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Book Diary 2017

book diary

 

While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

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SPACEHAWKS #5

After a l-o-n-g delay, Destination Mutiny, the next installment of my SPACEHAWKS military sf series (published back in the previous century by Ace Books) is now available in Kindle format. Originally published in September 1991, the book is back after several years out of print and still listed under my pen name, Sean Dalton.

The Spacehawks are a special ops team that mutinies after being forced to leave a teammate behind in their previous mission. They set out against orders to rescue Operative 41.

Although #5 is a close sequel to #4 The Rostma Lure, I’ve left this project dangling for far too long. I have plenty of reasons for that, but no excuses. To the handful of people that have read the series to this point, my apologies for the wait.

The topic of mutiny has long been of interest to me. What incites someone to rebel despite heavy penalties? What drives people to violate sworn oaths of loyalty, duty, training, and possibly conscience to break orders and strike out on their own? Consider classic films such as Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny, where naval crews are driven to desperate measures by cruel ship captains. But is mutiny always incited by cruelty or sadism? Are there other possible causes? I believe there are, and I remain fascinated by how such situations tear people apart. But despite the variations, they usually boil down to injustice and how long someone is willing to endure it. Why will one individual stick and obey–no matter what orders are given–and why will another break free?

Don’t expect much soul-searching in Destination Mutiny, however. When I wrote the book, I was under a strict deadline to produce three novels in a year, and under editorial orders to avoid letting my characters sit down to think. Instead, it’s simply action-packed adventure.

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Merry & Bright

Wishing all of you a lovely holiday 2017. Take time to sip a mug of hot something before a warm fire. May you be with friends and those you love. Let your hearts remember kindness and hope. And here’s hoping you receive books or bookstore gift cards for gifts!

My thanks to all of you for following this blog, for buying my books, for your good wishes and support, and your kind encouragement.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

As we move into the flurry and hurry of the holiday season, I am trying to avoid stress, to count my blessings, and to encourage myself to try new things without timidity.

That sounds very noble and–as we would say in my family–high-falutin’. In reality, I’m trying to stay calm and not freak out because the holiday season has caught me unprepared yet again. My plans for the fall went awry this year, and now time is tick-tick-ticking and my house isn’t clean and my Christmas decorations are a disorganized mess. Instead of being a serene work space, my office is piled with manuscripts, works-in-progress, drafts that need shredding and discarding, books, file folders, and lecture notes. My wi-fi router should be replaced as it is an infernal contraption inadequate for my house and the demands of my gadgets, yet it is connected and sort of working. A replacement means crawling under the desk and grappling with cables and passwords–not necessarily in that order. As for other technical issues, the adapters to connect my new campus laptop to the old home monitor remain baffling despite IT’s valiant efforts to explain, describe, and provide pictures of what to plug where. I will eventually conquer it, despite the temptation to moan and pretend I can’t possibly work while my equipment isn’t cooperating. And yet with all this going on, what I chiefly want to do is put up my space-themed Christmas tree because I have a new stealth-bomber ornament and assorted robots to add to it, and there just isn’t room to cram a tree into a home office already bursting at the seams.

Let’s move on to being grateful. I am! My blessings are many. But as I count them, I find my mind drifting from what I have accomplished this year to tasks not yet finished. There is a fine balance sometimes between the drive to achieve and greed for too much, between satisfaction with a job done well enough and laziness that allows procrastination to take root. I hope to stay balanced and remember that I have always been tremendously blessed. I have much to be grateful for. I have done a lot this year. Could I have produced more? Yes, but I needn’t beat myself up for the items on the list left undone.

As for being too timid to reach beyond my comfort zone, lately it’s become too easy to back away from the unknown and untried. When did I become so cautious? And why do I let myself stall at the unfamiliar? What is this new-found lack of confidence?

Several years ago, a dear friend introduced me to a little book called THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. It is filled with homilies and encouragement for writers. It chiefly focuses on this very issue of being afraid to stretch. I need to hunt through my shelves for it and read it anew.

The big issue standing before me at present is that I have everything ready for publishing my latest book except hiring a cover artist. In the last year or two, finding a graphic designer specializing in this area has become a simple enough task. I have even picked out the individual I want to contact. Yet the force Pressfield calls “resistance” keeps me locked in place. Because this detail is so very important to me, I am stalling, wanting to get it exactly right. But I have to push myself forward, just as with each book I begin I have to push myself into typing the first word. At some point, it comes down to laying aside all excuses and hesitations and simply doing it.

So as Thanksgiving 2017 comes along, I am shifting my car radio to the Christmas music station, accepting that if I manage to put up one tree in the living room this year instead of a half-dozen in various themes it will be okay, and conquering procrastination to independently publish my projects before year’s end.

Tomorrow I will feast and give thanks for what I have. I hope all of you will be doing likewise with your families and friends. And may all your football teams do well.

 

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Chapters

For some reason, chapters tend to baffle newbie novelists. I am frequently asked questions such as

What are they?

How long should they be?

How should they start and end?

Are they the equivalent of a short story? Is a novel a series of short stories strung together in chapters?

Should they have titles?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Chapters divide a novel into sections that psychologically give readers a stopping point. They help to break up a very long story and make it visually less intimidating. They serve to assist writers with transitions, viewpoint changes, and the setting of hooks. They are usually centered around a plot event.

Therefore, if an average-length novel contains roughly 20 plot events–give or take–then there will be approximately 20 or so chapters.

Chapter lengths vary. Time was when chapters were lengthy, featuring perhaps two or three scenes, with sequels in between. But then James Patterson started the trend of very short chapters. His rationale was based on shortening attention spans and multi-tasking, where readers are increasingly distracted by our hectic, modern world. So you might pick up an older, midlist book where chapters run as long as ten or fifteen pages. Or you might decide to read the latest young adult bestseller, where chapters average two to five pages.

The shortest chapter I can recall reading is in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It’s one sentence long.

It’s placed somewhere in the midpoint of the book for special effect, and it works beautifully as a transition and pacing change.

Chapters should end with hooks. Chapters should begin with hooks, or viewpoint changes, or time/location changes. Avoid starting each chapter the same way. Avoid ending chapters with your protagonist falling asleep. Set a hook at the end to keep readers turning pages.

Chapters are not short stories and should not be written in the same way. As I’ve already mentioned, they are either focused on a story event, which may involve one scene or two scenes. They may be focused on the aftermath of a major story event, where the protagonist has to pause and process what just happened.

Chapter titles usually appear in fiction for young readers. They serve as a guide or a foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. In effect, they are a tiny hook to keep young readers going. Fiction for adult readers seldom requires them.

 

 

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Read and Unread

Just as a quick update about my declared intention of reading 100 books this summer, the organizational idea of stacking the tomes in a tub isn’t going to work. I can’t find a tub or basket large enough, and even if I could I don’t want the behemoth taking up that much real estate in my living room.

So far, I’ve managed to fill a box and two smallish tubs, which are now stacked atop each other, and that represents a gathering of less than twenty volumes. As I set about pulling titles off a bookshelf the other day, it occurred to me that it was foolish to shift books around this way.

So, although I’m not fond of clerical work, I suppose I’ll just have to write the titles down on a list as I finish them. Now, record-keeping ranks right up there on my yuck list along with accounting, checkbook balancing, diary entries, and filing bills, but I can’t think of any other way to avoid fudging on my resolution.

Meanwhile, I’ve already gone through three good novels — stories by Brandon Sanderson, Marta Perry, and Emma Newman — and enjoyed them very much. I’m working on Holly Black at the moment.

And like the cottontail bunny currently living in the briar patch that’s overtaken the northeast corner of my backyard, I’m happy, happy, happy!

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Reading Potato Chips

Today I broke away from my computer and headed off to the local bookstore. I had three books on my list. One was Jim Butcher’s latest–SKIN GAME. The other two were baby books–GOODNIGHT MOON and something with LLAMA in the title.

I had a yard-long list of errands to run today. My plan was to whip into Barnes & Noble, grab the books, and whip out.

Ha! Like that was going to happen.

There’s a reason I don’t let always let myself browse in bookstores. Today, despite my hurry, once I hit the board book section (“Books for Little Hands”), I was a goner.

Years ago, I collected picture books. I sought out certain illustrators and went for the lavish, ornate ones. Before I knew it, I had a whole bookcase full of these marvelous stories. Eventually I moved to a house where there just wasn’t space for them. With great reluctance, I pared down my picture books to a cherished few and donated the rest to an elementary school.

Today, well aware of the pitfalls in the picture book section, I headed straight for the board books like a race horse wearing blinders. (Do not walk by the picture books. Do not check out the new arrivals in the YA section. Don’t peek at the middle-grade stories. No, no, no!)

I didn’t even have to scan the board book spines. The Llama books and GOODNIGHT MOON were prominently displayed as the bestsellers they are.

Now, I’m fully aware that GOODNIGHT MOON has been captivating kids forever. It’s mega-popular, and all new parents-to-be request it. It’s probably been read at more bedtimes than any other twentieth-century story I can think of.

Alas, I’ve never cared for it.

That’s not to disparage the book. It wasn’t written for me. I know it has huge appeal for its intended readership. Even so, I plucked it from the shelf, glanced at its pages, read its gentle text, and then put it back on the shelf. Why? I wasn’t buying it for me. All I had to do was buy it as a gift and be done.

But no … I next picked up a book that I used to own as a picture book. Even abridged for the board-book set, THE NAPPING HOUSE remains charming. Once I peeked inside, I was lost. I forgot my long list of errands. I forgot time. I had to look at more!

I browsed through little books about freight trains and dump trucks and caterpillars and polar bears and dancing hippos. I looked at puppy books and counting books and books with plots. I skimmed through books with colors and books with concepts but no words.

A friend of mine had told me PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was now in board-book format. It’s a counting book, very clever.

But I also found ROMEO AND JULIET. Really? And, perhaps most astonishing of all, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. For babies? Come on!

I had to open it, and it was all dark, brooding gothic illustrations and single-word pages. For example, one spread had a dark silhouette of a grandfather clock on the left page and huge bold letters on the right, spelling out “Ticking.” It wasn’t an abridgment of the story. It was just concepts.

Weird.

I didn’t look at ROMEO AND JULIET, but now my curiosity is afire and I wish I had.

Of course, I realize that these adult classic tales have been designed to delight the parent or grandparent or fond auntie who will buy it and present it to an eleven-month-old who could care less.

Even so. I was suddenly glad to go back to weighing the merits of THE RUNAWAY BUNNY versus a charming tale about a giraffe who learned to boogie.

Before I knew it, an hour had flown by. I had a hefty stack in my hands because how do you stop with just one of these charmers?

Problem was, I needed one gift, not a dozen. But buying books is like eating potato chips. How do you stop?

With great reluctance, I finally made my choice. I pushed my way out of the kids’ department, yet somehow on the way to the checkout stand I happened to walk past the mystery section. All the new cozies were faced out. Puns for titles were in full array.

Did I want to read about cat mysteries, dog rescue mysteries, or home improvement mysteries? What about mysteries set in libraries, quilt stores, knitting stores, coffee shops or bakeries? Did I fancy a new Alan Bradley or any of the new Alexander McCall Smith titles? What about Walter Mosley or James Lee Burke? I wanted them all!

Can you tell that I’ve been just a wee bit bookstore deprived lately?

I went in with a list of three titles. I came out with a sack-load of eight, along with the names of several authors unknown to me that I want to investigate further.

Where does it stop? How does it end?

When the checkbook–and the potato chip bag–are empty.

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