of the world luring abusive men to their deaths in revenge for the deaths of herself and two small sons at the hands of an abusive husband. Grady meet Elena Montalvo, a spiritual healer, one night at the Rio Grande river. Grady has her own demons to live with and walks the banks of the river when her insomnia won’t leave her. When Maria takes the lives of three men in Mesilla, the local men believe that Elena is working in tandem with Maria to find men to feed Maria’s blood lust. Elena enlists Grady to help find a way to end Maria’s raging vendetta. As they move down that path, the two women acknowledge a growing attraction for one another that is consummated after a particularly scary night when the local men want to take their vengeance out on Elena, and Grady must deal with Maria. In the end, Maria reveals her secrets that shock Elena to her core.

If you are like Grady and don't believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits, good or evil, this book will be an eyeopener for you. Culpepper tells her story without preaching and without proselytizing. She imparts information about Elena’s belief system in such a way that you may find yourself wishing you knew a spiritual healer either for yourself or someone you love. You may even begin to believe, just a little, in a spirit world.

You’ll also find yourself reading this book into the wee hours of the morning even though you have to be up early to go to work. You’ll smile at Culpepper’s subtle humor and may even find tears as the women of the men killed by Maria tell their stories.

Culpepper’s writing style can only be described as fluid and soothing. This is a multi-faceted book that will fascinate even the staunchest non-believer. Culpepper is a born story teller, and the reader can imagine her spinning this yarn of ghosts and evil spirits to friends around a campfire.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Converting to eBooks

I am in the process of converting to eBooks. Slowly, I might add, and reluctantly.

My First Kindle

I bought a Kindle when they first came out in 2007. It was a wonderful solution to carrying several books in my carry-on luggage while I was traveling to and from Asia several times a year. When I returned to the US permanently, I went back to reading only print books.

Recently, I was given a new Kindle as a gift. It is very different from the 2007 model - smaller, lighter, and easier to read books on. The downside of the new Kindle is that books are more expensive these days than they were a three years ago.

I went to Amazon looking for a half dozen books to load on to my new toy, but they weren’t available on Kindle. So I won’t be converting totally to reading only eBooks. Yet. I was surprised, though, at what was on Kindle. For instance, I downloaded several free “Scientific American” magazines from the 1800s for research purposes.

No eBooks for Me (or Famous Last Words)

I never thought I’d be one of the people who would convert to reading eBooks. I steadfastly refused to listen to audiobooks when they became available, and, as the technology changed, refused to load books onto my iPhone or my iPod. I love printed books. I love the way they look, the way they feel when you hold them, the little thrill of anticipation I get when I open a print book for the first time, and that whisper when you turn to the title page. I love it all.

The only reason I bought a Kindle in the first place was because I don’t sleep well on planes, even on those long, 15-hour flights to Asia. So the Kindle was a perfect choice then. When I wasn’t on a plane, though, I continued to buy and read print books.

Why Use a Kindle Now?

Recently, I found myself spending way too much time trying to decide which book to take with me to a doctor’s appointment that I knew could run into the three-hour range. With my Kindle, I can throw it into my bag as I leave the house. Voila, I have many books to choose from (although, since I’m already reading a book on the Kindle, there really isn’t a reason to have to choose).

I read while I’m waiting for an appointment, I read while I sit in the Botanical Gardens after I finish my walk, and I read waiting for meetings to start. Wait, you may say, you can carry a paperback in your bag, you can read a paperback in the Gardens, and you can read a paperback while waiting for meetings to start. So why Kindle?

Indeed. Why Kindle? Because when I put a paperback into my bag, it is the only book I can read that day while I go about my business. But throw the Kindle into my bag and, theoretically, I can take 3,500 books with me. I’ll have a choice of which book to read. Of course, choosing which one of 3,500 titles to read will take up the waiting time, but it is the principle of the matter. I'm sure it will take me years to fill my Kindle up and potentially thousands of dollars. But, I tell myself, buying books for the Kindle is still cheaper than buying 3,500 print books.

What’s Most Attractive About the Kindle?

Perhaps, the most attractive thing about reading on the Kindle is that I won’t need to figure out where to put yet another bookcase, I was looking at one of my bookcases the other day and noticed that I have fewer books on it now that I’ve started using my Kindle again. In fact, one shelf is half full of socks. Yes, I have a lot of socks, but that’s a blog for another day.

What Did I Do with My Old Kindle?

I gave my old Kindle to my nephew who steadfastly agreed with me that he, too, would never give up on print books. However, even he now carries his Kindle with him no matter where he goes. Yike! What is the world coming to?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My 2011 Resolution

Many of my writer friends have spent considerable time setting their writing goals for 2011. Some are determined to write more during 2011 than they did during 2010. While others are determine to up their daily output. One writer said he was definitely going to write 5000 words a day without fail. I’m guessing he has no idea how hard that will be.

I only set one writing goal each year. For me, any goal I set that has anything to do with output is unrealistic. I will write what I write. I know, for instance, how many words I wrote each day in 2010. I only reached 5000 words per day on two days. The rest of the year, I probably averaged somewhere around 1000 words a day. There was one day when my total output was 79 words. If I had set goal of X number of words per day, that one day would have been a disaster. Instead, I was able to put down that number and not even blink an eye. There were days when I didn’t write a single word. I have no idea why I didn’t write on any particular day, although I suspect life got in the way. That happens to us all - a lot. Did I beat myself up because I didn’t reach some unrealistic goal that day? No. I simply sat down the next day and wrote.

I’m not sure when or why I decided to track the number of words I write every day. Probably because some recessive obsessive/compulsive gene made me do it. The days that I get frustrated are the days when I’m editing a completed book.

I recently pulled a book off the virtual shelf and began reading it. I remember liking the characters, setting, storyline, etc. After reading the first chapter, I realized why it had been sitting on the shelf for three years. What it also said, in no uncertain terms, was how much I have learned about writing in the ensuing years. I decided that since I still liked the book, I’d edit it and see what happens.There were days when I deleted more words than I added. I finished the edits yesterday.

Now that I’ve finished those edits, I know what’s still wrong with the book. Today, I’m going to go back to page one and start editing again.

Over the past few months, I’ve read some really, really good books. I’ve also read some really, really awful books. Each of those books has taught me things about writing and the kind of writer I want to be. Suddenly, I knew what my 2011 resolution would be.

My writing goal for 2011 is to be a better writer than I was in 2010.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Lonely Death by Charles Todd

"A Lonely Death" is Charles Todd's 13th Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery. In this outing, set in 1920, Rutledge is sent to Sussex by Scotland Yard to solve a series of murders. Three men, all former soldiers, have been killed with a garrote and had a military identification tag inserted in their mouths. At first glance, it appears that the murders in the small town of Eastfield have their roots in World War I. While Rutledge investigates each clue, like peeling an onion, he discovers that first appearances can be deceiving. After several missteps, Rutledge determines who the killer is, but the killer outwits him and escapes each time Rutledge gets close. In the end, however, when the killer intends to make Rutledge his next victim, Rutledge traps the killer and takes him into custody. Along for the ride, as usual, is Hamish, the ghost of a Scottish soldier, who was killed in the killing fields of the Somme. Rutledge feels responsible for Hamish's death and Hamish has been his constant companion since Rutledge's return from France two years earlier.

Todd maintains the primary story while also having several subplots, including one involving a woman who Rutledge clearly cares for, but can't declare his love because he believes she will reject him due to his psychological scars. Another subplot is the unsolved murder of an unidentified man dumped at Stonehenge that was investigated by another Scotland Yard inspector and Rutledge's friend who has recently retired. Cummins' retirement opens the possibility of a promotion for Rutledge.

Rutledge is a flawed character haunted by the war and the men he sent to their deaths in no man's land. He was buried alive when a German shell fell short. When he was released from the field hospital, he was returned to the hell of the front lines. He believes that the only thing keeping him sane is his job with Scotland Yard. When that is threatened in this outing, he has to decide whether to go on living.

As with each previous book, Todd has Rutledge meticulously investigate each clue as it is presented to him. The reader never knows more than Rutledge. Todd's writing is wonderfully vivid. Their descriptions transport the reader to the countryside of Sussex or to the battlefields of France with equal ease.

Todd is a mother/son writing team who have been publishing together for 14 years. Their story telling is seamless, their plotting interesting, and intense. There is little doubt that Charles Todd is one of the best mystery authors writing today. They are in the company of P.D. James, Laurie R. King, and Louise Penny.

If you want an intelligently written procedural, and haven't read the first 12 books in this series, start with the first book, "A Test of Wills," in which the damaged, conflicted, and complicated Ian Rutledge is introduced. Reading this series in order allows the reader to see both the writers and their character grow and evolve.