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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!

journal and deskbest journals

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Plotting Workbook

Thanks for being patient! I’m delighted to announce that FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING PRACTICE, the companion workbook to FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, should be live on Amazon.com in the next few hours. It will be available in both print and Kindle versions.

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Those of you who have been requesting drills and exercises will find this book filled with them, and there’s plenty of “homework” to keep you busy for quite a while.

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From My Bookshelf: Mary Roberts Rinehart

I have long been a fan of Rineharts’ mysteries. When I see her name on a ratty, much-worn, or faded binding, I usually pounce. Far too frequently, the book proves to be so musty I pass it up, but sometimes I grab it anyway, determined to find a way to read it even if it must be shelved in the garage.

When you start looking, she’s not impossible to find. A few of her best-known works can be found in paperback editions or e-books. A few.

Trouble is, I want them all.

Have you heard of her? Have you ever read her?

She was born in 1876 and died in 1958. She is best known for her mysteries–and she wrote over 60 of them. But she also penned plays that were performed on Broadway, plus short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post. She was a travel writer and a war correspondent for that publication during World War I. In the latter capacity, she interviewed Winston Churchill and Queen Mary. In addition to her prolific writing, she trained as a nurse, married a doctor, helped him with his practice, and raised three sons.

She is held responsible for coining the phrase, “The butler did it.” Her first book was published fourteen years before Agatha Christie came along, yet Rinehart today is known as the “American Agatha Christie.”

The other day, as I was reading an elderly, non-musty edition of her novel, K, I found myself asking why did Christie surpass her? Why is a sizable amount of Christie still in print and still selling while Rinehart molders away, largely forgotten?

Christie is probably better at crafting puzzlers. Rinehart is very much of the American school of mystery’s Golden Age. Her novel, The Yellow Room, dating from the 1940s, is as convoluted as any Chandler or Hammett work. No, I couldn’t solve it ahead of her sleuth, but the solution was so complicated that I’m still confused about some of it. And while I was willing to push my way through Hammett’s The Glass Key by watching the film innumerable times then reading the novel in an effort to understand it (and ditto for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), I’m not convinced that struggling so hard through this so-called American approach is worth the trouble.

Christie, after all, is easy to read. She doesn’t require huge effort, yet neither does she write down or patronize her audience. And while I think it’s important to read the difficult as well as the easy, the fact remains that Christie’s prose is clear and approachable. And there’s an advantage to that.

Rineharts writes beautifully. Her sentences are lyrical, lovely, almost poetic. Her style is rich, and she conveys a view of America in that period of pre-WWI through the 1920s that I love to visit. She doesn’t shy away from crime, relationships, ethical dilemmas, or moral struggles in her fiction, yet there’s nothing tawdry or coarse either. I think perhaps she fell out of favor because her style is too distinctive, too noticeable. We’ve moved away from the issues of that era. Very few of us now remember or realize a time in America when income tax didn’t exist. When people struggled to maintain a standard of living that was slowly going extinct before the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt it a death blow. Her characters, contending with recalcitrant servants, dwindling incomes, the desperate need to keep up appearances after losing all their money, etc., seem to belong to that elusive world of old black-and-white movies, evening gowns, and chauffeur-driven automobiles. Her books open a window and let us peer with curiosity into that long-ago place, but it’s hard for us to relate now.

By contrast, Christie doesn’t seem to date. Her characters lack the layers displayed by Rinehart. They are names. They move about and speak, but they are barely developed. Christie’s focus remains on the puzzle to be solved. Strangely enough–despite our modern fascination with the psychotic–we are less drawn to Rinehart’s tormented and complex people than Christie’s placeholders.

Now, my theory that her ornate style drove Rinehart out of favor may be bunk or it may be valid. All I know is that I love pouncing when I find her in vintage shops, forgotten corners, and occasional Amazon offers. She’s a treasure.

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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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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, Fiction Formula Plotting, is now live on Amazon. It’s available in both Kindle eBook and paperback versions.

There will be a companion workbook with drills that will supplement every chapter. I hope to have that up after Christmas.

Kindle Cover

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Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Day will be observed this week. In the bustle and chaos of the end of this semester’s classes, my rush to wrap up a book project, Christmas shopping/decorating, and hauling my geriatric dog to the vet’s office for expensive testing, I nearly had forgotten all about it. But this afternoon, the radio station was tuned to old radio classics and it was broadcasting a famous speech about the day that will live in infamy when Hawaii was attacked without warning by a foreign power. And with a jolt, I realized that this is a time to pause and remember.

Firstly, to remember those people who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack galvanized the USA to enter World War II. We had wanted to stay out of it. We wanted to be left alone. We wanted to remain isolated.

On December 7, 1941, the world for Americans changed forever. We continue today to live with the effects of that war. Because of it, we roused ourselves from a semi-rural nation into a worldwide powerhouse and leader. Because of it, our industrial, scientific, and productive gears spun into overdrive, and we have been a consumer-driven country ever since. Because of it, we developed nuclear power and clawed our way into outer space. Because of it, our customs changed and our population shifted. There aren’t many veterans of WWII still living now, but I honor those who served–including some of my uncles–risking their lives and throwing their hearts and courage on the line to preserve us from domination. And as an American, enjoying the privileges of living in this free nation, I give thanks for the sacrifices and bravery our military expended then for the generations to come.

But secondly, I have to remember a different Pearl Harbor Day … December 7, 1977. I was a college senior, majoring in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. And I was enrolled in the novel course, required for my major coursework. That class was the sole reason I moved out of state and attended OU. I wanted to be a novelist, and I wanted to take the novel class more than life itself. I’d wanted desperately to take it as a freshman, and it was agonizing to wait until I was a senior to enroll. But that’s the way the requirements fell.

It was a semester I might refer to–stealing a book title from Irving Stone–as The Agony and the Ecstasy. The ecstasy was that finally I was receiving the training I’d longed for since my childhood decision to become a writer. The agony was that the instructor, Jack Bickham, was intimidating, terrifying, strict, exacting, and tough. He was the kind of teacher that pulled no punches and took no prisoners. When you entered that course, you could psychologically identify with the warriors of ancient Sparta–told by their wives to come home with their shields or on them.

Jack didn’t believe in praise. Or encouragement. He issued a single assignment for the class, which was to submit a novel manuscript at the end of the semester. He always chose Pearl Harbor Day as the due date. With a rather evil chuckle, he said it was appropriate because many of us students were headed to destruction. (It was not a remark to inspire confidence.) We had no rewrites, no second chances. One assignment and one grade for a semester’s worth of hard work.

Was he just a sadistic old coot? The kind of jaded, cynical college professor that enjoyed tormenting the young?

No.

It was a writing boot camp designed to make us tough, resilient, and determined to survive. It was to prepare us for the ruthless arena of the publishing industry. He knew in his wisdom and experience that to coddle us and pamper us, to wrap us in praise before we were ready, would be to send us off to be trampled by editors–if we even got that far.  And so, somewhat like a Marine drill sergeant, he scared us and set the bar of achievement high, weeding out the weak, lazy, untalented, and foolish as best he could.

Pearl Harbor Day–a date when a sleepy, naive nation awoke and showed the world what it could do when roused to action. Pearl Harbor Day–a date when I turned in a completed novel manuscript despite fear, shyness, and a dinky portable typewriter that wore out along the way.

America won its war. And my manuscript (THE SIGN OF THE OWL) went onward through more revisions to find eventual publication and a national award.

 

 

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