Elements Familiar and Otherwise

I recently finished Maiden of Iron: A Steampunk Fable. I was once somewhat associated with the author, Edie Melson, when we were both with Novel Rocket blog, and she impressed me with her technical ability and marketing knowledge. However, I didn’t know she wrote steampunk. In fact, I’d never read any of her fiction before. So I snapped it up on Kindle and dove in.

I enjoyed it, but…. It was billed as being a funky re-telling of the old Robin Hood tale, but it really wasn’t. Character names were similar (Robin Loxley, Lady Marion, John [who was a big guy but wasn’t called Little], and so on). But the story was really nothing like it.

I found numerous typos and errors–not enough to spoil the story, but I did notice them–and here’s a funny thing: I made a decision about something I never want to include in my writing again: “She released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding” (or words to that effect). I’m pretty sure I’ve said that in one or more of my books, but after finding it no fewer than three times in this one, I decided it’s an overused phrase that should be avoided.

All in all, it was a pretty fun read, but I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. About the time I finished it, I ran across a post on a blog I follow, Bob’s Books, about an older novel called The Eye of the World by Robert Jordon. I thought it sounded interesting, so I started looking for it on Amazon. And then I thought, Hey! Don’t I already have that one?

I went and looked on my shelf, and yes, sure enough, there it was. I’d seen it recommended years ago and bought a used paperback copy, but had never gotten around to reading it.

Now I’ve started it, however, and I see why Bob likes it. It contains plenty of familiar fantasy elements, but it’s all well done and doesn’t seem worn out. Bob says this is the first of a fourteen-book series (Seriously? Fourteen? Yes. Fourteen), and I don’t promise to read them all. But I’m enjoying this one.

Want to know something funny? I hadn’t been reading the story very long before the main character let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Upon reading that, I let out a laugh I didn’t know was coming. Okay, so there’s nothing wrong with the phrase, but I still plan to avoid using it in the future.

I don’t know if the protagonist in my latest series, The Four Lives of J. S. Freeman, ever releases a pent-up breath like that. It’s very possible that she does. But one thing the series doesn’t have is familiar fantasy or sci-fi elements. It’s so unlike anything I’ve read, I have a hard time describing it.

A couple of reviewers have commented that it’s not at all what they expected, but they liked it. I’m not sure, but I think that’s a problem. Shouldn’t the cover and the blurb let readers know what to anticipate?

I was going for mysterious. And I guess I succeeded.

 

 

 

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Unknown Enemy: Make Friends With This Book

A couple weeks ago, I promised you a review of Janet Sketchley’s latest: Unknown Enemy, the first book in her new Green Dory Inn mystery series. And here it is!

One of the best things about being a writer is meeting other writers. The internet can be a wonderful thing! Janet is one of those friends I’ve never met yet, though I’ve known her for several years.

I believe we were introduced through a contest. Janet, please correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you enter Heaven’s Prey in a contest run by Risen Books, my first publisher?

However I came to meet her, when I read that long-awaited debut novel of hers, it blew me away. The subject matter is more than a little jarring–a woman prays for the man who raped and murdered her niece. Seriously? Yes. Seriously. The faith premise makes you sit up and take notice. The writing is skillful. Without resorting to sensationalism, the author builds suspense until the reader’s toes curl. And of course the spiritual thread glitters throughout like solid gold. As Janet says, “Why leave faith out of our stories when it’s part of our lives?”

Those same skills are evident in this book. In fact, it’s evident that whatever she does, this lady does it well. Not only is this a good story, but the cover is perfect, and the whole thing is nicely formatted and edited. That cannot be said about many self-published books.

However, this story didn’t leave me feeling as satisfied as her previous ones. I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s backstory, and even solving the mystery as to who was terrorizing the inn  didn’t seem to answer all my questions. Oh, but wait — this is the first book in a series. That’s a good thing, because I definitely want to know more!

Thank you, Janet, for another good story–and for the promise of more to come.

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Zane’s Trace and Zane Grey

Ebenezer Zane

Zane’s Trace was a frontier road constructed under the direction of Col. Ebenezer Zane. It cut through the Northwest Territory in what is now the state of Ohio, and many portions of it followed traditional Native American trails. Constructed during 1796 and 1797, the road ran more than 230 miles, from Wheeling, Virginia (now Wheeling, WV) to Maysville, Kentucky.

In 1811, when the US government decided to build a major east-to-west road, the Ohio portion of that primitive highway–first called the Cumberland Road and later the National Road–incorporated parts of Zanes’s Trace.

The original National Road

The National Road originally ran from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois (the state capital at the time). Nowadays, the highway is called US Route 40, and you can drive it from Atlantic City, New Jersey all the way to Silver Summit, Utah.

Seventy-five years after the completion of Zane’s Trace, Ebenezer Zane’s granddaughter, Alice, gave birth to her fourth child, a son, in Zanesville, Ohio. Alice was married to a local dentist, Lewis M. Gray.

Zane Grey

Sometime after the child’s birth, the family changed the spelling of their name to Grey for reasons I don’t know. The boy was christened Pearl Zane Gray, but later in life he wisely dropped the first name and was known forever after as Zane Grey.

Craig and I have a fondness for the National Road because our house in Cumberland, Maryland is 300-400 feet from it. Where it travels through our neighborhood, it’s called National Highway. I also have an interest in famous authors born in Ohio. As it happens, there’s a museum about an hour from where we now live that celebrates both the National Road and Zane Grey. Craig and I have talked about visiting it for quite some time, and last Thursday, we finally made it there.

It was an interesting trip. I love history, though my aging brain doesn’t retain much of it. I love museums, with their artifacts, adorable little dioramas, and the information that accompanies it all. I enjoyed our trip and learned a thing or two about both subjects.

One of those adorable museum dioramas.

The evening before our visit, I downloaded Grey’s best known novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, planning to read it before we left. It turned out to be longer—and duller—than I expected, so I only got a quarter of the way through before I gave it up for the night.

I wondered, though, what the author would have thought about people “downloading” his books. I’m sure he’d be pleased that they’re still being read in this century. But imagine his reaction if you would have told him that one day, a person would be able to purchase a copy online (“What does ‘online’ mean?”) and start reading it on an electronic device within minutes of making the decision to buy it. Would he have been delighted at the prospect, or would he have found it unnatural and abhorrent?

In its print-book-only day, Grey’s work was tremendously popular. His novels and short stories have been adapted into 112 films, two television episodes, and a TV series. The proceeds not only supported his family, but also financed extensive travels, including numerous fishing expeditions around the world.

A museum model of Grey writing in his office in California.

Grey always knew he wanted to be a writer. His father’s attempts to beat that notion out of him were successful, for a time. But the dream never died.

Grey also had aspirations of playing major league baseball and went to college on a baseball scholarship. Finally, he bowed to life’s financial realities and went into dentistry. He never did give up the idea of writing, though, and after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he set himself up in a dental practice in New York City, where he’d be in close proximity to publishers.

His devoted wife, Dolly, a former English teacher, helped with his writing aspirations. She edited his work and typed it from his handwritten copy. When it was initially rejected by publishers, she arranged for its publication at the family’s expense. She offered her considerable inheritance as a financial cushion until his writing career finally took off. And from the beginning and throughout their long marriage, she stayed with him despite his open philandering.

National Road and Zane Grey Museum

If you happen to be near Zanesville, Ohio with a little time on your hands, I encourage you to visit the museum.

And if you like antique stores, there are scads of them in the area. We visited almost a dozen that afternoon.

 

Have you ever read any Zane Grey stories? Did you enjoy them?

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More Books Under My Belt

As I wait for the rain to stop so I can go out and grill chicken–and from the look of the weather radar, I think we’ll either be eating a very late supper, or cooking it indoors–I’ll tell you about some more books I’ve read recently.

Several years ago, someone recommended Zenna Henderson’s “People” stories as being excellently-written religious speculative fiction. I found Ingathering and purchased it then, but didn’t start reading it until this summer. A hefty 577 pages, it’s a compilation of all Henderson’s stories about “the People,” originally published in short story form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

It’s true that the writing is excellent. Henderson weaves words like a beautiful tapestry. And though it’s not Christian fiction, it’s definitely religious in nature. But before I was halfway through the book, I realized it was a chore to read, not a pleasure. I plugged away at it a little longer, but eventually I decided I’d had enough and put it aside.

The stories simply seemed too much of the same thing after a while. Moreover, I didn’t care about a group of wonderfully kind, ever-cheerful, and supernaturally gifted extraterrestrials who’d fled their dying home planet and came to earth to try to re-establish themselves on a planet where they were persecuted as freaks. That’s not all there was to it, but it eventually bored me, so I decided to move on to something else.

That “something else” was Unknown Enemy, written by a friend. I’ll be posting my review both here and on Amazon once the title is released on August 2, so stay tuned!

From there, I moved on to a short nonfiction piece, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev.

Now there’s a fascinating read! The author was born of Russian parents, but they left the USSR  and he was raised in the UK. Later, as an adult, he  lived and worked in Russia for almost a decade. As a result, he has a lot of stories to tell, and he tells them with skill.

I won’t be reviewing this book on Amazon because it already has plenty of reviews, and I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on it. I did enjoy it, though, and I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in that sort of thing.

The book was published in 2014, by the way, in case you were wondering how current it is. The situations discussed are all post-USSR, but a few years distant by now.

And finally, an update on a situation I know you’ve been consumed with curiosity to know more about: it’s still raining, and I ended up cooking the chicken indoors. It was a little disappointing. But we’re fed, cozy, and dry, so no complaints.

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It’s Criminal

Are you wondering what I was doing during my six months of blog silence? Well, I’ll tell you:  among other things, I was relocating from one Ohio city to another.

Some of the activities surrounding that moving event (pun intended) included sitting around at the new place waiting for contractors to show up and do their thing. I didn’t mind that, because it gave me an excuse to read.

Ordinarily, I feel guilty if I read in the middle of the day; something in the back of my mind tells me that’s something you should only do when your daily work is done. The problem is that by then, I’m too tired to read without falling asleep. That’s why I don’t do as much reading as I’d like. (Sadly, as my husband could tell you after we hauled all my books from one home to another, I have more than I can get through in my lifetime. And that’s just the bulky print books, not counting my Kindle.)

Be that as it may, as I sat in a camp chair in my empty living room, I entertained myself with an anthology of old crime novels from the 30s and 40s entitled… wait for it… Crime Novels. It contains the following stories:

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
  • Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
  • The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  • Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
  • I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

You might recognize the first two titles from the movies that are based on them. There’s also an old 1950 movie adapted from the novel I Married a Dead Man, called No Man of Her Own.

I’ve never seen any of the movies, but I found all the novels to be engrossing reads. I liked Nightmare Alley the least, but all in all thought it a good addition to the collection. All the stories are a little dated, but skillfully written.

Some general thoughts went through my mind as I read them, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

All these stories involve a crime or crimes, deception, or other forbidden act, and are told from the point of view of the people who committed them. Probably because these were written in a time when society held clearly-delineated and generally-agreed-upon standards of right and wrong, things didn’t end well for these protagonists.

A couple of them died at the end. One was charged with murder and presumably executed after the story closed. One character ended up a circus geek—and if you’re not familiar with what that was, here’s a detailed explanation. (Note that the article credits the novel in question with popularizing the term). And one character was condemned by circumstances to live the rest of her life emotionally estranged from the man she loved. The only exception to this pattern of “just deserts” endings was The Big Clock, at the end of which the reader is left with the impression that although the erring protagonist escaped this time, he knew his lifestyle would catch up with him eventually.

Popular real-life outlaws Bonnie and Clyde

This all got me to wondering: Why are we so fascinated with criminals and crime? Is it because we harbor these tendencies ourselves? Do most people want to be wild, but feel restrained by the risks and/or a sense of morality? Is that why we like to live the outlaw life vicariously?

Or do we enjoy these stories because they make us feel superior, thinking, “I’d  never do anything like that”? Does looking down on others—even fictional others—give us an inflated sense of worth?

Why do all these characters get their comeuppance in the end? Did the authors write these as cautionary tales, intending to warn people away from the behaviors portrayed? Did they merely want to titillate the reader, but because of social mores felt they shouldn’t let the criminals come out on top?

I don’t know. What do you think?

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Speaking of Habits…

Here’s a bad habit we haven’t talked about yet:  not reviewing books we read.

I confess that I seldom do this, for these reasons:

  • If the book’s been around for a while and already has a gazillion reviews, I don’t figure it needs one more.
  • If I don’t particularly care for the book, I feel compelled by professional courtesy to keep quiet about it. This is true for authors I don’t know as well as those I do.
  • If I do like it, it probably already has enough reviews and doesn’t need one from a nobody like me.
  • Laziness. If I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to add the work of writing a review afterward. What, am I in school or something?

Occasionally someone will ask for a review. When that happens, I’ll usually comply, but not always. A couple of times I declined because, well… my mother always taught me if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. On one occasion, the book was so bad I couldn’t even read it.

All in all, I’m not usually eager to write reviews. But shame on me! As an author, I know how important reviews are. No, Stephen King doesn’t need my help, but small-potatoes authors like me need all the reviews we can get. Many promotional services won’t accept a title that doesn’t have a certain number of Amazon reviews. Larger numbers of reviews help improve a book’s Amazon ranking, making it more visible. And bookstores are more likely to stock a book with a higher ranking and many reviews. So you see, we authors don’t crave reviews just to stoke our egos; they’re absolutely necessary for a book’s success.

If reviewing books intimidates you, rest easy. It doesn’t have to be difficult! In most cases, there’s to required format, and reviews don’t have to be long and involved. Take Ane Mulligan’s Amazon review of Stillwaters, for example:

Where should you post your reviews? Amazon, certainly, and also Goodreads. Those are the biggies. But if you feel inclined, you can post reviews to Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, other places online where books are sold, or your own blog. But Amazon is primo.

Am I writing this post for the purpose of begging for reviews? Yes. Absolutely. I need reviews!

But I’m also resolving to start reviewing books more often myself. In fact, I recently posted a review of a nice little book I ran across not long ago, Faith Unexpected: Real stories of people who found what they never imagined.  It is exactly as the title describes, and I won’t elaborate other than to say I enjoyed the book. If you look for it on Amazon, you’ll see my review.

It’s the sort of book that would be good to give as a gift to someone who’s “on the fence” as far as following Christ is concerned. A person who’s antagonistic toward the gospel wouldn’t appreciate it, but someone who’s curious probably would.

I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but I hereby resolve to make more of an effort to review the ones I read. At least, new books. I don’t think I’ll bother reviewing old classics.

Do you post reviews on Amazon? If you haven’t yet, would you please review mine (if you’ve read any)?

Yes, I’m begging—with apologies for the lack of dignity.

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