Category Archives: Reviews

The trouble with labels

Pile of Books

You’ve heard the old cliché ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’? We all have. And sometimes we judge books based on preconceived notions of what we’ll find when we open the covers.

I suppose everybody agrees that books need to be categorised so that people can find fiction that’s of interest to them. I like SF and crime, so they are the labels I look for in the bookstore, and on line. But many books fit more than one category. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey series is always found in science fiction. But Elijah Bailey is a working detective solving crimes. The setting is SF, and because of that solving the crime is a little bit different. But I think most crime readers would enjoy the three Elijah Bailey books – if they could get past the SF preconceptions.

That’s the issue with the book I’m going to talk about – Roman.

The main character is a teenage girl, so the immediate assumption is that the book is aimed at YA (Young Adult, ie older teens). It’s not. Older teens would probably enjoy it, but it’s an adult book with supernatural elements. There is no conceivable reason why adults would not enjoy this book. I certainly did, and I was in my late teens half a century ago. (Wow) Indeed, I can cite a few examples where YA supernatural crosses over to adult readers. Have you read Harry Potter? Yep, so have I, several times. And the first couple of stories were children’s books. What about the Twilight series? Not my cup of tea but lots of women loved it. Then there’s Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories, Dragondrums,  Dragonsong, Dragon Singer. All YA with dragons. Or the incomparable Terry Pratchett, with his Tiffany Aching series, the Bromeliad trilogy, Johnny and the Dead, Johnny and the Bomb etc. I’ve read them all. (Except Twilight. I have standards.)

So please consider this book, if not for yourself, for somebody who has an interest. There are no vampires or dragons.

Here’s the blurb

With the death of her cold-hearted mother, TJ faces life in a decaying town with a father she barely knows. From a future bright with promise to one stripped of everything she’s worked so hard to achieve, TJ needs more than luck in her corner.

Roman is trouble, pure and simple—at least that’s what everyone keeps telling her. He’s a juvenile delinquent with sealed records and a suspicious link to the town’s tragic past, but despite all warnings, TJ can’t ignore his dark pull.

In a coal mining town where lives were once shattered beyond repair, a new evil surfaces, forging strange alliances as both believers and skeptics alike face the inexplicable to save their livelihood, their families and even their faith.

Some secrets are worth keeping, some secrets must find the light of day, but in the end…
some secrets you take to the grave, no matter what the cost.

Here’s my review.

This book starts off with a fairly routine YA premise – a sixteen year old girl (TJ) finding herself dumped on her estranged father when the mother she despises dies. Coming from a wealthy, upmarket life style and a private school, she’s faced with a new life in an impoverished, dying mining town where Latinos do what they can to survive. The longed-for college sporting scholarship is no longer an option in a school which doesn’t (can’t) support women’s sport. TJ’s brother, Tony, the only person who cares about her, the closest to a father she has ever known, is a serving soldier due to return to active service, leaving her to cope on her own. Before he goes, he makes her promise to keep away from Roman, a young man working for her father.

It’s obvious TJ isn’t going to keep away from Roman. But many things about this novel are not obvious. TJ’s father, Ben, has his own demons tormenting him with deep levels of guilt at not taking in his daughter when he and his wife divorced. TJ’s deceased mother is an invisible participant, sitting on the sidelines, mocking TJ and Ben. Ben’s cousin, Marcus, is a Roman Catholic priest who delves into ancient scrolls. Tony’s girlfriend, Marsha, is a scarred veteran of the Iraq war.

And then there’s Roman. He’s described as a seventeen-year-old juvenile delinquent who is sent to live with Ben as a form of rehabilitation. From the outset it’s obvious he is dark and dangerous. But how dangerous? And who to? He arrived in Montville not long after a series of mysterious events that are still spoken about in whispers, accused of bashing a man near to death.

In a way this is the usual YA coming of age story, but it is so much more. There’s a thread of dark fantasy – or call it myth – which begins as a hint, then coalesces in the latter part of the book and brings it to a thumping, heart-stopping climax. It’s a book about love, acceptance, sacrifice and redemption on many different levels.

The characters are all well-developed, real people with pasts and futures and reasons. Only the mother’s motives are not crystal clear. But then, that’s life, isn’t it, and she is dead.

The writing is sensual and evocative. You spend a lot of time absorbing atmosphere, feeling events. This is no skim read. You have to pay attention or you’ll miss things. Perhaps that is my only criticism. I occasionally lost my place as it were, since the narrative might skip from the present to a past conversation or reminiscence in the character’s head. The description is rich and real. I particularly liked the detail. You can see the town, the garage, the metal stairs up to Roman’s apartment. The author talks about motorcycles, a dying Pennsylvania town, living on a mountain road in the woods and coal mining, just to name a few, with authority which lends authenticity.

I really enjoyed this book. My YA days are far behind me and it would be sad to imagine that this is just a story for ‘teens’. It’s not. I give it *****.

The book’s available at Amazon Kobo iBooks B&N (coming soon) – and in print.

As Molly would say, “Do yourself a favour…”

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Day 9: Bamberg

IMG_1756Bamberg has so many historically significant buildings it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike towns like Frankfurt and Nuremberg, it wasn’t bombed flat in the war. So there was some honour between the combatants. Unlike the recent destruction of Petra, but that’s another story. Anyway, you can read all about Bamberg here.

IMG_1743As usual, there’s an abbey on one hill, and the cathedral plus the stronghold of the cardinal princes who ruled the area on another hill. And lots and lots of cobblestoned roads lined with beautiful old buildings in a variety of architectural styles. We did a short tour of the cathedral, parts of which date back to the eleventh century. It’s one of the few churches that actually has two altars – one for the emperor and one for the church. And one pope is buried here – Clement II. He had been the local bishop before he was promoted, and asked to be interred here. Back in the day (1046) being pope was a sought-after job and since it’s given for life, the only way you got to be pope is if the incumbent died. Clement died of lead poisoning in 1047. Who knows if the death was deliberate? Suffice to say he was succeeded by Benedict IX, who had already been pope twice before at the time – the first time when he was just 20 years old. They were exciting times 🙂 (I knew there was a reason I read Medieval history)

There are lovely views to be had from the cathedral precinct where the rulers lived. You can bet there was a fortification up here well before the cathedral was built.

I have to admit that the various picturesque German villages tend to blur together in my memory. But each had its own unique quality. In this case it was the river Regnitz, which is a tributary of the Main. It was fascinating to see how the buildings have been built over the fast flowing river, incorporating rapids and arches. They obviously do kayak racing through the rapids. You can see the gates hanging over the water.

One thing all of these places have in common, though, is that just because the road is built of cobbles that doesn’t mean it’s for pedestrians only.Bamberg was particularly bad for this. The road (the bit for the cars) was delineated by some white lines. No kerbs. No gutters. And over there in Europe they drive on the wrong side of the road. Us Aussies had to remember to look LEFT for approaching cars. And if you’re wandering around in a large group, meandering out into the traffic because it’s crowded just behind the lollipop might not be a good idea. However, the locals know about the visitors. I have no doubt they talk about the browns cows while sharing a pint (I certainly would be), but the tourists are what keeps these places going, so tolerance has monetary value.

We had a very pleasant morning, nobody was killed or injured from playing in the traffic and we returned to the ship tired but happy.

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The view from the palace

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Looking down on the town

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The courtyard at the residence

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Note the murals on the walls

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Rapids in the heart of town

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The joys of a heritage listed home

 

 

 

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Fresh produce at the market

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More of the markets

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Follow the leader along the cobblestoned street

Introducing Nya Rawlyns’s latest, “Timber Lake”

Timber LakeProlific genre-bending author Nya Rawlyns has a new release out in the ebook stores.

Timber Lake

Michael Brooks is a loner, and with good reason. A short fuse and a tendency to shoot from the hip, sometimes quite literally, mean he’s all the company he’s got most of the time, and he likes it that way just fine. It suits his job as Warden for Wyoming’s Fish and Game Department.

Being alone sounds good to the researcher for the USDA Forest Service, Dr. Seamus Rydell, especially since it means time away from the pressures to follow his family’s political traditions. He’ll need a guide to Timber Lake to set up his testing equipment, and who better than a Warden whose boss needs him out of sight for a while?

They’re just doing their jobs, until both men get derailed by a lust threatening to light up the night sky and by egos big enough to fill the wilderness.

When a psychopathic poacher intrudes, Michael’s past rises up and the present twists out of shape around a sick mind. As the future for both men fills with darkness, it is all too clear no one will come back from Timber Lake unscathed.

Timber Lake is a standalone suspense/thriller taking place against the magnificent backdrop of the Snowy Range in southern Wyoming. 

This second book in Rawlyns’s Snowy Range series (I wrote about the first one here) introduces a few new characters and an absolutely murderous villain. At its heart, Timber Lake is a romance as two men with very different pasts engage in games of one upmanship, interspersed with scenes of affection they don’t seem to be able to avoid. Over time, respect and understanding builds between Michael and Seamus as they battle with the elements in the unpredictable mountains. I liked both men, both strong in their own way, both confronting themselves as well as each other. The sex scenes are sensual, rather than blow-by-blow – which suited me perfectly.

I loved the scenes in the mountains with the tortuous trails, the trees, the water, the weather. And the animals. I especially liked Seamus’s mule. When the psychopathic poacher appears the story builds into a climax which had my flesh crawling. A suspense/thriller it is indeed.

As usual, the writing is expressive, filled with details about horses, mules, and mountains as well as men. The secondary characters, the two ladies in particular, are sharply drawn, three dimensional people with their own story. All in all it’s a satisfying story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Tch. I don’t think Rawlyns is able to write just a SIMPLE romance. She keeps have to mix it all up with nail-biting plots.

Buy the book at Amazon: ARe/OmniLit : B&N: Kobo: Apple:

Linnea Sinclair’s “Hope’s Folly’ – SFR the way it ought to be

picture of Hopes Folly coverI’ve recently read Linnea Sinclair’s novel Hope’s Folly. Twice. I tend to do that when I really love a book, getting details I missed the first time around. If you’d like to read the book’s blurb, you’ll find it here.

Yes, I suppose this is a review. But for me, it’s also a statement of what works in science fiction – for me, personally, which, let’s face it, is what a review is – a subjective point of view. This is a writer I admire – right up there with my all-time faves. So let’s do the review thing. But if you’re a writer, take note of how well this story has been built.

Hope’s Folly is a love story, set in a time of political conflict and approaching war. The human Empire is being run by Tage, who has usurped the power of a weak and failing Emperor. Tage has decimated the ranks of the Admiralty, replacing senior fleet officers with people more likely to dance to his tune. But not everybody is going quietly. A rebel Alliance has risen to oppose Tage. Amidst the turmoil, the two alien species in the Galaxy see their opportunity to expand their own borders.

When the story opens we meet Admiral Philip Guthrie, who escaped the purge of the Admiralty by the skin of his teeth. He’s 45 years old, with a shattered right leg healing slowly and the weight of the deaths of many colleagues on his conscience. Tage used Guthrie to plan his purge. Now, Guthrie is determined to join with other Alliance leaders to build a new fleet and defeat Tage’s Imperial forces. But the Empire wants him dead and the Farosians want to capture him to swap him for their own leader, who Tage has imprisoned. On top of all that, Guthrie’s new flagship is a very old ex-fleet cruiser which was disarmed, decommissioned and used as a freighter, and he has to enlist a crew from wherever he can, knowing some of them will be plants.

Lieutenant Rya Bennton is the daughter of Guthrie’s captain and mentor, back in the day. A 29 year-old Imperial Security assassin, she turned rebel when her father was killed in that purge. She’s no dolly bird, tall and built with curves and a lovely ass – and a spare thirty pounds she could afford to lose. She remembers meeting Guthrie when she was a pudgy 9 year old and he was a 25 year old lieutenant who showed her how to fire a laser pistol. She, like Guthrie, has a love bordering on obsession with hand weapons. The description when Rya first sees Guthrie’s Norlack laser rifle is a wonderful piece of innuendo. In this scene, too, we see the connection between the two, the way they think alike.

“Is this,” she asked hesitantly, “what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“Norlack 473 sniper, modified to handle wide-load slash ammo.” There was a noticeable reverence in her voice.

He pulled the rifle out, hefting it. She had a good eye. Norlacks weren’t common. But recognizing it was modified for illegal and highly destructive charges … Then again, she’d seen it in action. “It is,” he confirmed, amused now by the expression on her face. It had gone from reverence to almost rapture.

“That is so totally apex.” Her voice was hushed. “May I,” and she glanced shyly at him, her eyes bright, spots of color on her cheeks, “fondle it?”

He stared at her, not sure he heard her correctly. Then he snorted, laughing. Fondle it, indeed. He handed it to her. She took it, cradling it at first, then running her fingers lovingly down its short barrel. Sweet holy God. He didn’t have enough painkillers in him to stop his body’s reaction to the smokiness in her eyes, or the way her lips parted slightly, the edge of her tongue slipping out to moisten them, as her hands slid over the weapon.

Ahem. Back to the review.

The love story between these two is gorgeous. Rya keeps insisting she has a huge crush on her commanding officer – that’s all. What would he see in her, anyway? And that thirty pounds… Guthrie keeps realising that not only is he too old for her, but he has a duty to her father’s memory to protect her, not lust after her. He also has to get his almost defenceless ship past Farosian raiders and Imperial warships, regardless of Rya and a broken leg. But circumstances fling them (often quite literally) together in what used to be Rya’s father’s ship as Guthrie tries to build a cohesive team from a bunch of disparate people who don’t know each other. And one of them is a mole.

So why did this story grab me and not let go?

Because it’s so real. In Linnea Sinclair’s universe the ships are not run by all-powerful artificial intelligences. To me, they’re not much different from what we have now, with engine rooms, weapons systems and the all-important environment systems all run using computers but with people running the show. Guys get to cut code, hack, mess about in the systems. The ships have blast doors. The pipes gurgle and knock, metal pings as it cools, or creaks and groans. Everything smells – hot engine oil, leather, soap, food, hair. The ex-freighter has a ghostly smell of oranges that comes and goes. And then there’s the cat. Captain Folly, who comes with the ship, leaves white fur all over the place and prefers women to men.

The people are real. Guthrie is tall, smart, the son of a rich family (which has its own drawbacks). But he’s not a superman. He makes mistakes, has his own foibles, calls himself a Galactic-class ass on more than one occasion. I’ve mentioned Rya’s issues with her weight. She’s also impulsive and not much good at saying ‘sir’. The secondary characters are just as convincing, ordinary people forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

The politics is real. I have a history degree and these things matter to me. I can see the Empire disintegrating in this way. If I were to be asked for a similar situation in our recent past, I’d go for Stalin taking over in the USSR.

As always with Linnea Sinclair, things move apace – except for the opening chapter, which I enjoyed more the second time around. This is the third book of a series and the first chapter orientates the reader, I guess. From there on, the author works on the basis of ‘if things can go wrong, they will go wrong’. Guthrie’s relationship with Rya plays as an underlying complication to all the other issues the two face. Take out the romance, and yes, you’d still have a great story. But man, you’d miss out on soooo much.

Oh, and before I finish, I must mention the sex scenes. They’re not many and they’re intense, steamy and sensual, but not a how-to manual.

I loved this book, I loved Philip Guthrie. He is very definitely my kind of man. Sigh. I’m too old to be a fangirl. Five stars. But you knew that already.

So that’s the review done. What can I learn as a writer?

  • Make the cause worthwhile – things people will lay down their lives for.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Introduce a bit of quirkiness (the cat and the oranges).
  • Use humour.
  • Make sure ALL your characters are real people, with a mix of strengths and flaws.
  • Keep the pace up.
  • When your heroes are in trouble, pile it on.
  • Introduce the unexpected to add twists – but don’t suddenly introduce cavalry without the reader knowing it’s out there.
  • And probably other things like great use of words and getting into a character’s head.

Anything else you’d like to contribute?

The Hobbit – how to turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie

picture of post for the movie 'the hobbit'I watched The Hobbit the other day. It’s old history, I know, but that’s how it is at my place. Anyway, having watched the movie (part 1) I re-read the book for the first time in many years. It was an interesting exercise in seeing how a children’s book was adapted to be a fitting precursor to The Lord of the Rings.

Make no mistake, The Hobbit was written for children. In fact, I can imagine Prof Tolkien reading the book to a bunch of kids. The style is narration, the narrator writes himself into the words on the page. The songs are simple verse with lots of onomatopoeic words. See the kids marching around the room, banging and thumping? The dwarves are not portrayed as particularly brave or fierce. We are given an image of little people with different coloured hoods and belts appearing at Bilbo’s door. It puts one to mind of Noddy, more than Gimli. Later in the book, Bilbo becomes something of a leader and Tolkien has some rather patronising and hardly flattering things to say about the dwarves. The elves, too, don’t come out of this book in a very auspicious light. They run away from a small group of travellers in what they know is a dangerous place, and Thranduil’s main motivation seems to have been greed. Of them all, the behaviour of the Lake people is the most convincingly drawn.

The dragon is the real villain; old and smart and dangerous and in that respect, cleverly depicted. The goblins and their wolf companions are certainly nasty but they are cartoon villains for kids. And Gollum is scary in the same way that a monster in the dark is scary.

So how DO you turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie three block buster movies?

Well, for a start you show people the odds. Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and the city of Dale is truly magnificent, and its ruination by the dragon very well done. This is the purpose of the dwarves’ quest, and the enemy they must defeat.

Then you make your characters much more robust. I loved Jackson’s dwarves. Each one has character and is unique, but it’s possible to see the similarity in brothers like Kili and Fili, and Dori and Nori. Much has been said about the ‘humanness’ of Thorin. (A dwarf as a sex object??) But his nephews, Fili and Kili, are also more human in appearance. Personally, I could have done without. But I suppose Jackson had no Aragorn, or Legolas to appeal to the ladies.

The villains are much, much darker. The introduction of a vengeful Orc leader in Bolg was smart. Suddenly the odds are greater and at the same time the dwarves are lifted from selfish miners into a fighting force to be reckoned with, doughty warriors all. Here, Jackson has used LOTR and its appendices to provide backstory. This change allowed him to add more action and conflict to the plot. Instead of aiming to go to Rivendell, Jackson shows Thorin as anti-Elf. Pursuit by the Orcs and Wargs forces the party into Rivendell after much hard fighting. Here we learn a little more about Gandalf and his role in Middle Earth, as shown in LOTR. Again, this gives depth to the story.

Gollum is depicted as truly nasty. Instead of Bilbo happening across the ring in a dark passage, the ring falls from Gollum’s person as he murders an Orc (to eat). What’s nice about that is Bilbo actually sees Gollum doing the killing. (We’ll ignore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing down there – phosphorescence in the rocks?) The ring leaves Gollum because it realises it can trap a new bearer. Nice. And Gollum is suddenly elevated from a horrid person into a killer to be reckoned with. Yes, I know the book talks about Gollum eating Bilbo – but this shows the issue so much more clearly, and emphasises the inherent courage of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum to escape. I also liked the dual Gollum personality – Smeagol/Gollum.

Jackson used minor elements in the book as whole scenes in the movie. The stone giants are tossed-off words in the crossing of the mountains in the book. But in the movie, they come to life, throwing boulders at each other – and giving an opportunity for an over-the-top action scene. Then the dwarves find themselves in Goblin town. In the book, Gandalf arrives in secret, waves a magic wand and they all escape. That’s the kid’s version. In the adult version, the dwarves fight their way out in spectacular fashion, underlining their legitimate claim to be warriors.

Not all of the changes worked to improve the story, though. Maybe the encounter with the trolls was not quite as silly in the movie as it is in the book. It’s hard to imagine the dwarves being quite so stupid. But never mind. It’s early in the story and adds a bit of humour, I suppose. I should imagine the scene, as it is in the book, read out to children, would be hilarious. But this isn’t a kid’s movie. In the same vein, I felt starting the story with the first words of Tolkien’s book was a mistake. By then we knew what a hobbit hole was – we were in one. Further, the tie-in with the opening scene in LOTR (the preparations for the eleventy-first party) was an unnecessary distraction.

My biggest “say-what” was Radagast. Not so much the depiction of character, as the out of sequence events. Certainly, dealing with the Necromancer turns out to be why Gandalf is elsewhere as the dwarves make their journey into Mirkwood. I suppose Jackson aims to show the audience what has been happening in the world. But the way it is presented is as if the darkness spreading from Dol Guldur has only just started. Yet there is no doubt Gandalf knew about a growing evil when he spoke with Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell, and thereby justified the dwarves’ quest to defeat Smaug. That said, showing the leader of the Ringwraiths manifesting itself at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur was pretty cool. Showing Radagast dashing through the grass drawn by a team of bunnies with Wargs in hot pursuit – not so much.

Sure, I could probably name a few inconsistencies in continuity, but I could do that for the movie and the book. So I won’t.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Just seeing New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a joy in itself. I think Jackson had a very, very difficult task in coming up to everyone’s expectations from LOTR. I expect that was why it took him so long to commence this series of films. Because it is a kid’s book. As an aside, as a writer I think much can be learned from Jackson’s achievement. He has added conflict, action and much more character to the story, as well as giving it extra depth through back story so that the audience can see how the ring became what it was in LOTR.  It might be a different medium, but the rules are the same.

I’m looking forward to the next part of the Hobbit. How about you?

Is there room in romance for Real Women?

picture of Barbie dollThere’s been a lot of talk about heroines of late. What makes a kick-ass heroine? Tough, sassy, strong etc etc. And I suppose that’s an attempt to distance them from the fluffy women you find so often in romance novels. But even so, I always feel they’re are a bit like Barbie dolls. You know what I mean, an unrealistic ideal. Young, beautiful, smart, sassy, sure of themselves, with tiny waists and legs up to here. So many are princesses, or uber-talented something-or-others brought up by adopted family. All images carefully air-brushed to hide any imperfections, of course.

There’s nothing like a serve of fantasy, I suppose. But at the end of the day, how many of us fit that model? I don’t know about you, but I’m the wrong side of forty, carrying weight I never did in my younger days. But who’d want to read a story about somebody like me?

Enter Diane Nelson.

Diane’s been writing for twenty-five years and more. She’s produced award-winning YA, erotica, paranormal – and this little set of gems. Romance with Reality. She writes romances about Real Women with kids and pasts and cheating husbands and love handles – and let me tell you, they’re funny and super entertaining, and you can relate – really relate – to what’s going down. Three short reads bound to appeal to the slightly older reader. Just click on the cover to go to the book’s Amazon page.

picture of cover of the conferenceA tropical paradise does terrible things to the human psyche. Maggie, a systems analyst a little way past the blush of youth, finds herself the object of lust for three men. You might say ‘who’s complaining’ but Maggie left her confidence (in the romance department, anyway) back when she was a couple of dress sizes smaller.

This is a funny story, sure to strike a chord with those of us of a ‘certain age’. Maggie has packed the wrong clothes for the conditions. Killer heels don’t work on the beach and polyester tights aren’t comfortable in the heat. Some of the one-liners are just wonderful. For example “I can feel my ass straining the pencil-skirt, tight enough that even the slip has no `slip’, nailed in place between my pantyhose-covered cotton briefs and the thick-weave fabric.” While she’s at the conference she still has a teenage daughter and an elderly mother to contend with, both of whom give her grief in different ways.

Under all the humour lurks a wistful soul who has compared herself to others and lost confidence. It’s a gentle and tender love story as Maggie comes to terms with herself and the men in her life.

picture of the cover of the 90 day ruleJes’s story is one many women have lived. Get married, have kids, give up everything for the husband’s career, let yourself slide, put on some weight. And then one day she finds her politician husband in bed with a girl young enough to be his daughter. It’s the last straw.

Jes starts off sleeping on the sofa in her daughter’s college digs while she tries to piece together a new life. Her self-esteem is at rock bottom, her skills rusty, her financial situation dire. But help comes from an unexpected source – the ghastly mother-in-law and the basketball coach at her daughter’s college. Help is one thing, having the courage to take a chance, something else again. How many women do you know who have had to face a challenge like this? Cast out, alone, the skills they had before they married all but forgotten. They’re past first youth, so far from the romantic stereotype they might as well be in another galaxy. Jes’s story is told with compassion and humour.

picture of Points on a curve coverTaylor is 38 and six feet tall, an ex-professional basketballer player who fell foul of a conniving, manipulative husband. Robert is a sports journalist, younger brother of Taylor’s best friend, and just a little bit shorter than her. At first meeting, he comes across as a slob. But he’s an unforgettable slob, a man who makes her hormones race. As for him, he’s beginning to tire of the cheer-leader bimbos. Besides, he smells a story in Taylor. She reminds him of someone… And away we go on a rocky romance tightly mixed in with a story of use and abuse, self-esteem, courage and a whole lot of love.

Like The Conference and The 90 Day Rule, there’s a whole bunch of laughs as well as angst and hot romance in this story. It probably helps if you like basketball – it’s a definite minor character  – but it’s not essential. I’m not a basketball fan, I don’t know much about the sport, but I got by.

If you’re like me and you’ve been around for a few years, every one of these books will strike a chord. Been there, done that – or you’ll know somebody who has. Maybe not the precise scenario, but close enough. I think each of these wonderful stories sends a message of hope for those who need it. Even if you don’t need hope, you’ll laugh out loud along the way and find yourself cheering for the characters.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still like the alpha females and their alpha males. But these stories provide an anchor, something to hold onto when the thought of yet another billionaire or prince or princess becomes a bit stale. Please – have a look at these books. Tell me what you think.

What I learnt from “Slow Lightning” or how to build a riveting plot

Slow LightningJack McDevitt’s Slow Lightning (or Infinity Beach in the US) was one of those books which I bought and had sitting on the shelf for – years, actually, and that was after the years of prevarication before I bought it. I don’t like horror, and the Stephen King quote on the front hinted at that. But then again, it had the Horsehead Nebula on the front, and McDevitt had been compared to Arthur C Clarke. Apart from that, I’d read A Talent for War and although I hadn’t been all that impressed, it had won some award. You know how it is. I succumbed, bought the novel and there it sat.

I dipped into the book in due course. I don’t like prologues, didn’t like the one in A Talent for War and couldn’t see any point in it, so I flicked on through to Chapter One, which was s-l-o-w going and it didn’t do much for me. I threw the book across the room and left it for another time.

When I tried again, I soon discovered I had to read the prologue. It’s McDevitt’s style. He poses a situation in the prologue, an event that happened some years ago, then spends the rest of the book unravelling that event. Mind you, I still say the prologue in A Talent for War was a waste of time.

Back to Slow Lightning. Okay, so the prologue describes a chase, a crash, a death. Remember all that. On to chapter one, where we meet Kim, whose clone-sister, Emily, had disappeared shortly after returning from a space voyage. And yes, that chapter is slow, as McDevitt labours the point that far in the future, man is still alone in the universe and what’s more, has lost the urge to push on and explore. Perhaps that latter part is a clue to what the author was trying to get across, a theme, if you will. If we lose the urge to explore, we stagnate. Asimov made a similar point in his Caves of Steel stories, and the fate of planets like Aurora.

The plot builds up, though. Soon, I was hooked, as Kim and her great friend Solly head off to investigate the mysterious events at Mount Hope. Here we get the sense of creepy hinted at by Stephen King, something evil lurking out there. Together, Kim and Solly work on finding out what happened to Kim’s sister, despite opposition from Kim’s employers via their powerful benefactor, who also has a stake in the story. The novel became un-put-downable.

By now I was reading a well-constructed mystery thriller, peppered with clues and red herrings, excitement and spine-tingling dread. What is out there at Mount Hope and what did it have to do with the space voyage Emily had been on just before she vanished? And then we get to the really good bit, when Solly and Kim steal a spaceship and retrace Emily’s journey all those years ago. They piece together what happened out there by collecting radio signals using a very wide array. The tech is totally plausible and the events believable. And then the creepy ratchets up a notch. This ain’t no haunted house – it’s a spaceship, way out in space, and we all know what happened in Alien. Altogether now… in space, no-one can hear you….

I’ve said before that what I really liked about this book was the detail. McDevitt paints a vivid picture of the planet Greenway and its history. He knows all about this Earth colony and he tells us without labouring the point. Just a few throw-away lines as he mentions a castle built by a tyrant a few centuries back, or explains that body shapes vary over time, just like fashion, as parents chose what their children will look like. He also describes his tech and the spaceship, and the amazing view of the great Orion Nebula and the stars of Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. You’re out there with them, open-mouthed as a wondering child.

Sure, there are a few things I’d pick on. It’s a high tech society where you choose whether to work or not. So where does the high tech come from? And what about farmers and food? And so on. It’s all glitz and glamour missing foundation. One other thing which my husband picked up on, the broken down dam which flooded the town. Um. Wouldn’t a broken down dam just resume the course of the original river? That is, a dam might flood a town – has done, many times. But the other way round? Not quite plausible. Having said that, I didn’t trip over that one on first reading.

I learned a lot from this novel. Do your homework, draw a map, develop the background so you can write with authority, even if you don’t reveal everything you know. Work out the details, because they add substance. One trick I’ve found McDevitt often uses is to have a character read a book, watch a movie, take part in a role play. You read about it and dismiss the scene as a bit of “adding substance” – and then later in the book, a character draws on that earlier experience to work something out. Nice.

This was a five star read if ever there was one. But on top of that, I learnt a lot about the gentle art of writing. And for that I’ll always be grateful.