Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Deep Peril, Deep Feelings

Review: In Too Deep by Jennifer K. Clark

Kudos to Clark for a thrilling story about coal mining and women working underground that gets it right. But the novel is only superficially about a woman miner at a Utah coal mine; this tale goes much deeper than that. It explores the depth of relationships, the depth of childhood traumas—even the depths to which people might stoop in pursuit of a political agenda or a business deal.

Haley Carter does well as a novice miner, despite a lot of mistreatment from the men, who call her "Scab", steal or spoil her lunch daily, and fill shower-heads in the women's changing facility with blue dye. 

As the story unfolds, we learn a lot about Haley and her inability to connect with others. We observe her courage in dealing with the petty harassment of her co-workers, and the painful challenge of caring for a parent who constantly calls her by her absent sister's name. 

Haley's childhood trauma has taught her to hold other adults at arm's length—her family, potential boyfriends, even her roommate Kim. After she begins working underground, though, there are obvious parallels between Haley's slowly-thawing heart, her widening circle of friends, and her gradual acceptance into the camaraderie of working miners. 

Clark has her facts correct. More important, she has caught the feel of miners for the dignity, even nobility, of their occupation:
There were those people who had walked on the moon, and then there were those who walked miles beneath the earth’s surface. It was an experience only other miners understood...


Monday, June 26, 2017

From the Farm of Bitterness

Review: Keep in a Cold, Dark Place by Michael F. Stewart

Limpy's lot is not a happy one; like Jerusha Bromley in Michener's Hawaii, she seeks escape from a family potato farm where she toils without respect or appreciation. The girl's daily duties include all the cooking and cleaning, plus grading potatoes, bagging them, stitching the bags shut, and toting them down into the cool, dry cellar for storage. 

At school, she supplements her ordinary education with Internet research. If only the local art academy will accept her project, a fabric-art portrait of the town where she attends public school, she can escape. 

The farm is poor; Limpy's materials are limited to potato bags, twine, and her own boundless imagination. But sewing time is always being stolen from her. Bullies at school eat into her library stitching schedule, then punishments at home rob her of time to work on her art project, and she worries she won't be able to finish by the impending deadline.

It doesn't help that the farm is being foreclosed on, or that the deadline comes right in the middle of harvest time. The last thing Limpy needs on top of all that is a high-maintenance pet like Chup, a fluffy yellow critter who hatched from an egg she found buried in the cool, dark soil floor of the potato cellar—let alone six more trouble-making hatchlings that begin as needy youngsters, but rapidly become monsters.

At first, seeing this novel presented in the Kindle Scout list, I was reminded of Gremlins. Cute critters, fuzzy, turn into monsters... Yeah, those elements are all there. But Stewart's novel is no comic-book tale of cutesiness-turned-evil, it is deeper than that. Limpy's need to face her fear that she will fail is about to be woven into the fears of all around her, family and friends, even previous owners of the potato farm. 

The story is engaging, and Limpy herself is delightful. As for Chup and his brother-fuzzies, you won't believe what they turn out to be. But finding out for yourself won't take long; like many such delicious tales, it is a quick read. 

You won't want to put it down until you know if Limpy escapes the farm and her fate.

Where Washington Didn't Sleep

Review: The Man Who Could Be King by John Ripin Miller

George Washington, Victor of the Battle of Trenton, the Battle of Yorktown, Revolutionary War. George Washington, crossing the Delaware. George Washington, "Father of Our Country." 

But also: George Washington, life-long slave owner, less educated than Jefferson and other "elite" Revolutionary leaders, who as President still owned and rented out his real estate holdings, even petitioning a government agency he had created for help finding foreigners as tenants. By the time of President "Tippecanoe" Tyler, his virtue was already being examined for flaws.

In Miller's novel, Josiah Stockbridge, one-time aide to General George Washington, writes his recollection of the great man to inform his own great-grandchildren of the truth. By way of arriving at that truth, his memoir spans a good part of the War for Independence, and focuses specifically on an event after Cornwallis had surrendered, but before Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had completed the treaty that gave us our independence.
Benjamin Franklin pointed out in a letter to a British friend, a copy of which he sent to the General, “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops and continued during the whole war. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.” He could have added that those five generals commanded troops that were more numerous and better trained, armed, and clothed than the General’s.

Diverging often to set the stage and give us glimpses of Washington's virtuous behavior throughout the war, Stockbridge's account deals primarily with a mutiny in the army that threatened the new nation's elected Congress with a coup over Army pay and pensions, and details how "The General" dealt with it. Wide-spread grumbling by ordinary soldiers was encouraged by an officer corps looking to oust General Washington—or perhaps to recruit him to lead the coup!

Miller lets Stockbridge show us the reasons behind Washington's options, in the proposed mutiny as well as during the rest of the war, illuminated throughout with quotes from Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato. This play (known to be a favorite of Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington), which opposes Cato the Younger's republican virtue vs. the soon-to-be dictator perpetuo, Julius Caesar, makes a fitting encapsulation of the choice before the General. 

We already know the final decision he made. It is his internal debate, to the extent Stockbridge could discern it, and the sublime way the General maneuvers the army to concur with it, that reveals the depth of Washington's virtue.
It is often written that, during his presidency, the General was not a politician. Of course, he was a great politician in large part because he was not perceived as a politician.

Liner Notes

I almost decided to skip my Kindle First choice this month. I'm very glad I did not; I chose this novel as my free book, and enjoyed it immensely.

Must-Read Sports Commentary

Daily Breakfast: Biscuits, Jam & Crossword

Brief Review: Anything by Jason Gay in the Wall St. Journal

For a long time, my breakfast has been a solid routine of light food, caffienated soda beverage, and the crossword in the Wall St. Journal. Our local Chick-fil-A provides the WSJ and generously allows my indulgence.

Then, although not generally interested in sports commentary, I began noticing that articles by Jason Gay, which often appeared on the same age as the crossword, were light-hearted, fun things to read, and did not require in-depth knowledge of the various sports. Soon, my routine became "Find and read any Jason Gay article, then do the crossword."

Today's article weaves together broad and subtle jokes, literary references (to other sports writers, naturally), and a well-reasoned appeal to our national work ethic, all in aid of a plea to reduce weeknight baseball games to seven innings. Then, if you...
...want a classic nine inning baseball experience, long enough to roast a turkey, do your taxes on your phone, and take an hour-long nap—you can get it Friday through Sunday. 

Gay doesn't limit his recommendation to baseball, either. NFL football comes in for its own game-trimming suggestion, likewise basketball. As he wrote in his 2015 rule-book Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living, "Accomplishments do not have to be large to be meaningful. I think little victories are the most important ones in life."

Even if it's a seven-inning game on a Tuesday evening, so you can watch to the end and still function at that 8 am business meeting the next morning.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cool Solution to Skimmer Shoes

Review: Stomper Joe No-Show Socks

There really isn't a way to enjoy the free look and feel of a skimmer (deck shoe) when it is worn on a sweaty bare foot in the summer's heat. Yet anything more dorky and gauche than a skimmer worn with ankle socks is hard to imagine.

I've tried anklets in my deck shoes, but it doesn't take too many steps before the heels slip down to wad up under my arches, not comfortable or cool!

Then I saw these socks on Amazon, and decided to try them. They're called "No-Show" socks, but the innovative heel design makes "No-Slip Heel" a more apropos name. A slightly tacky gel cup is fused to the inside back of the heel, to hold the sock snugly in place.

Styling summer shoes instead of showing socks.
I bought a package of three pairs in gray to try them, and they worked so well I immediately went back to buy more. Khaki green, navy, tan, and white would all look the same hidden inside my skimmers as the original gray socks, so perhaps the color list helps promote the initial decision to buy. The wide choice of colors did let me pick out some for my spouse as well, with no worries that differently-sized socks would get mixed up in the wash. 

Speaking of laundry, my socks fit "as expected" right out of the package, but once washed, they were perfectly snugged to my feet. I've now sent the initial gray socks through several washes without any diminishment of the non-skid heel-cup action. In fact, if I didn't need to wear traditional socks with my dress shoes for speaking events, I'd toss all my black ankle socks in favor of a drawer full of Stomper Joes!

On my wish list for the future Stomper Joe product line: Zori-thong socks with the same non-slid heel cup. Then my feet would be covered for all my preferred summer foot-gear!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Tangled Web, Or How to Out-Byzantine Byzantium

Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Melisande and Tristan are unlikely partners in a high-tech startup. Mel is academe, Tristan military. Mel speaks and reads dozens of—maybe a hundred—ancient languages, Tristan is fluent in the one languge she is not: bureaucratese. But Mel can't stand her current academic mentor, a sleezy fellow who takes credit for her work and makes unwanted sexual overtures to his protégée. She says yes to a high salary with benefits, and launches into the effort to help develop a new technology with military applications.


Usually, I need at least two complete reads through a Neal Stephenson novel, with some intervening time to absorb the revealed technology. Not this time. What Neal and co-author Nicole Galland have done is to examine the real-life implications of successful time travel (or "diachronic operations", the second "D.O." of the secret Department's title), while they simultaneously expose and lampoon the inevitable bureacratic takeover of a technical endeavor.

Even without the ancient tongues that bring Melisande into the Department, the language is dizzyingly, deliciously convoluted. Military acronyms and bureaucratic double-speak abound. My favorite passage involved the attempt of a rigid office-manager boffin to prevent the techies from using unsanctioned acronyms and labels. (The techies promptly labeled her policy memo with an unsanctioned acronym, of course.)

Perhaps the story's accessibility is due to the combination of Stephenson's favored Innis mode with a mixture of narration and epistolary delivery, particularly suitable to a novel in which time travel has scrambled the chronology. Some of those epistles are email, some are hand-scribed letters and journals written on parchment—some are even carved into living flesh. (Further detail might be a spoiler!) 

On the other hand, as I read I found myself uncomfortably reminded of my experiences in the late 80s and early 90s, working for a tech firm started by engineers. At the time I signed on, the founders were still in the top management positions, and we had a one-of-a-kind product in a brand-new tech niche. I was there when a venture capital firm bought out the company, still there when they "retired" the founder CEO and replaced him with a business-type. I left when the engineer-COO and engineer-R&D chief were also replaced by MBAs. (The firm was out of business a year later.)

No doubt that personal history added to my enjoyment of the eventual "fall" implied in the novel's title. But you need not have had a similar traumatic experience; D.O.D.O. is a great story, and you won't want to miss it!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Easy Magic Meals: Mann's Nourish Bowls

Food Review: Nourish Bowls from Mann Packing Co.

I adore brassicas, raw or cooked: kale. cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower. But too much of the same flavor gets old. And I don't really know how to mix them with other vegetables or spices to create a delicious dish.

Fortunately for my increasingly-vegetarian table, Mann Packing has created five delectable blends of steamable brassica vegetables with sauce and balancing roots. 

These have been available for a year already, but I only noticed them recently in the fruit-and-veggie section of our local Safeway. I've now tried three of the blends. The size of the bowl is sufficient for a main vegetarian entree for one, or a side dish for two. Even better, you can combine the cooked contents with other ingredients to create two or more full-size entrees. 

Monterey Risotto

I popped for the Monterey Risotto blend first, which combines three of my favorites, kale, kohlrabi and butternut squash, with a lightly garlic sauce that cooks into the veggies in the microwave. 

This blend works as a stand-alone entree, or as a side dish for grilled meat. It is not "juicy" enough in my opinion to work well as a topping for a rice bowl. I might in future combine the veggies in a skillet a Korean BBQ, and save the sauce packet to add as extra juice to another Nourish Bowl over rice.

  • 😁 The garlic-soybean oil-parmesan sauce perfectly cuts the bitterness of the kale.
  • 😁 When the squash is steamed to tenderness, the shreds of kohlrabi have not lose their crunch. The combination of textures elevates the dish.
  • 😖 Unless you break up the block of rice and bury the chunks under the veggies before steaming, it can be dry and unpleasantly crunchy. 

Sesame Sriracha

The major players in this bowl (in addition to a tangy ketchup-style sauce enhanced with sriracha, sesame oil, and ginger) are Napa cabbage and broccoli, with brown rice, kohlrabi, carrots and snap peas. The kohlrabi here is cubed, so its earthy-root flavor is more pronounced than in the Monterey Risotto.

It's delicious as a stand-alone entree, but you should enjoy cooked cabbage and hot sauce if you take on the entire bowl on your own! 

Mann's chefs suggested grilled shrimp or prawns over a bed of the Sesame Sriracha blend, and it looks tasty. But we paired it as a side dish with grilled ears of corn, and the sweet/spice balance made the addition of meat unnecessary.

  • 😁 Tasty addition to any sandwich in place of coleslaw.
  • 😖 Contains cilantro. The cilantro is one of the last ingredients listed in the contents, and it is stem-shreds rather than leaves. I don't like the flavor of leaves of cilantro, but I didn't notice it here. If you avoid cilantro because of a cashew allergy, be warned. 
  • 😖 Contains red peppers and sesame seeds in minor amounts.

Southwest Chipotle

This bowl pairs black beans and corn in a salsa to provide the steaming sauce for kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi and sweet potato cubes. 

Of the three varieties I've tried, this blend is the most versatile for meal creation. It's superb as an omelet filling. You can build an excellent vegetarian burrito with it. Stirred into pasta, it mates well with Alfredo sauce (just a bit is all you need!) We ate it over rice in a vegetarian rice bowl; the rice needed a bit of the liquid from another salsa, but just a bit.

  • 😁 If you don't use the cheddar cheese, you can remove the only non-vegetarian component. This also removes the two non-food additives (used in the packaged cheese), powdered cellulose and natamycin.
  • 😁 Add queso fresco to pop the protein level of the dish. Substitute it for the cheddar to take its flavor in a slightly different direction.
  • 😖 Salsa contains red peppers and onions in minor amounts.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Managing Chaos

Review: Hired Powers by Sandi Hutcheson

The ideal beach-read falls into one of two categories; it is either a serious novel you've been promising yourself to read since high school, or a frothy comedic romance with no pretention of higher purpose.

Hired Powers is decidedly the latter, as evidenced by the opening scene. Jobless Jessica Powers encounters an otherwise-naked young woman in a trench coat and high heels. Soon Jessica has been hired to keep her out of sight, under the radar of an investigation into the motel death of a Superman-clad campaigning politician who died leaping into bed with a handcuffed "Lois Lane."

Is this woman, whose real name is Shelby, actually a hooker? Her carefully landscaped pubes do resemble an American flag, and she had been in the motel room with Georgia state senator Peter Payne. Plus, the money to hire Jessica to protect Shelby from the press—and having charges pressed—comes anonymously from an account in the Cayman Islands.

On the other hand, Shelby may be what she claims, an innocent who was duped into wearing those handcuffs. Either way, Jessica's job is to keep her on the down-low until after the election, and she'll be well-paid thanks to the intervention of Sammy Lawhead, Shelby's attorney. (That Sammy was also Jessica's boy-next-door high-school sweetheart and missed romantical opportunity supplies the other essential element of any romance novel.)

The squirrelly, twisted path they all take to accomplish their various goals is a perfect accompaniment to sitting in hot sand or a hot tub somewhere, whiling away vacation hours with nothing to do but enjoy the ride. 

It's a sweet trip!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bad Luck—or Unrecognized Fortune?

Review: Black Bead (Book 1 of the Black Bead Chronicles) by J.D. Lackey

Whenever there is a fuss about the prospect of human gene-engineering, more of the arguments are focused on moral than technical grounds. Ought we to change the genome? How do we deal with any technical failures? Black Bead seems to be about an entirely different question: Can a society into which such planned changes have been introduced recognize the value of an unexpected change?

Six-year-old Cheobahn's black bead labels her as a maladaptation. The tribal society into which she struggles to fit resides in a "home dome" that serves as a nightly fortress against a hostile environment.

Man is not the peak predator in this world, despite the psi powers that have been carefully introduced to the human genome. That's actually a subtly misleading statement; gene-engineering is done by the women of the matriarchal tribes, and they have suceeded in isolating these new powers to the females of the species.


The intriguing theme is well supported by the action of the novel, as Cheobahn and her older "Little Mother" friend Megan join with a trio of boys—Tam, Connor and Alain—to form a hunting group that will let the older four travel unaccompanied outside the home dome and its daytime farms. Their rite of passage to tribal adulthood is impeded by Megan's insisting that her too-young, black-bead friend Cheobahn be included in the hunting pack.

The tribal powers allow it, but because of the poor showing that brought the six-year girl her black bead, they restrict the pack to within two kilometers of the dome, barely past the local farms and gathering areas where pre-adults are allowed. What the tribe's leaders don't realize is that Cheobahn's unrecognized powers have already seduced the four older members to ignore the restriction. The five will end up far beyond the elder-imposed boundaries, in high joy and deep danger, relying on the uncertain abilities of the youngest amongst them to get home before dark.

This is excellent story-telling, thrilling and absorbing, with such a light hand on precursor clues that you scarcely notice the unanswered questions. (How did the boys persuade the Mothers to let them dress in new clothing? Is a real entity supporting Cheobahn, or is that just her visualization of her powers?)

But those questions will keep you awake at night, long after you have finished reading the short (166 pages) novel. They will whet your appetite for the next novel in the series, and the next.

Liner Note: 

This initial novel in the series received multiple nods in the year of its release: Benjamin Franklin Digital Award: Silver Honoree: September 2016; Indie Reader Approved, 4.5 star rating: July 2016; Library Journal Self-e Selection: July 2016

Thursday, June 8, 2017

With Strange Æons Even Death

Review: The Final Enemy by Dan Petrosini

That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange æons even death may die. —H.P. Lovecraft, quoting "The Necronomicon"

I was very excited by this Kindle Scout offering, in which a Davenport, Ohio, reporter discovers a strange effect emanating from a recently-fallen meteorite. The rock seems to have eliminated death by natural causes, at least within a 15-mile radius of its location. 

What an opportunity to examine the convoluted ways in which human nature and culture is bound up in the eventual demise of each of us!

So even though the book was not selected in the program, I bought it anyway, and eagerly began reading. Alas! The story quickly bogs down in a rush of "things happening." Worse, our reporter, Jack, is strangely unmoved by some of these events, and curiously overwhelmed by others. Instead of getting a look at how he—and we all—might actually react, we are treated to increasingly shocking scenes.

Without death, there is no reason for God, apparently. There is no real exploration of the premise, just a string of church closures and a snubbed pontiff to illustrate the fact.

Without death (and ridiculously soon), there are far too many people for the planet, leading inevitably to cannibalism and chaos. Not to mention a safe-guarded compound, where the government elites and their hangers-on have enough to eat, of course.

There is the deus ex machina way that the meteorite allows the death "by natural causes" from poisoning, but not from starvation or from complications due to age or disease. It also extends this effect only to human animals, and not any of the other beings with which we share the planet.

And then there is the oh-so-Soylent Green solution for producing extra protein, about which I will only say that it is the dietary equivalent of hoisting oneself by one's own bootstraps, multiplied by the supposedly-burgeoning population numbers.

I won't spoil the novel, because it needs all the help it can get. But if you're not disappointed by the ending, let alone the distressingly boring path the writer drags us along to reach it, you are a very different reader than I am.

Liner Notes:

  • The second half of this novel was full of obvious typos and grammatical errors. I suspect the proof-reader had as much trouble wading through it as I did. "Unstainable" for "unsustainable" produced the most hilarious error.
  • The writer made the same wrong turn that the Soylent Green film-writers who translated Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room! did, and went for visceral shock rather than reaching for more philosophical depths. Try the original Harrison novel for a slightly preachy, but much more nuanced look at the issues that might rise from overpopulation.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lightweight and Delicious

Brief Review: Time Burrito by Aaron Frale

One of the best things about being a Kindle Scout is the frequent introduction to second-tier (even third-tier) possibilities that turn into first-rate reads.

Like Time Burrito, for example. Let's face it, I probably wouldn't pick this book out of a list as something I might enjoy reading. The cover's intriguing; the title is weirdly promising. Based on that, I might have snagged the book out of a yard-sale jumble, or spent a buck, buck-fifty max, on a library-offsale paperback.

Selecting the ebook from an online list? Likely not.

Fortunately, I got a peek inside, and read just enough of the story to get hooked. I was caught by the concept, a time-traveling loser with a simple, if circumscribed, ambition:  make better burritos. At the beginning, Pete's business is a food truck that provides local students with horrible but cheap burritos. If I could just discover the secret burrito recipe, he thinks, I would be able to make the best burritos in town.

A chance tumble through time, though, will reveal that it's not the recipe he needs, but better ingredients. The rest of this romp is the story of how Pete's peregrinations through time help him overcome his rival for the title of Best Burrito Chef, build a food empire on his secret burrito spice, and find true love. All by making a burrito that is lightweight and delicious.

Just like this novel.

When I Find Myself In Time of Trouble

Review: Tumblr Site WTFBadRomanceCovers

I have an editor's eye for printed language, but can be blind-sided by making a poor image choice for a book cover like any other graphic-design amateur. With so many novices self-publishing, it seems there are plenty of bad examples of cover designs to choose from.

Certainly the editors of this Tumblr site find them in abundance. They've been doing this for over five years, without encountering a shortage yet.

They don't just catch the bad covers, they skewer them neatly with an appropriate WTF?! line or two, and thereby make the gaffes obvious to the meanest intelligence. By which I mean, they even become obvious to me.

Ed: This one holds a butt!
Serving the editors in this endeavor are a slew of tags, characters who appear in too many covers (with nicknames like "Sleepy Hollow guy", "creepy Poser" and "Chuck Tingle"1), and regular callouts for the too-frequent (though not necessarily bad) cover themes: Objectified Scotsmen, objectified Vikings, even objectified Santas!

Throw in photobombing dogs, butt-sky vistas, and headless torsos, as well as the bad Photoshopping of clip art and Sims Posers, that abound on romance novel covers, and the site has a never-ending target source for snarky observations.

It can also provide solid examples to the NaNoWriMo participant of what not to put on the cover of your book.

The choice of a cover image for your NaNovel can help to guide visualization and support your writing, but once the book is ready to be published, the cover should serve as a sales tool. It should invite the reader to dive into your story, not provoke giggles or guffaws. The site's moderator notadocmartin (formerly pronouncedlab-eth, but still the same person) has a solid grasp on this concept, and isn't afraid to point out the not-so-rare examples of images that fail in hilarious ways.

On the other hand, if all you need is a Monday morning belly laugh, you're guaranteed to find one here!


  1. Chuck Tingle is an author who specializes in bad covers and worse book titles. I just couldn't resist the shot.
  2. Site is not politically correct, and is frequently NSFW. Take care where you read it. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

The All-Time Winner At Losing: Brockmire

Review: Brockmire with Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet, Tyrell Jackson Williams

Jim Brockmire, the incredibly-layered baseball boothcaster character created by Hank Azaria, is world-renowned for one thing: his disastrous on-air meltdown a dozen years back, following his discovery that his wife was cheating on him with a friend.

Fair warning: neither the wife's activities as discovered in flagrante delicto by her husband, nor Brockmire's subsequent vulgar commentary upon it, are politically, morally, or even grammatically correct. Brockmire has a huge Loser's Trophy, always on display.

Nothing—absolutely nothing—is held back as Brockmire's continual crisis of coping crashes headlong into the promise of a new life. In baseball. With a lover. With a young friend whose admiration for Brockmire is actually based on his renown for losing.

Brockmire's woes may have begun with the actions of his wife, but every downward step following that event, every stumble and fall afterward, is a direct result of his own actions. We wouldn't care about Brockmire if he were only a plaid-jacket-clad, inner-dialogue-out-loud jerk bent on making the world pay for his errors. What gives the character pathos is the same thing that makes him hilarious: he knows he is a failure. He accepts it. He has quit dreaming of overcoming that monumental mistake and the dozen intervening years of self-torture.

But life has more to offer Jim Brockmire. All he has to do is reliquish his trophy and embrace its opposite to win at this game.


If you dislike foul language and blatant—even gymnastic—sexuality, avoid this program. The locker-room humor is not shyly hidden, it is celebrated. Even the commercials are risqué.

But redemption is always available, even for the self-damned. And that prospect of redemption is what makes this series rise above its foul-mouthed, gutter-hugging characters to be worthwhile to watch. 

Hooking Readers, or Why 50SOG Beats My NaNovel

Review: Wired for Story and Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Like many amateur writers, I thought knowing how to write beautiful language (English, in my case), following the rules of grammar and including the occasional poetic passage, was the key to producing a winning novel. NaNoWriMo showed me I could produce the volume of words needed to successfully do that.

I have spent months of concentrated effort, writing and plotting and editing and rewriting, but my NaNovel is still a flat thing. So uninviting, my spouse wouldn't read it. Worse, if I hadn't written it, I wouldn't read it.

Meanwhile, so many poorly-written novels full of one-dimensional characters and grammatical errors galore—Fifty Shades of Grey is the iconic example—top the charts and capture the reader's dollar. Yes, even mine.

Fortunately for me, I latched onto these two works by Lisa Cron, They not only tell me why my fiction books are not absorbing, but provide a step-by-step plan to help me correct the issue.

Wired for Story

Why does the engaging story pull us in, over the bumps of typos and plot errors, kludgy scene development and character description? In short, why does Fifty Shades of Grey with its oft-reviewed flaws and derivative nature top the charts and launch a successful movie series on top of its publishing success? Cron argues that our brains are prepared to listen and heed stories of a particular kind. More, that our own brains reward us when we spend time absorbed in such a tale.

But it isn't just any story. The tale that rewards us is one that promises a lesson—and then delivers. The protagonist must confront a choice that matters to his or her life. Whatever choice is made, the consequences that follow are the lesson our brains reward us for learning. Such learning, even through the mythical lessons of others' success or failure, is a survival mechanism.

So: Should Joe have bacon or kippers for breakfast? Not a world-shaking or life-changing choice.

Except... what if choosing bacon meant that Joe would soon be in a battle for his life, because of a mutated pestilence that had infected the swine from which the bacon was made? To catch the reader's attention, the story must show right from the beginning the serious nature of Joe's breakfast choice, and then incorporate the consequences in a way that rewards the expectant reader.

According to Cron, it isn't the obviousness of the dilemma, but the way it is presented—the way it is written—that absorbs that survival skill in the brain, and rewards the ardent listener to a well-told story.

Story Genius
If story is the critical element of a successful, engaging novel (using the brain science presented in Wired for Story), how do we write to reveal the heart of the story? That's the thrust of Cron's second book on story creation, presented as a series of steps for us writers, with a chapter-by-chapter example of story development from real life that follows these guidelines.

Think of that old joke, "What's the book about?" "Oh, it's about 350 pages.." If you cannot summarize the key thought, the chief dilemma, in your novel before you write it, chances are good it will not be there to inveigle the reader after it is written, either.

I was so taken by these concepts that I have planned my Camp NoNo project around it for this coming July. If Cron's instructions can resuscitate the story structure for my ailing NaNovels, I'll be ahead of the game for November.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Princely Kiss Cannot Save This Snow White

Review: Forever Snow (The Everly Girls Book 1) by V.B. Marlowe

At the core of many fairy tales is a witch or two, casting curses and blighting the lives of innocents. For Princess Snow White, the cursing witch is her stepmother. A sympathetic huntsman saves Snow by substituting a deer's heart for hers.

The Everly Girls novels (three so far) take the witch-curse datum from this and other stories' hearts and weave an intriguing structure around it. In the latest iteration of this evergreen tale, Neva Albini (Snow) has been cursed by a coven of witches to live three years of mid-adolescence, over and over again for centuries.

Her curse will only be lifted when she consents to kill another similarly-cursed wight and deliver her still-warm heart to the coven. Beauty, Hansel and Gretl, Cinderella, and others whose encounters with witches brought them similar problems, will need to make their own choices, but each of these other cursed characters is contending for a limited supply of happily ever after. 

And Neva's own heart is a ticket for someone else to escape the curse.

Time is running out for Neva to comply, and all the other problems of adolescence—mean girls and classroom rivalry, teen love long delayed by the fatal-kiss clause of her curse, and dire warnings from one friend that none of her other friends are to be trusted—pale next to this one. If she doesn't make a choice soon, it could mean spending the rest of time trapped in her three-year teenage hell. But choosing to kill another to benefit herself, especially someone suffering under their own curse, is simply a different damnation for Neva.

Marlowe has put a fascinating twist on cursed-child fairy tales, modernized them and intertwined one with another to create a series full of possibilities. While I got this title for free as a Kindle Scout selection, I'll be purchasing each of the subsequent Everly Girls novels as soon as they come available.  (I've already started with Forever Ella.)

Because you can never have enough happily ever after, even if it is only happy enough.

Note: These books are currently only available in eBook format