From My Bookshelf: Alistair MacLean

Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.

I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.

I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.

MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.

So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.

Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.

Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.

I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.

A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.

If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat! 

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Goodbye, Little Guy

For the past few years, a black rectangular box has occupied a shelf in my home office. A small, inexpensive Canon inkjet printer that I bought in a hurry at a local Walmart center, and of all the inkjets I’ve purchased over the years it has served me best and longest.

These printers are considered disposable. Generally, inkjets aren’t expected to last long. And of course, they offset their cheap upfront cost by the staggering expense of the ink they run on. Over the years, I’ve occasionally walked into my office  to find that the printer has died silently and alone in the night. Without even a warning whimper. No drama to it. Just simple expiration.

In contrast, my previous laser printer was all about the drama. It valiantly spat out 100,000-word manuscripts and innumerable rough drafts for years, and after a lot of wear began to signal warning signs of its demise. It developed a squeak in its rubber page-feed rollers. Then one of its dual paper trays stopped working. Then it began to make a BAD NOISE like its guts were being twisted by some torturous device. I nursed it, babied it, crooned and cooed to it, and kept it working. If that critter folded, I would never find another printer able to talk to my then out-of-date computer. And so I went down to the wire, trying to print out a manuscript to meet deadline (in the days before we emailed our submissions). Running out of toner. Hearing that lame gear grind and squeal and moan with every page. Stopping between chapters to pull out the toner cartridge, shake it to loosen a few more flecks of ink powder, and slamming it back in place. Begging the printer to please keep going. And it did. It wheezed the final ten pages and fell in the traces like an abused Victorian cart horse hauling coal uphill. I mailed that manuscript on time and heaved the printer into the trash. At least I’d wrung every possible drop of use from it.

And of course, after a while, I was paid for the book. Then I bought a new laser printer and a new computer–one that’s now so ancient I call it Grampy. Yes, by a few months Grampy is even older than Ole Faithful, but Grampy still purrs smoothly in its out-of-date Windows XP program. It has never been connected to the Internet, never known the evil kiss of a virus, never fended off cookies, never experienced the jolt of updates. Firing it up to work on a manuscript is like taking your grandmother’s 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville out for a spin. Too long to park, guzzling gas like it’s still 72 cents a gallon, and a smooth surge of V-8 power under that l-o-n-g chrome-embellished hood. Oh, baby!

Ole Faithful, on the other hand, has withstood Internet updates that crash it, the invention of the Cloud that confuses and crashes it, the creation of Google Chrome that garbles its poor old brains and crashes it, and the indignity of wearing virus protection like a corset. Buffeted by cookies and threats and electrical brownouts and power surges, Ole Faithful falters and swoons but still manages to stagger onward, game to the last rattle. And Ole Faithful has cozied up to an Epson printer, a Brother printer, an uppity HP that blew ink everywhere but where it should, and for quite a while now a small black Canon. The little printer that could.

Li’l Blackie has held on, held up, done its job, and kept going for–as I’ve already said–longer than any of its other inkjet predecessors. Long enough for me to occasionally think, “How long will this thing last?”

And then, in December, it sent out a cry for help. An error message announced that its ink absorber was nearly full.

Say, what?

I went and talked to an equipment guy. I learned that all inkjets–even the monster machines that print banners and blueprints–have a tray with gauze pads to catch the ink that’s not squirted on the paper during a printing session. (I guess that’s what the sputtering HP printer lacked. It just threw the unused ink underneath itself and made such a mess I kept it sitting on a tray lined with aluminum foil.)

And I learned that–as I already suspected–a replacement ink absorber costs more than a replacement printer.

Alas.

So I kept Li’l Blackie going, ignoring its quiet little error message, until recently it stopped printing. The machine is still viable, still fine, but it will no longer squirt ink to paper. No words come from it at all. Li’l Blackie sits, silenced.

I disconnected its power cord and USB cable. I removed it from the shelf. It rests now on the floor in a corner, awaiting trash day. All because of a $34 part. (Plus shipping.)

And I went and bought another Canon inkjet. I know they’re not economical–inkwise. I know there are $200 inkjets that will run for a year or more off a $12 bottle of ink. And maybe I’ll investigate one of those later. After all, a few purchases of Li’l Blackie’s ink cartridges would easily pay for the pricier–yet more economical–machine. Meanwhile, I needed something now. Another $30 printer came home with me last week.

The new one is white instead of black. Its shelf footprint is about the same. Its paper tray is different. It came without a USB cable, so thank goodness the old one fit it. And when I fire it up to print it makes a worrisome little noise like it’s straining a cheap plastic gear that probably won’t last long.

But, golly, I like it. The built-in copier feature works easily. It prints much faster. It doesn’t sit and make all sorts of silly little noises before it starts like Li’l Blackie always did. Whitey just gets on with the job.

That’s all I want. Unlike Li’l Blackie, Whitey’s heads are in perfect alignment. And best of all, Whitey’s installation did not crash Ole Faithful.

For the moment, life is good.

Now, if I can just bring myself to toss Li’l Blackie in the trash.

 

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Attacking Story

Okay, yeah. I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m traditional. I’m a writing technician in that I’ve spent my entire career studying how stories and plots are constructed for best dramatic effect. So today I’m going to address a writing issue that has been troubling me for quite a while.

There’s a current trend cycling through commercial fiction that is reflective of a larger societal trend:  call it deconstruction.

I’m not even sure it’s an actual word. I looked up “deconstruct” in my Webster’s Collegiate edition, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bother to search for it in my unabridged dictionary because I’m beginning to suspect that deconstruct is one of those trendy let’s-use-a-word-contrary-to-its-correct-usage verbal hijinks so popular now. (E.g. the hot fashion for turning nouns into verbs, as in “Let’s movie” or “We summered in Bermuda” or “You have disrespected me” or “I gifted a book to my friend,” or “Chef Daniel intends to deconstruct an omelet and serve it with a fig reduction.”

Dictionary.com says that “to deconstruct” (verb) is a back formation of the noun “deconstruction.”

Aha! A modern corruption of a perfectly good word.

To deconstruct means the opposite of construct or build. Therefore, to deconstruct means to destroy, to tear apart. So why can’t we say destroy these days if that’s what we mean? Methinks the word might be too harsh for politically correct/sensitive ears. But I don’t like wrapping meanings in phony words and euphemisms.

When we deconstruct a recipe, we tear it down, tear it apart, destroy it, alter it into a different form.

When we deconstruct a fairy tale, we’re doing the same thing.

When we deconstruct classic plot structure, we’re destroying it.

Very au courant, as the French would say. So current, so cool, so trendy, so fashionable to take story design and pull it apart as a sadistic child pulls the back legs off a grasshopper. What’s left? A feeble, mutilated creature that can no longer properly function.

Ah, but I’m assured by those who claim to be in the publishing know that linear plot is “out,” and nonlinear storylines are “in.” So what does that mean?

As I said, I’ve been puzzling over it for quite some time–ever since a haughty young editor rejected one of my book manuscripts for being too linear. And while I quickly figured out what she meant, I have been shaking my head ever since as I watch writers and editors scurrying ever farther down the road to plot anarchy.

I’m told that youngsters these days are not linear thinkers. They are web thinkers. That sounded almost impressive at first, until I realized that someone who cannot think logically cannot think well. So when someone grabs a bit of information here and there in no particular order and synthesizes it into a conclusion–or assumption–hey, presto! Isn’t the modern brain so clever?

Well . . . maybe.

However, I believe the cleverness is perhaps bogus and this whole movement of new storytelling is but a rather fiendish mask for the same old phony ineptitude whereby clumsy writers fail to present plot skillfully to an audience.

Let me give you specific examples.

Over the weekend, my local PBS station aired two programs back to back. One was an episode of the popular hit Sherlock, and the other was a historical drama, Victoria.

Sherlock has grabbed and intrigued audiences by deconstructing Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and spinning bits and pieces of them into a frenetic, wildly over-the-top version that is seldom fully comprehensible. When this series first began, I thought it clever in how it adapted the old storylines to modern-day settings, using text messaging instead of telegrams, etc., but it quickly spun out of control and has pushed the boundaries of plausibility ever since.

This particular evening, the show was as webbish and nonlinear as it’s possible to be. It zigzagged among hallucinations, memories, present, past, future, oops, no that was a dream, and whirled from fragment to fragment like a dervish.

I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to sit down and watch such programs with my full attention because they aren’t designed for that. Instead, the swirling bits and pieces of nearly random scenes and fragmental character encounters are intended for distracted audiences to grab like catching fluffy bits of cottonwood fuzz floating on the summer breezes.

And ever since I stopped even trying to follow a Sherlock episode closely, stopped suspending disbelief, stopped caring deeply or empathizing with the characters, it has made no significant difference in my comprehension. I find there’s no reward to sitting down and concentrating hard or watching the same episode about three times to finally “get” what it is all about. And I needn’t worry about coming in ten minutes late because I can always gain the gist of it on the fly. (The gist being next to nothing at all.)

Perhaps that is the “genius” of this style of writing, this construction of story montage. Perhaps its anarchy and madness perfectly fit the needs of audiences with scant time or short attention spans.

When Sherlock ended, I then watched a segment of Victoria. I had no high expectations for it, but I intended to garner some meager appreciation of the sets and costumes.

To my astonishment, the episode was linear, logical, plotted along classic, archetypal plot patterns, and dramatically sound. I was surprised, then pleased, then delighted. I relaxed into the mood of the show, enjoyed the sets, empathized with the beleaguered young queen, and immersed myself thoroughly in this story world. I didn’t have to strain to be clever. I didn’t have to blink in confusion. I was never lost.

I don’t know who wrote it, but my hat is off to that individual or writing team.

Because–huzzah!–someone out there still knows how to construct a story that’s plausible and pleasurable to watch.

So I made up my mind that I’m no longer going to give way to this editorial nonsense, let alone cater to it. Good story is linear. It doesn’t have to be destroyed to be clever. It can be rendered less predictable by strategic ordering of scenes, jumping forward and folding back, judicious flashbacks, and viewpoint changes, but it doesn’t have to be a hot mess whipped into a mind-blowing froth.

I would far, far better read–or watch–a story that’s so skillful I forget I’m separate. I want a story that flows so logically, so effortlessly that I can lose myself inside the story world. I want a story that touches me emotionally. That is why I read. That is why I watch films.

Not to think, how clever this is. Or, look at that special effect! How was that done? But instead  to become the central character, to live through the moment, to vicariously be a part of the unfolding drama.

Chaos in fiction is a lie. It is hooey. It is a cheat to its audience, no matter how trendy it might be. I will continue to build stories, not destroy their proven structure for a fad.

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Book Diary

Ever hear of a company called Victorian Trading Co.? Every December it sends me its paper catalog in hopes of enticing me back as a customer, and every December I thoroughly enjoy leafing through its offerings and wishing I could buy a lot. I never do, but the wishing is fun.

This year, I had to laugh when I turned a page and lo and behold, they have a book diary.

book-diary-pic

The catalogue description reads as follows:

“Includes sections for book lists, record of books read, books wanted and purchased, shared books, book group notes and comments, favorite titles to remember, significant passages, and address of book stores, libraries, and clubs. 144 p. Laminated hardbound gift book. 5 x 7” No. 9977          $14.95

http://www.victoriantradingco.com

Ph: 800-800-6647

Now, I’m not recommending that anyone purchase this particular diary. All you techies have probably already created a log on your computers. The rest of you may be happy with a $1 composition notebook or the luxury of a little Moleskin book. Whatever.

It’s just that once I focus on a particular topic, I seem to become magnetized and all sorts of  related material gravitates to me. It happens when I research for a book, and it’s happening now. I’m sure this means that I simply become more aware of items or details that I previously ignored.

Am I buying this book diary? Nope. I don’t like to be organized by someone else. But it’s a pretty notion, and I like the intention of it.

Another good source for this kind of thing–especially if you’re seeking a high-end gift for a writer or reader–is Levenger’s.

So browse, seek, fantasize, wish.

Meanwhile, I’m reading READY PLAYER ONE.

 

 

 

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Happy New Year

Greetings, All–

I hope everyone had a good Christmas or is enjoying the holiday season in whatever fashion you choose. Ah, the time of twinkling lights and eggnog.

A power hiccup on Christmas morning crashed Ole Faithful, so I am hoping to resurrect it once more. Just when I think the computer truly has died, it comes back, trembling and coughing a little, but still game. Each time, so far, it’s proven to be mostly dead but not all dead.

Fingers crossed that it revives once more. Rest seems to help, so I am letting it have some peace and quiet offline for the time being, and writing this post via a substitute machine.

Why do I keep Ole Faithful, you ask? Why do we keep old dogs and senile parakeets? Why do we visit our grandparents even when they no longer recognize who we are? (Yeah, I know. A computer is not sentient and needs no such sentimentality, yet I cling to it because change is threatening–as every fictional protagonist knows–and I dread the agony of new equipment, new ways, and confronting whatever tom-fool “improvement” has been made to Word that will make my life as a writer harder.)

But this post is about looking ahead, not grousing, so best wishes to you all for a happy and successful new year. May your writing go smoother, your reading be more pleasurable, and your days filled with joy in whatever you do.

 

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Crystal Bones Promo

I just found out that my YA book, CRYSTAL BONES, is currently featured in a special promo from Amazon. This novel opens a fantasy trilogy about a pair of half-fae twins, and was published under the pseudonym C. Aubrey Hall.

If you need a gift for a youngster that likes traditional fantasy, then this adventure might be just the ticket.

Here’s the link:

https://www.amazon.com/dlp/038f98ec/ref=gbps_img_s-3_bb19_038f98ec?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_p=41fd713f-6bfe-4299-a021-d2b94872bb19&pf_rd_s=slot-3&pf_rd_t=701&pf_rd_i=gb_main&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=34S7AJW2T3ANCN93K189.

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Never Surrender

Back in the spring of 2015, I announced in a blog post that I was going to attempt the reading of 100 books during that summer. No doubt some of you just rolled your eyes. A few cheered me on. And there were those who thought maybe I should allow myself a year to do it.

Smarties, aren’t you?

It took me a year and three months to fill in my list of 100 titles and authors. I feel a bit chagrined that it took so long.

Well, realistic or not, I prefer to dream big and reach high. And in my enthusiasm for the project, I have to admit that I was recalling those halcyon summers of my childhood when I had nothing to do but read–sometimes one book a day, occasionally two–and the most exercise I got was walking to the public library to check out more. Life is a little busier these days and, despite two summers, I somehow never got around to actually spending a day reading on the sofa now and then, which had been my intention.

I read several books that had long been on my get-to-these pile. Others were old favorites that I reread with pleasure. I did not write down the titles of any I began but didn’t finish. Several duds were chucked aside. And some ghastly nonfiction tome bogged me down for over a week.

But in November when I filled in the title for #100, it was with a feeling of regret that the list was finished. Now I sort of miss the discipline of recording each book, and I wish, too late, that I’d dated each one. I’m thinking about starting another list, just for grins.

People of leisure used to keep what are known as book diaries, where they would enter the title and author of each book they read, along with the date and either a brief synopsis or their opinion of the work. Isn’t that a lovely custom? I am enticed by the romanticism of it. The leather-bound journal and a mother-of-pearl Parker fountain pen lying just so on my antique slant-front desk, ready for me to sit down on gentle afternoons and record my impressions of someone’s toil and effort to bring characters and their troubles alive.

And yet, have any of us time for such an indulgence? In today’s harum-scarum world of texting, multi-tasking, racing crosstown on interstates, too many appointments and a phone chiming to remind us of them all while juggling jobs, soccer games, grocery shopping, online banking, pinterest boards, tweeting, and walking our dogs–how can we fit in a book diary? Is there an app for that?

We know, however, that we will always make time somehow to do the things we really want to do.

I suppose the question then boils down to whether I really want to devote the time an actual book diary would take, or do I just want an excuse to shop for a blank journal in pretty binding? In looking over my list of completed titles, I must admit that few of them are worthy of an essay opinion expressed via bottled ink on fine paper. And the OCD in me worries about the following:  how long a journal should I buy? What if I write several pages about a book and eat up the journal and then it’s not long enough to complete the year’s reading list? What if I need two journals? What if they don’t match? Should I buy two to start with? But wouldn’t it be neater if everything was contained in one?

(And people wonder why writers sometimes never get around to actually typing manuscripts.)

Just think, I’m contemplating a new way to procrastinate away from my keyboard. Because if I vent my writing steam on the book diary, will I have any energy or will or creative juice left to actually produce the day’s writing quota?

Whatever I decide, I have until January 1, 2017, because that is when I want to start my new reading project. Maybe I’ll face reality this time and forget the book diary. I can print out another numbered list to fill in. It’s easy and quick–as long as I don’t misplace the list–and can be done on paper or on my phone while on the run. It’s less expensive than a fancy journal, and I won’t have to hunt my elegant Parker pen, much less clean it or locate that dried-up bottle of ink.

Alas, modern-day life is so practical … so dull.

Meanwhile, I’m still reading sans list. And so my discovery of author Kate Saunders will not be noted in any official capacity. It makes me twitch, but that’s good practice for fending off OCD tendencies.

And I could always aim for a 200-book goal next time!

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