bookmark_borderFinding books to read

I have difficulty finding books to read using our library’s online system. If you know the author or the title it works great, but when you are searching for good novels across various genres written by authors that you have not previously read and only in ebook form and available right now, it’s not as helpful.

I have, in the past, looked up Pulitzer/Booker/Giller/Edgar/Hugo or other longlists in my browser before searching but that’s an extra step that I don’t always have the patience to follow.

My newest approach is to type “novel” in the search field and use the filters to include only ebooks available now. I can also make genre choices to narrow the options. Then I have to rely on the description plus any inclusions in the library’s lists of recommendations as well as random reader reviews to help me decide. The preview option seems to have disappeared which means I have to commit to taking the book out to see what I think.

This process worked the first time. I discovered “Girl at War” by Sara Novic, a story about a ten year old girl living in Zagreb in 1991. I knew nothing about that conflict from the inside but now I have a start. The prose was good and the characters interesting, though the secondary ones felt disposable and some of the plot didn’t feel inevitable. Still, a worthwhile read.

Second novel, “A Noise Downstairs” by Linwood Barclay, was a failure.

This is a thriller that opens with a prologue. I had some reservations with the prose.

“A busted taillight was the kind of thing that undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth. The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor.”

Is this an interesting character observation? Perhaps. But the wording irritated me. The repetition of “undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth” and “would definitely irk Kenneth” is a little cute for this reader, though, if it were left as a parallel sentence construction without the “a math and physics professor” tagged at the end it probably wouldn’t have bothered me.

But the subordinate clause at the end of the paragraph is what sticks out. Remove the analogy of the equation so it reads: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor” and it flows better. Or, move the tag to the beginning of the sentence: “As a math and physic professor the car’s lack of back-end-symmetry—the equivalent of an unbalanced equation—would have irked Kenneth” is more subtle and gives more sentence variety. Or explain the connection: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth since he was a math and physics professor.” A little too plain and straightforward? ChatGPT says this version emphasizes his profession as the cause for the irk, whereas the original version emphasizes his identity as a professor.

Yes, his expertise is related to the explanation why a broken taillight should have bothered Kenneth (though Google does not give any references to unbalanced equations in physics; maybe the author confused physics with chemistry?) but tagging it as written seems forced, as if the author wanted us to see him check the box for “character vocation” or his justification for why a broken taillight is odd.

This information tag was a red flag, a warning that I shouldn’t expect the highest quality writing. Granted, it is difficult to slip in required context and information to the reader at the opening. The reader needs context but it needs to be worked in naturally and only as required.

I felt as if I were reading a cheap romance novel.

Later, we hear why the main character’s wife did not accompany him to a student theatre performance.

“Charlotte, a real estate agent, begged off. She had a house to show that evening. And frankly, waiting while a prospective buyer checked the number of bedrooms held the promise of more excitement than waiting for Godot.”

Nice joke, maybe intending to show off some humor. But again, this feels forced. If this were a humor story, this degree of forcing would be perfectly acceptable. But, this is supposed to be heading to some sort of thriller tale. To me, a thriller can push the boundaries of what is possible or plausible but only for the needs of the thriller elements of the plot, not to force in a joke.

Two red flags was enough for me. Back to the library it went.


bookmark_borderReview: The Captives

I had hopes for The Captives, by Debra Jo Immergut. Somewhere I read that it was quality prose in a thriller genre. Turns out the prose is okay, nothing spectacular (why use question marks in dialog for one character and not for the reply which is also a question?) and the story? Disappointing.

It opens with promise; setting us in the grown up view of a high school crush and after a bit of foreshadowing in first person, goes to the crush’s POV in third person. It continues to alternate each chapter, which isn’t a problem, but within those jumps back and forth we constantly flip into backstory from all manner of points in time and with a slew of characters, most of which appear in the current timeline. A barrage of short vignettes mixed with short snippets of the current timeline designed to give the reader needed backstory to understand the two characters’ history but so short and so frequent that, were I wanting to seem mean I might warn the reader of potential whiplash.

The jumping back and forth contribute to this reader’s inability to believe much of the backstory as consistent with the current versions of the characters. Rather than an exploration of the characters’ history these backstories feel like justifications that were concocted later, in the same manner that a crime writer might concoct character history to justify the monster that the perpetrator became. Or maybe it’s the vignettes’ brevity and frequency that makes them seem tacked on.

I suppose my credibility when it comes to criticizing the ending is limited since I only skimmed the last half of the book to see what happens but the ending didn’t make much psychological sense to me.


I am entered in the fall 2019 Sixfold competition.

Sixfold is writer-reviewed. I was assigned six stories to rank and review.

I was impressed by how few grammar errors I found. The grammar quality is far above most of the submissions that come to the online publication that I slush read for. I didn’t expect that and I don’t know what this means. Are these stories well workshopped and fixed? Did some of these writers take their stories to a professional editor for correction? Are some of the submissions written by professional short story writers, slumming? Or by journalists or other professional writers trying their hand at short stories?

The quality of the prose was another matter. And the premises of the stories and depth of characters fluctuated with the prose; the better the prose, the better the characters and premise and execution of the premise.

The worst submission was almost childish. It had simplistic dialog that sometimes had nothing to do with the theme of the story (though it fit the setting at that moment) and flat characters and no realistic expression of a very emotional, serious topic. It reminded me of my first NaNoWriMo attempt except with a more serious theme but no perceptible attempt to understand the characters as real people. The grammar is much better than my story from eleven years ago, but execution of the premise is not. And my story wasn’t particularly good.

Yesterday I finished my second round of reviews.

I expected the quality to improve, that all stories that made it to the second round would be the level of the best one or two of the first round but that’s not what I got. I know there is a random factor involved, but none of my second round stories were better than the best of the first, and maybe not even the second best. What did change is the worst story is not quite as bad as the worst of the first. I had a hard time ranking this round because all six were all clustered around the fifth to third best of the previous round.

For the $5 entrance fee I’m not in Sixfold to win it. I’m in it to find some good writers and to send those writers my contact information in hopes of finding some reviewing buddies. The process is entirely confidential except, if you choose, you can leave your contact information in your review.

Sadly, I’ve only done so once, out of twelve reviews.

Ah well, can always hold out hope for better in round three, starting in a week from now.

Mind you, those that make round three receive 78 reviews (in theory, the first round produces 6 reviews, the second 24). Those that make round three have a huge number of reviews and likely a large number of potential contacts.  On the other side, I guess I can hope to make the second round and get 24 reviews and maybe a few potential story-swappers.

bookmark_borderWriting Review: You

I haven’t done a review for some time, but I haven’t been sparked to do so until now. You, by Caroline Kepnes has left me wondering. *Spoiler alert: many plot topics covered below.*

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I think I found the title via a list of novels that have surprise endings. I say “I think” because I’m not sure, and there is no surprise at the end.

“You” is a narrative in second person from the point of view of a stalker to his target (and effectively in first person when the target is not mentioned).

Second person POV is unusual to begin with. What’s more unusual is the long, long narrative with a character that just seems to be recording. He doesn’t feel nervous about his stalking research and actions. He also doesn’t feel much when he is threatened by the cop brother of a girl he’s dumped or when he’s beaten up in his bookstore by three guys, one of whom he recognizes. The narrative just records his thoughts and actions and the actions and words of others as if he is an android: thinking, planning, recording. Or numb, perhaps. I never felt he was supposed to be a sociopath because the emotions and reactions are there, but distant. I would expect a sociopath to draw blanks emotionally and to keep needing visual clues to fake responses to others, and that they would experience physical sensations normally. In “You”, both the physical and emotional sensations are numbed, as if the character is anesthetized rather than lacking in judgement.

Another oddity are the little time jumps where small important events happen and the reader is not given much detail or it is only summarized after the fact. If this were a diary and the main character was simply too busy in the moment to record until later this would make sense but that’s not the case during other situations.

This led me to believe that the author had a plan. The lack of real  emotion and physical sensation plus the time jumps made me suspect that this entire story was being set up to be faked because then missing elements in his narrative would make sense. And for me these time jumps stood out because the novel is well written on a line level so I was guessing that these issues were intentional, that at some point the author was going to twist the plot and reveal that everything was only imagined.

So I read on. And on. And on. It’s a long novel and at one point I stopped to see how far I had progressed (I read in ebook form). I was only half way but I felt as if the author should start to reveal the truth because we had been meandering about in this character’s world for a very long time. Eventually we start interacting with some new characters (he starts therapy with his target’s therapist and begins a relationship with another woman, the one whose brother who is a cop) but when he breaks up with the woman and we come back to focusing on his target again I lost hope that the story was going somewhere interesting.

The surprise in “You” is that there is no surprise. I did have some sense, as in “Lolita”, of an unreliable narrator, or maybe I’m only connecting the two because the main characters have obsession in common. But maybe the time jumps and missing event detail and emotional and physical numbness are not intentional clues to an unreliable narrator but simply weaknesses in the writing.

Even if the main character was intended as an unreliable narrator, there are other elements that fall short of being convincing. The target is not fully rounded or filled out. Yes, some of the unexpected changes of mind could be drawn from real life examples and we are told she has issues, but readers need to feel that the author knows what’s going on via clues and later clarifications. In “You” the target does things seemingly at random, like people in real life that we only know slightly. This is fine for the main character’s perspective but the writer has to convince the reader that there is a reason behind these changes of attitude and interaction even if the main character doesn’t understand otherwise the reader is left like I am; thinking the writer doesn’t know the other character well enough or hasn’t built them completely enough. The main character too is missing backstory that would tell us how and why he came to be who he is, and who Mr. Mooney is, beyond just the owner of the bookstore and the one who built the cage in the basement. Like the missing details, these are mentioned but briefly and glossed over.

It is a first novel for Kepnes, and maybe the goal was never any higher than satisfying genre focused readers.

What, then, made me so interested in the story? Why did I tell my wife that I’d never read anything like it?

Writing in second person and using a main character who is a stalker without giving the reader a sense of malevolence or of a complete lack of morals is interesting. But it seems that one of the biggest attractions; feeling that the author was setting us up for something interesting to turn later on, was a misreading on my part.

bookmark_borderWord frequency counter; an add-in for Word

I have to give a shout-out to this word frequency counter add-in for Word:

Word frequency is something I review when self-editing. Get a count of each word, decide which ones I’m overusing, do a search-and-replace-with-highlight in Word and it’s easy to read and consider options.

Word will count words, but not give you a frequency. There are web sites that will do this, but you have to upload your file to their site and some restrict the size of the document (though, as a trade-off, they often do other analysis as well). The add-in doesn’t require Internet access, runs within Word, and can export to a separate file which I copy to Excel and massage further.

Now, if it would only measure proximity of words as well so I can see that I’ve used ‘word’ three times in the first paragraph and three more in the second and twice in the third ..

bookmark_borderWriting Review: Nine Dragons and Burning Angel

I’ve recently read (some of) two novels: a randomly selected detective novel, Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, and a cop novel that came recommended, Burning Angel by James Lee Burke.

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First, Nine Dragons. Grammatically fine, but the writing is not much beyond high school. The internal monologue is probably the best part, but the dialogue is flat and colorless. Often there are long stretches of dialogue with no action, no gestures, no change in facial expression or vocal inflection, and little internal monologue or review of the developments. The only way we are aware that the characters might possibly be experiencing any emotion is when someone says something ‘curtly’ or ‘in a sulking voice’.

For example, after pages and pages of dialogue with no emotional clues,

Bosch was growing excited.

“Then, why don’t we do it?”

So at least we know he’s now feeling something.

And you also get writing like this:

“… If you think there is any danger involved in talking to us, then we can protect you.”

“Absolutely,” Chu chimed in.

“Chimed in” is not wrong, but it’s not good either. It’s something you’d expect in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.

“What is this?” Chang protested. “What I do?”

He had a strong accent.

In case you didn’t notice or thought there was a typo, Chang has a strong accent.

Contrast the writing with this, from Burning Angel:

He had been born to an exclusionary world of wealth and private schools, membership in the town’s one country club, and Christmas vacations in places the rest of us knew of only from books, but no one could accuse him of not having improved upon what he had been given.

I doubt that there is any sentence this length in Nine Dragons, though I can’t say for sure because I didn’t finish it. I was a third of the way through when my wife handed me Burning Angel.

A little further along in our introduction to the character above, we get this paragraph. A nice balance of a short sentence with a longer one, while we see more of the character, his manner, and the location.

We walked under the trees in his backyard. His face was cool and pleasant as he sipped his iced tea and looked at a motorboat and a water-skier hammering down the bayou on pillows of yellow foam.

Whereas Connelly says things like:

As the two women got closer Bosch saw that the younger woman was in her midthirties and attractive in an understated, hair-behind-the-ears sort of way. She was Asian. She was dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She walked a half step behind Mrs. Li with her eyes cast down on the floor. The initial impression Bosch got was that she was an employee. A maid pressed into services as a driver. But the deskman downstairs had said they were both named Li.

Here we’re getting what I think of as the faux-Chandler style of short, abrupt, incomplete sentences, used when a writer wants to represent a no-nonsense tough guy. (And note: three sentences in a row that begin with ‘She’). In the last two sentences in particular you can imagine a Bogart caricature; teeth clenched, dressed in a fedora and trench coat, maybe a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth.

Compare this with:

His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi-truck.

This one is not even the most elegant of Lee Burke’s descriptions, but it’s from early in the novel and since I didn’t finish Nine Dragons I wanted to be comparing similar sections.

The difficulty I have with Lee Burke is his obtuseness. Often his characters are saying things that don’t make sense because the other character—and you the reader as well—are supposed to be reading between the lines. It’s part of the wise-guy, I’m-just-as-smart-and-tough-as-you attitude and everybody knows it, but it slows the reading down because you have to interpret as you read.

And the emotions of his protagonist are obtuse as well, particularly when he suddenly loses control and beats someone up. I guess the anger was there, veiled, but more than once I didn’t understand why he suddenly started smashing a glass pitcher or his fists into someone’s face. I’m not sure whether this abruptness is obtuseness, or the narrator didn’t want to give away the story by showing the building emotion, or whether the character has anger management issues and didn’t expect the violence himself, or whether the author doesn’t feel that the build up is missing.

And though the writing is lovely, sometimes it’s too descriptive and too much. Every new character has unusual physical traits, and every setting is described poetically.

Somehow because of this, though the mystery is large and has big implications, it has that slice of life feel that literary works sometimes have, though it’s a particularly large slice for a character that is not himself larger than life, like say a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. The story ends by petering out without explosions or violence that match the rest of the novel. Two principle characters are found dead after a non-violent murder/suicide. A mystery character reveals herself and is quickly dispatched by someone who received a phone tip. All the loose ends are tied up, but it feels as if the character and the author (and maybe the reader too) are worn out.

But it is nice to read a genre writer who likes words, who views writing as more than a plot, who writes about characters who are more than just an amalgamation of traits, and settings that are more than just city and street names with temperatures and the occasional leafy tree.

bookmark_borderWeak Characters from Plot Writers? The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

I read a lot of fiction; largely novels, titles pulled from readers’ choice or bestseller lists regardless of genre or authors, downloaded from the library in ebook format. Every book is a surprise, a challenge. Some less so because of the title or the cover, but still, in almost every case I haven’t read any previous works by the author.

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I do this because I want to be unprepared, tested on my critiquing and editing skills, and educated on why, in a variety of genres, a book might be considered good. There have been novels of all types, and I probably finish over 90% of what I start. Romances make up much of the failed portion; the clichéd writing or clichéd characters or clichéd situations—sometimes all three within the first few pages—are more than I can handle, but there are others.
The Goldfinch: A Novel for example, disappointed me with its inconsistent writing and because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere of interest to me, and I couldn’t sustain enough interest in The Paris Wife to finish it.

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta, is the first one that I’ve started, put aside because of marginal interest, then later picked it up and finished.

The writing is mostly okay. There are a few clunker sentences that stand out but generally it’s not bad, and there is good use of sentence length and style for variety and for different types of situations. Dialogue is okay and there are some strong elements in how the plot works its way through. Contrasted with that, though, are some predictable elements (damaged character finds release through vengeance killing/death), and some strains on belief (bad guy turns out to be manipulated by the true bad guy, who was a spiritual guide to a main character and a peripheral figure, but in reality is a psychopath?), but my biggest issue is with the characters.

The reason that I put the novel aside some months ago was because I couldn’t get into the characters. My distaste started with the names; Kent Austin, plus older brother (and first born of three children, obviously, given his name) Adam Austin. Then a high school girl named Rachel Bond whose father turns out to be Jason Bond (some combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond? No, just a normal guy in prison). These, and others, felt like names you give to characters in your first draft, then multiple drafts and three name changes later you’ve come up with better ones.

The characters have, well, characteristics. Drinking or religion, football player sized bodies, jobs, relationships to each other, histories, roles in the story, emotion-like reactions to situations. But they’re flat figures and feel like a compendium of traits rather than a personality with facets. This is a little different from Dan Brown and his cardboard cutouts that he uses to execute the plot. Kortya has spent time adding elements to his characters and has tried to be consistent in terms of how that character might react to a given situation, but he fails to make them breathe on their own. Like Dr. Frankestein he has collected the parts but, unlike the good doctor, he can’t find the spark of life. There are moments that are close; thinking about the property that they might buy to start a new life together, and other internal, intimate moments that don’t feel so force fed by the plot and that make the characters almost human, but there aren’t enough. Instead, the characters are mostly puppets, doing and purporting to feel what the script requires them to do, not quite feeling or thinking or seeing or experiencing as if they were real people.

This brings me to my reason for this post: is this a weakness of a stereotypical plot oriented writer, this problem of building characters from a collection of traits but not quite creating real people? Is the Prophet is a good example because it’s almost, but not quite, there? Is it like an unskilled casting agent who brings in bodies to fit the roles: celebrities, or athletes, or cute kids for Disney shows, but not actors who can act? Should they instead have used actors who can bring the characters to life? Who will study the character, understand how they work, know how to integrate and develop and use those traits and how to present a believable, interesting, relatable character?

But that’s the author’s job; to pull the character’s skin over his own, to experience the role and to report to the reader what is happening (or to stand outside the characters and report, but still you need to understand your characters well enough so they act like humans, or at least like interesting sentient beings if you’re writing fantasy). The POV for The Prophet is close third person and we spend time inside the head of many characters, but rarely does it feel like the head of a living, three-dimensional human.

The villains are the worst examples. They’re bad, just because, they’re bad. The term psychopath is brought up by the investigator, and Koryta uses that as carte blanche to not have to explain why the mastermind does anything he does, thereby limiting the fear or care that he produces. He’s simply the bad guy, the one who has to die to end the story. The other villain has a little more backstory supplied by his brother, but when confronted he’s pretty easily duped and disposed of.

Again, it’s not awful. It can be done, using antagonists that have limited dimensions when the primary story is how they force the protagonists to work out their issues, but if the protagonists are not fully flesh and blood, having thin foils makes it worse.

bookmark_borderEditing Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

I’m reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, but not for the first time.

Many, many years ago it was my ‘bible’; the good book that I read from before going to sleep. As an agnostic faux-intellectual college student I latched on to Heinlein’s unconvinced, usually cynical attitudes toward politics, government, society, and found solace in the advice of Jubal Harshaw and in the commune of the Nest.

My paperback has long since split in two and the back cover is no longer attached. These days almost everything I read is in ebook form, and the ebook version of Stranger I got is the unedited version. It opens with a forward by Heinlein’s wife Virginia explaining how some years after Heinlein’s death she found the original, thought it was better, submitted it for consideration, and how the new editors agreed with her and published it. (Or, ‘Hey, fresh revenue, guaranteed return, no risk; sure we love it.’)

Years ago I saw a web site with examples from each publication. The objective was to show how the original was more authentic, more Heinlein, and better, but I decided that I preferred the edited version so I never bothered to look for the original. Now that I’m reading the original, I still feel the same. I’m almost half way through and looking for chunks that were removed (this version is 220,000 words and the edited version clocks in at 160,000), but mostly I’ve noticed unnecessary phrases and sentences (including dialogue) and repetitive or muddy descriptions that aren’t familiar to me. The version I remember is cleaner, clearer and spends fewer words in fuzzy Heinlein-esque pirouettes. He was a great writer; full of cool ideas and philosophies and technologies and situations, but better with those elements than with the craft of perfecting sentences and paragraphs. Or maybe he just spent more of his focus on those parts.


Heinlein is a better read when filtered through an editor, even if that editor, apparently, was the author himself, pressured by the publisher to cut the length.


This brings up a number of points. One is that even the work of an experienced author like mid-career Heinlein can be improved—at least, imo—which brings up another thought; perhaps there are readers—and perhaps they outnumber readers like me—readers who actually prefer the unedited Heinlein (and not just for revenue generation reasons).

The edited version has more sharply defined characters, snappier dialogue and is missing extraneous repetition or near repetition. I don’t think those changes can be lamented too convincingly. But some of the self-indulgent meandering, occurring both in dialogue and in narration, is also trimmed or cut. Maybe some readers like those parts. They are common in Heinlein’s writing and, when he rambles well,  it’s one of his strengths as a writer/thinker, though the ones that have been removed are, imo, weak, unnecessary wanderings. And sometimes there is a soft, passive kind of interaction description style that I criticize when I’m presented with it in reviews.


Here are some examples. Not the best ones, scoured from the entire novel, but just a few from where I’m reading right now. I’m selecting these by comparing what I read against what I remember, then searching in my paperback to see how my memory compares with the actual and how that compares with the ebook.

“I said, ‘No!’ Can’t you understand plain English?  But you are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once and to him personally, and fetch back his receipt to me.”

A little over the top with anger, at least compared with the first published version:

“I said, ‘No!’ You are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once, and fetch his receipt to me.”

I don’t think the over-the-top anger is needed given the situation or the characters. A terse statement carries more authority, more impatience, and doesn’t make Jubal sound as petty as the first version does.


Here’s a simple one:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic, do you not?”

Not bad, but again, unnecessary words, compared with the edited version:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic?”

I couldn’t argue with either, partly because there isn’t much difference. The extra three words might better represent the character, but without them it reads a little faster.


This one I found disconcerting.

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas, and jumped up.

It sounds so, beginnerish. Dorcas should be moving to collect the glass to refill as she speaks, her action concurrent with the dialogue and not that awful phrase “and jumped up.” Heinlein chose to prune it to:

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas.

In this case I wouldn’t have minded a little something to indicate Dorcas’ enthusiasm because it helps set up her nature as the most sexually focused and seductive of the females, a characteristic that plays a part later in a small mistake by another character. On the other hand there are other indications, and it is a very small mistake/joke.


This one is awkward in more than one way:

“Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought.  You hail from Porlock.”

Who is going to say “You have just interrupted a profound thought”? “Just interrupted”? “Profound thought”? Doesn’t sound like Jubal, and there must be better ways of saying this. How about “Anne, you’ve derailed an impending statement of brilliance.” And after saying this, why would he shift to the declamatory statement “You hail from Porlock”, using it like a fancy alternative to “You idiot.” To clarify this reference to “Kubla Khan” it seems more reasonable to say “You must hail from Porlock.” One extra word, but it fits the situation better, even if  you lose some of the the metaphorical element of his statement.

I admit that it took me years to figure out the reference from the edited version:

“Anne, you hail from Porlock.”

The edited version is so obtuse that, even one knows the reference, you probably have to read the line twice to figure it out. For me, it was many years later that I read Coleridge (I first read “Stranger” when I was 15 or so, didn’t read Coleridge until college) and was finally able to make the connection. But it fits the characters much better, and without the odd lead in/clarification sentence, it works by itself. As a bonus, Anne’s next sentence and Jubal’s response to it are short single sentences, creating a brief sense of hanging on the edge of something before Jubal hurries off to take the call that Anne announced.


The next is an example of redundant writing, otherwise known as “reader gets it”:

Jubal nodded agreement. “Quite true.  That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it, a little.”

It’s not necessary to nod “agreement”. Nodding is agreement. And to say “Quite true” is a third statement of the same thing only in dialogue. Don’t need all three. Normally don’t need more than one.

And at the end of the example there’s no need to qualify the quantity of his Arabic reading because Jubal said those exact words a couple paragraphs earlier. When people talk they often repeat themselves but in fiction, unless it serves a purpose, characters should not be repeating themselves. If well written, the reader will pick it up the first time, and useless repetition makes the reading slow and sticky.

Jubal nodded. “That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it.”

Just as clear that he agrees, and a better reading experience.


The next one is an example of confusing writing. It begins with a sentence that is awkward because Heinlein tries to transition between two scenes but creates a sentence that is unbalanced and runs too long in the second part, stuffed with too many things: returned, find, Nelson, Mike, bedrooms, checking.

The second sentence is one of those sentences we’ve all written, where our feet are in the way and over them we trip:

They said good-by and Jubal returned to find that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into one of the bedrooms and was checking him over.  He joined them to offer Nelson the use of his kit since Nelson had not had with him his professional bag. Jubal found Mike stripped down and the ship’s surgeon looking baffled.

The whole thing is re-written into something much clearer:

They said good-bye. Jubal found that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into a bedroom to examine him. The surgeon was looking baffled.


After completing the first part of this post I did some internet research and found people who claim there are two groups;

  1. people who like the first published version of “Stranger” and dislike the rest of his writing, and
  2. those who like everything else he wrote but wondered why they didn’t like “Stranger” as much.

I guess it’s comforting for them that their world is black and white. Myself, I like a lot of Heinlein—my favorite being “Farnham’s Freehold”— but “Stranger” is in a different category; something exceptional. I fail to see why the unedited version has any significant advantages over the edited one. It has some long paragraphs of muddied writing, some unnecessarily repeated statements and concepts, some unclear phrasing, and occasionally what I interpret as dialogue that does not fit the character. It is possible that his other works are more similar in looseness to the unedited version, but I have not spent anywhere near the number of hours reading any other of his novels, and don’t have any interest in doing so. As I said, “Stranger” is exceptional and I don’t think any other even tries to be as great an accomplishment as “Stranger” manages to be. They’re just novels.

There are times in the edited version where its succinctness makes understanding it more challenging, like the Porlock example I cited above, but like any good book, you get more out of it each time you read. I don’t need everything spoon fed to me the first time, and I don’t need elements (situations, emotions, descriptions, words, phrases) repeated multiple times unless each adds an additional shading or helps to generate an appropriate sense of urgency or of blockage.

Much of the confusing wording, the awkward phrasing, the unnecessary phrases, the repetitious writing, and the occasional actions uncoordinated with the dialogue in the original version are common in early drafts of writing. As  you’re typing you write “a little”, and when your character speaks again you think, I want him to qualify the amount that he reads, so you type “a little”, and it isn’t until many re-reads later, or sometimes not until someone else points it out, that you see you’ve repeated yourself.

It’s this last point makes me a little embarrassed to be reading a version that went unpublished during Heinlein’s lifetime. I feel as if I’ve arrived uninvited and caught him in his underwear (though, being a nudist, he might not have been wearing any). As a writer, though, it’s cool to be able to read and to compare the two versions.

* * Update:  The original published version does not seem to be available any longer which is a sad discovery. I guess it’s good that the publisher is following Heinlein’s wife’s request but it’s as if Don McClean’s version of “American Pie” was removed and now we can only hear Madonna sing it.

bookmark_borderGoodreads reading

I’m still working on my project; reading through various titles of a Goodreads list.

My object is to sample recommendations from various genres with minimal bias or preparation. Since I’m reading only e-books downloaded from the library I don’t see the summary notes on the inside jacket, the glowing reviews, or more about the author. Just a cover, the title, and the author’s name.

Blog posts in the category

Reading e-books is different than reading physical books. With a physical book you automatically have an idea how far you have progressed because you can feel more pages read or more pages yet to read, whereas with an e-book you have to consciously check your progress to see if you’ve made it half way yet. The cover of a physical book, with the title and the author’s name, is much larger so that each time you pick it up you are reminded of what you are reading, but with an e-book, the picture is so small that I pay so little attention that often I don’t remember the cover or the title or the author  after I’m done.

But when the title is Play With Me (With Me In Seattle), by Kristen Proby, and the cover is a hot young couple, the woman’s leg—naked below the hem of her shorts—lifted to the guy’s hip and pinned there by the guy, all eyes closed, wet in the rain, … well, even I can figure out what genre we’re in.

The prologue surprised me. From a purely line editing-sentence variety-paragraph construction-writing consistency perspective, the romances that I’ve read so far in my quest have been anywhere from awful to poorly written. This one is not. The grammar is good, the sentence variety good, everything flows well. Eventually, though, I start gagging: on the descriptions, “keenly aware of Will’s eyes on me, running up and down my body …”, on the clichés “I’m a charge nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital in the cancer unit …” and eventually on the plot—arrogant appearing football player tries to convince heroine that he’s a good guy by taking her home when she’s had too much to drink, puts her to bed, doesn’t make a play at her, has her car delivered to her house—became too much for me to take.

I suspect the author has written other things, under another name, that might be more worth reading.


To catch up on other project results; after watching a recorded appearance that Zsuzsi Gartner made at a university class and her passing reference to “A Game of Thrones, I decided to pull that up in my list. Fantasy/horror is not one of my preferred genres and so I had intentionally avoided the novel until she referred in a joke to the television program.

“Game of Thrones” is also surprisingly well written, at least at the opening. Interesting characters, good, compact descriptions of as the characters appear.

“Yoren had a twisted shoulder and a sour smell, his hair and beard were matted and greasy and full of lice, his clothing old, patched, and seldom washed. His two young recruits smelled even worse, and seemed as stupid as they were cruel.”

But the characters are not very deep (maybe because there are so many of them, but even with as many characters as “War and Peace” has, the author can give us depth in the central ones; Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Marie), and by the time I got two thirds of the way through my interest in the world, the characters, and the conflict had worn out.

I speed-read the rest just to finish it, then went to Wikipedia to read the summaries of the rest of the series. That’s when I realized that this is not some huge plan like the Harry Potter series, or Wagner’s Ring cycle,  “Game of Thrones” is a soap opera, and should be more accurately compared with Dallas or The OC.


Two others to note briefly.

The Round House: A Novel by Louise Erdrich was a good read, but it was another Pulitzer winner that got into the collection (which has more than just the Goodreads list). Again, I don’t know anything about these when I start reading but when I get a sense of the writing I usually research the author to see what other people think of them. That’s when I discovered that Erdrich (and Jane Smiley earlier in my list) won prizes.

And The Light Between Oceans: A Novel by M. L. Stedman is, at the moment, unfinished, but it’s also well written. It’s interesting that the author is female and yet I feel that the female character is under-presented, that I, the reader, am lacking in my understanding and sense of closeness and my empathy for her.

The other interesting thing is that my inner editor questioned some things in the first couple thousand words or so. Small things, like the use of passive voice in one sentence early on, and some other similar writing question, but I thought, ah well, this is a published novel, well written, it must have been edited and there must be a reason for these things. But it turns out that the author is a lawyer and this is her first published novel. It’s not another Pulitzer winner that snuck into my list, but the first publication of someone like me. One giant step beyond me, but I admit to some (unwarranted) pride in being able to see some tiny questionable items in a literary first publication.

bookmark_borderReview: And When She Was Good

I’ve always had difficulty finding enough good stuff to read. During the last three or four years I’ve been working my way through Pulitzer, Man Booker, and other award finalist collections, treating the lists as recommendations. Now I’m trying a new compilation; Google’s list of top books for 2012. I know nothing about these books. I download them from the library so I don’t see reviews or summaries, just the title and the cover. That’s kinda nice; a little surprise each time to settle into the genre, style and topic.

There’s a wider range of writing quality than I expected.

Blog posts in the category

I started with “The Last Policeman”, followed by “Gone Girl”, which I referred to in the last blog post. The third was “And When She Was Good”, by Laura Lippman. I gave up on this one. I couldn’t finish it, and I rarely give up reading a novel if I read beyond one or two pages, but it hadn’t been immediately obvious that I was going to have difficulty with this one.

“And When She Was Good” opens in a very straight-forward style. I thought maybe I was reading a modern version of Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, which would be fine by me. The central character is in a lineup at Starbucks and hears a stranger behind her talking about the suicide of a local madam. Our protagonist is unable to restrain herself and launches into an argument, sparring with the stranger. To the reader it’s obvious that she’s doing this because she is in the sex trade herself, since 1) she’s defensive about it, 2) the writer tells us more than once that no one in the neighborhood would know the protagonist as anything but a single mom, and 3) it’s an unusual thing to do, picking arguments with random strangers while waiting to order coffee.

The problem for me is that the writing and plotting are so plain that it’s cartoonish. Now, Harold Robbins’ characters might have been outlandish, stretching the boundaries of plausible, but they never reached the level of being cartoons. These are simply flat characters in unusual activities with obvious motivations solving the author’s plotting needs. Unfortunately, unlike Shaggy and Scooby Doo, there’s no humor involved.

In retrospect, that should have been my clue, but I think I was still hoping for Harold Robbins.

The first time that I noticed something bothering me was when the author switched to present tense for one sentence in the middle of a paragraph. I’m no grammarian and it might be acceptable to explain the past as if viewing it as the present, but two examples of this within pages of each other was jarring.

But what really stopped me from reading any further was the clunky writing. You know how when you get a shopping cart with one twisted wheel that keeps going bomp, bomp, bomp? That’s what reading this novel was like. Some of this clunkiness comes from telling, not showing; the cardinal sin for beginning writers. The author explains the protagonist’s business practices and her past relations with a particular client by stuffing sentences of exposition between the lines of dialogue.

Writers do need to explain, to give context, and the challenge is to do it without being obvious, but here you see the information dumps as clearly as the trail behind the horses in a parade; here you go, you need to know this, here’s some background that explains this.

I’ve since moved on to another title which I thought was from the same collection of best books, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”. I was about to type this is how you write background and context, this is how you tell. You make it interesting, you make it a story for the reader, you tell it in a way that flows naturally like Smiley does. It should do more than dump info, should contribute more than just patching up holes in the background. It should sound like a good story teller telling us a story. Then I discovered “A Thousand Acres” is not from the list of Google Best Books; it’s left over from the Pulitzer prize list that I have. Doh. Well, you can’t accuse me of list bias, though I am guilty of literary ignorance.