Blood of the Tracks

Holy moly, has it been a week since I’ve posted?  Sorry gang.  I’m going to talk about a book, but in the effort of keeping this more natural and less stuffy, I’m not going to use the book format I’ve used in prior reviews.  Instead, it will just be a candid dump of thoughts on the book.

The book is called “Blood on the Tracks” by Barbara Nickless.  It’s the story of a railroad cop that’s putting her life together after her Marine tour in Iraq.  She’s constantly haunted by the ghosts of her past, and when a hobo known as “The Burned Man” is getting booked for killing a young woman the hero needs to face both her past and her present to try and solve the case.  Her companion on this journey is a faithful canine who served in the war with her.  The book was one of six options provided by Amazon for my prime membership.

At this point, I’d like to warn anybody that keeps reading that you will encounter spoilers.  None will be specific, but if you spent time thinking about them, you could reveal quite a bit.

Disclaimer complete.

The book is first person, so a lot of the prose is immediately not helpful to me.  My book is 3rd (indeed, most of my planned books are 3rd).  I’m trying to get some good 3rd person limited books (hint, if you know one, volunteer it!), because I’m trying to find the right balance in the writing of personality vs detached fact/narrative.

What this book did really, impressively well was its Red Herring.

As the hero digs into whodunnit, we get two possible threads:  One that ties into her backstory as a Marine, and one that ties into her backstory before/after her time in the Marines.  I won’t reveal which is the Herring and which is the Plot, but she does a great job playing with us.

She dances with both topics enough that either seem plausible.  However, as we begin to investigate one path, we start uncovering clues that really help settle that the Herring is in fact the Herring.  At that point, I expected Left Field to hit and we either get some third path all together, or we jump back to what we had dismissed as Herring.  Instead, she lets the Herring stay the Herring.  We pursue the Plot with gusto.

The Plot stays exciting and fresh, lots of things escalating and boiling to the surface… And just as we draw in for a breath of air, Herring comes looking for us!  The Herring is still a Herring, but now it’s a pissed off Herring that doesn’t take no for an answer.  Despite the fact that it’s a Herring against The Plot, it’s something we have to be alert for over the rest of the book.

At this point, we have what I’ll call the Wilson Moment.  I get the name from House, MD… One of the few TV shows that’s been on after 2005 that I’ve watched.  House is a doctor whose best friend is another doctor named Wilson.  The episodes all follow the almost exact same plot.  Somewhere around the 75% mark, House has a conversation with Wilson unrelated to the main plot  (We sometimes mix this up with other characters or his other patients, but Wilson is going to get the credit).  During that conversation, House has a revelation that lets him solve the case.

In Blood on the Tracks, our hero is recovering from some injuries and has a conversation with her Grandma about a topic that’s realistically unrelated, but told me immediately who was responsible.  Plot pushes on, suspicion confirmed…. But really, no hard feelings with the book/author.  And even after we finish the book, the Herring has created a perfect setup for Book 2 (or later).  I love how well this was executed, from introduction, to building tension, to herring, to severe side plot that keeps us tense the whole time.

All in all, a great read in exchange for my Amazon Prime membership.

Novel Word Count: 20,893

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Book Review – The Gilded Chain

Why I read this book:  Dave Duncan is my favorite author.

Did I enjoy it:  Yes.  A fun story, enjoyable characters, and great pacing.

What I learned from it:  In a similar vein to “The Name of the Wind,” this book features a main narrator telling stories, making it like a compilation of short stories.  But like the Usual Suspects, through the whole thing, our narrator is dropping hints that we should be getting, and when past and present collide by the end, we realize what’s been set up.  That presents an interesting idea.

The Gilded Chain (King's Blades, #1)The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Gilded Chain is part of a 3-part series where each book is essentially a “stand-alone” with overlapping characters. However, depending on the order you read them, you’ll have a different take on them. A character that seems like an awesome nice guy in one book may come across as cold and heartless in another.
To focus specifically on this book: Each chapter is essentially a separate short story following the varied exploits of Sir Durandel, a master swordsman and servant of the realm. Each story is only partially related to the one before it, but together they weave the picture of Durandel’s life. The beginning of each chapter follows a separate POV (Lord Roland) in the future up to the point when the short stories catch up to present.
The magic (and indeed the world itself) isn’t terribly original or groundbreaking, but they still set the stage for a lot of great adventure. This story really comes to life with the deep and fun characterization painted on even the bit players in the ongoing tale of our hero. Throughout the story, the author drops hints that connect story of the chapter with the ongoing meta-story that takes place in the present… And the finale ties together all of these pieces for an exciting climax.

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Book Review – Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Why I read this book:  My wife is on a cleaning kick as nesting kicks in for our impending third child.

Did I enjoy this book:  Not really.  It wasn’t a bad book per se, but I honestly think it could have been done in less than 15 pages without losing a single bit of actual content.

What I will learn from this book:  Throw things away if you don’t LOVE them.  On the writing front, remember to eliminate unnecessary words (sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc).

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up is a book on keeping your home clean and in order, and how much it can help make your life better. Although I think the message of this book is sound, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired.
The author does entirely too much stating of the exact same message over and over again in different ways. It’s important to dispose of things you no longer want. That said, disposing of things you no longer want is very important. If an object doesn’t bring you joy, you shouldn’t hold onto it. Etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if those exact three lines are covered in the book.
The core of the book revolves around the above point: You should look at each and everything in your home and decide if you truly enjoy that thing… Not the memory that thing is associated with, or the moment you got that thing… But do you enjoy the thing itself? If you no longer find joy in the present for the thing, it’s time to say goodbye and let the thing go. Storage is just a way to put things you never have any use for in a place you won’t notice it, where you will then forget it.
A key element of good non-fiction is the “war stories” or real life examples… In this case, the examples provided feel weak and generic… Or at best only marginally related to the specific point the author is trying to make. I honestly feel this book could have been made into a 10-15 page pamphlet and would have had the same value provided.
I will give a few points to the author. First, English is not her native language. As such, there are sure to be a few nuances. Second, I’m not a cleaning or storage nut. I’d like to have a cleaner house, and thought this book could give me some good tips. And it absolutely did. The suggestions are great…. All two hundred times each one is made.

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Book Review – Write. Publish. Repeat.

Why I read this book:  I picked up this one because it had trended pretty highly with the other books I had selected, and I wanted to dip my toe in the publishing books.

Did I enjoy it:  Yes.  Full of energy, and basically reiterated to me over and over again that it is possible to be a writer.  I just need to go do it.

What I will learn from this book:  Ironically, the things I learn are things that have been told to me in other books and the message just didn’t sink it.  Whether it was timing or just the voice of the authors, this time I am pumped.  Point 1)  Hard work beats genius.  Just get to it and start churning out (good) books.  Point 2) WRITE.  You don’t need an epic fantasy saga or 100 web-zine published short stories.  Just get writing.

Point 3) New for this book:  You can be a successful author even in today’s writing climate without having a crazy social media presence… As long as you are writing, publishing, and repeating.

Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success)Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book (Write. Publish. Repeat) was like being hooked up to a car battery and having 12 volts pumped into you every second for 400 pages. At the end of it you are left wondering what happened, and yet at the same time you have an irresistible urge to go do some writing.

The book tackles essentially one topic in its many facets: Self-publishing, and the authors draw from their own experience as indie self-publishers, as well as the experiences of tons of listeners and guest-appearances on their podcast, “The Self-publishing podcast.” The focus is then attacked ruthlessly from every angle, ranging from prepwork done on the book (to get ready for publishing), to different media and platforms you should use for publishing, to things you should consider doing while publishing to yield the greatest success.

Almost every book on writing and the writing life will give you the advice: “If you want to be a writer, there is a single important task you should do: Write.” This book does the same, but is the first time I’ve truly felt inspired to do so. At multiple points during the read, I wanted to put the book down and say, “Screw this book! I’m ready to go write some awesome stories!” This wasn’t from any lack of quality in what I was reading… it just gave me that much hope that I actually can make this happen if I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and get the work done, which was another point they harped on pretty regularly (and is also exceptional advice not just for writing, but for just about everything in life).

The authors are blunt and unapologetic about their words and the content contained therein. They own the fact that these strategies and tactics have worked for them, and others have had success in leveraging other tactics (Strategy vs tactic being a big topic of the book). They touch on other tactics at different stages of the process, but don’t spend much time there. They likewise pull almost every example from their own works (I think there was a Harry Potter reference in there once or twice). They also own this, and explain why, both the selfish reasons as well as the practical ones. It doesn’t take away from the book at all.

All in all, the energy level of this book stays high while it delivers lots of strong, likely timeless advice on cracking into the indie publishing arena. It’s worth a read, and certainly has inspired me to check out their podcast to learn more.

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Book Review – Writing Down The Bones

Why I read this book: It’s extremely well-regarded as a book for aspiring authors.

Did I enjoy it: Sort of.  It was a little too out-of-body/zen for me.

What I will learn from it:  She has a gift with words, making every expression playful and fun.  The basics covered the same sorts of things covered in so many books on writing.  One exercise she lists that I thought was particularly helpful was targeted at helping you avoid stale verbs.  She suggests thinking of a profession and listing every possible verb you can think of associated with that profession.  Then list an equal number of nouns on the opposite side of the page.  Then look at them together and see if you can match them up.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer WithinWriting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” is a zen approach to writing. To Natalie, the act of writing is a spiritual activity. The book gives several tiny clips of advice covering subjects such as perseverance, inspiration, and good writing habits.
Reading this book is like reading poetry, which makes sense since the author is primarily a poet. She brings us lines like “That banana I ate in the cold kitchen Tuesday morning stopped the world.” These little clips kept each section fun and fresh. You never really knew what she might say next.
That said, this book didn’t really strike any chords with me. As much as I enjoyed the little vignettes she would set up for us, I found the book a little too Zen. While I do not believe that writing can be reduced down to cold logic and formula, there’s only so much that I can be the giraffe or sautee the blinds.
Ultimately, “Writing Down the Bones” is a well-written book that I think will be a great way to reach many writers that view themselves first as artists (but probably need to accent the second syllable of Ar-Teest to properly capture the mood). Some people may find it unfolded their hearts, or caressed their studio. For me, it swallowed the floor.

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Book Review – Invader

Why I read this book:  I was seeking out well-regarded science fiction and found this book (along with many others in the series at the used book store.  Unfortunately, we were missing the first book, but I hoped it wouldn’t matter short of having a few holes in the story.

Did I Enjoy this book:  Eh.  I gave it my first 2, and I couldn’t finish it so I have to say “No,” but the reality is that the book was “interesting” just not engaging.

What I learned from this book:  Two things:  First, alien culture is a fascinating topic that apparently can be explored in hundreds of pages without losing many readers (just not this one).  Second, sequels need to do a fair measure of building character investment so that you don’t lose reader interest if a reader starts in the middle.  I want to be clear that this need is for far more than just the plot.  There are enough references to the prior book that I wasn’t lost here any more than any other book where we have a rich history of events that characters reference.  My major concern is that the author seems to take it at a given that I’m willing to wade through hundreds of pages of nostalgia-like revisits of characters I have no relationship with.  I need things to be happening to keep me engaged.

Invader (Foreigner, #2)Invader by C.J. Cherryh

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book cover says it’s the stunning sequel to Foreigner. I would unfortunately put forth that there is nothing stunning about this book. I review this book and rate it so that any who read my reviews can continue to share in my insights, but the reality is that I was unable to even finish it. I stopped about halfway through, and this book marks the first where I have done this. It also rates my first 2 star.

On the one hand, this book had a lot of interesting things going on. We have a character, Bren Cameron, who wakes up from surgery to an urgent need to return back to his post in a country populated entirely by the alien Atevi. He represents humanity’s sole interface with this race of aliens who not only have a different language, but an entirely different way of thinking. Couple this backdrop with two major catalysts: First, while he was gone from the events of the prior book, his human government dispatched and installed a replacement… An inept replacement that now refuses to leave. Second, a human ship with unknown motives has appeared in orbit of this planet of aliens for the first time since humanity appeared on the planet. The situation is ripe for intensity.

And fails to deliver.

After nearly 300 pages, I can summarize the events of the book in probably 6 sentences or less… And with good descriptive language, I probably won’t have left out that much. Absolutely nothing seems to happen. Intensity seems to be limited to the first 20 pages of the book, and then a single scene afterward as we watch the character meet with first one political connection to another as he tries to reestablish his waned authority and calm the Atevi people from the threat they potentially face. The reader faces endless pages that promote glassy eyed re-reads while trying to make sure you didn’t miss something of interest in your desperate attempt to get to something, anything exciting.

Where this book does deliver is in the characterization of our hero, Bren. The Atevi have a fairly uniform (although complex) behavior that vary by only the most subtle differences that wouldn’t be distinctive to any but a die-hard lover of the series; the other humans are flat stereotypes begging for depth that might be realized in another 300 pages. Bren however, is the sole interesting character (which is good, because we spend an awful lot of time alone with his thoughts) that is trying to juggle his human heritage with the Atevi culture he finds himself immersed in. The author cleverly adapts even the mental expressions to be reflected in a way the Atevi think, leveraging their idioms and mental paradigms so that the reader can feel what it is to be alien… but only just so.

I did not read the first story in this series, and perhaps that is my undoing here. Like Dwight Swain’s Scene-Sequel structure, perhaps this book is simply the sequel rest period to a prior books overly intense action. Regardless, it didn’t have enough to keep me going, despite the subtle political relationships promising intrigue. If you watching a human psyche unfold and redefine itself, this book may hold something for you, but don’t hold out for something to happen… At least not in the first 300 pages.

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Book Review – Elements of Style

Why I read this book:  Because it’s Elements of Style.  This book is considered a “must-have” in every writer’s library.

Did I enjoy it:  Not really.  I’m glad I read it, and think it’s a very important book for authors to read… But I had to work to turn each page.

What I will learn from this book: Tough to say.  I’ve read enough books on writing that I’ve gotten all the information contained within secondhand.  I’m familiar with all the concepts it painstakingly lays out.  So what does this one teach me directly?  No much.

CAVEAT:  I sound really negative on this book, but I’m sure you’ll notice I still gave it 4 stars below… That’s because I really think every author should read it.  If you intend to only own one book on writing, or read one book on writing…. I really believe this is an excellent book to select.  Just be prepared for a siege!

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with some trepidation that I write this summary of the often quoted and much-lauded Elements of Style by Strunk, and later updated by his student White. This book has been hailed as the only book on writing you’ll ever need to read (by Stephen King), and is probably the most referenced book on writing I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read 20-30 books on writing). It is considered the penultimate go-to resource that belongs in every aspiring author’s collection. It’s even available for free online now.

Is it worth the hype?

It is, and it isn’t. On the one hand, there is a promise by all those quoting its venerable pages and all those singing its praises… A promise that is delivered. Just about any piece of advice you find in a modern (or old) book on writing is going to be found in this book. The pieces of advice provided anywhere in an almost off-hand way (show not tell, avoid adverbs in favor of stronger verbs, subject verb agreement, etc) are written in this text as Gospel. And with good reason. These are the staples of being a writer, and ignoring any principle in this book should be done so with careful thought and great hesitation. Know the rule before you break it, and make sure you are breaking it with purpose.

Other than that, the book falls short. It reads like a college textbook, which is fair since that’s what it was originally written as. It is very easy to want to skip sections to try and find something interesting to read, but turning pages in this book would be a terrible mistake. The authors practice what they preached… They have omitted needless words. Every piece of text is “meat” that you really shouldn’t miss. And yet, it’s so easy to miss it because of how congested the book can sometimes feel in its incredibly short pages. Most of the advice is timeless, but there is some that is clearly dated. An entire section focuses specifically on vocabulary and expressions, cases where the author was resisting words shifting in meaning or usage; fighting a private war against the fluidity of language, and that war has shown change to be the victor in several areas.

Don’t misunderstand me. As challenging as this can be to read, it is an imperative that every author know the principles contained therein. I am a huge advocate of “On Writing” by Stephen King and have often hailed it as the “must-own” book on writing… I agree with King at this point. The only book you really need to read is Elements of Style. Everything else is a re-hash of the content. This book does belong in every author’s collection, and should be revisited at least once a year by anybody serious about the craft. Just don’t expect to get through it as easily as the page count suggests.

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