Reading Journal Entry: Close Up, by Grady Clay

BondGirl turned me on to Grady Clay with a rave review of Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape.

What's a generic place? Don't ask me, the Seattle Public Library doesn't have it. I requested it, and I have high hopes, as they thoughtfully obliged me in my request for a copy of The Man With The Iron-On-Badge (I'm No. 2 in the hold list).

The SPL did have a copy of Clay's other work, Close Up, which I gulped down over the weekend.

Close Up: How To Read The American City is an examination of the 'new' urban landscape. Originally published in 1973, there are some anachronisms, such as a quaint use of the word 'bitch' as in 'bitch up' a couple of times (one can imagine Clay chuckling at how this would shock the administration). But many of the insights are still valid. It's a heavily illustrated book, visually as well as verbally fascinating. The illustrations are absolutely necessary. Clay supports every point he makes with numerous examples from cities around the US using street maps, overhead pictures, snapshots, etc.

I was delighted to see references to Seattle (gosh darn blangnabbit messed up grid patterns downtown), New York City, and Orange County, all places I have lived.

Good stuff, relevant and thought-provoking.

Sustaining a series

I came across two unconnected conversations today that meet at one point: the difficulty of sustaining a series.

First I saw this review at Paperback Reader.

"Single title romances that bloom into multi-book connected series carry a terrible burden. They must simultaneously stand alone, so that new-to-the-series readers can start at any point without feeling uninvited to the party, and they must effectively bridge the older books with the new, all the while setting up the books to come. Failing at the first leaves readers in the dark at best, or wondering if the plot and conflict were setup and resolved in another book—or books—at worst. Failing at the second makes writing a series pointless"

Then I saw Lee Goldberg's post about his brother's screed on mysteries. Lee comments:

"Stephanie Plum, Nero Wolfe, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Millhone, Jack Reacher, John Rain, Inspector Rebus... none of these characters have really changed in the course of their respective series. That's one of the pleasures and comforts of the know exactly what you're going to get when you open one up."

True. But that's why I stopped reading them.

A successful series writer (in any genre - romance, SF/F, mystery) re-uses the same characters and situations that led to success in a first outing and DOES change the characters. Any worthwhile book involves character growth. When authors run out of ways to make their characters grow, they start writing bad books. Or they start focusing on other characters who were at first more peripheral, and move those who were once holding center stage off to the left a bit.

I've noticed Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth George both doing the second. Diplomatic Immunity, latest in the Vorkosigan series, focused on a much wider range of characters than previous books just about Miles. Of George's three latest, one, A Traitor to Memory was written almost entirely from the point of view of a new character, and another, A Place of Hiding, heavily involved previously minor characters.*

Conversely, Elizabeth Moon, otherwise an excellent writer, seems to have lost control of her very popular Serrano series. Moon successfully transitioned from three books centered around Heris Serrano to a new arc centered on Esmay Suiza; her latest two entires suffered from fragmented action and multiple POV issues.

What are some series where the author has been successful in maintaining quality? Suggestions are very, very welcome.

*The other one I haven't read yet.

Reading Journal Entry: Dragon Bones, by Patricia Briggs

Not as bad as the dragon on the cover led me to believe.

Actually, quite good - a nice little fantasy, with adult themes, wrapped up in a normal-sized volume.

I would have said this could be marketed as a young adult if it weren't for certain of those adult themes...

It starts out with quite a hook; Ward is 19 and the son of an abusive father; he's been pretending to be an idiot for seven years to keep from being killed. Of course he's the scion of a noble family, etc., etc. But all in all this has a quite different feel from your typical coming-of-age fantasy quest; grittier and uglier.


Reading Journal Entry: Bundle of Trouble #7

I feel a bit like I'm cheating to review graphic novels here, since they're so easy to read. But I've got a cold and it's my husband's birthday and, damn it, there was NO HEAT today! So a graphic novel is what you get.

Knights of the Dinner Table is a comic about role-playing. The art is atrocious, near non-existant even. But it's hilarious for those who are familiar with the characters who inhabit it. My husband and I enjoy it very, very much. Ongoing story-lines are a strength. The 'Bundles of Trouble' are the collected volumes, which include bonus material that is well worth the price.

Reading Journal Entry: Instead of the Thorn, by Georgette Heyer

Another modern Heyer novel. Instead of the Thorn is a modern romance written in 1923 and set about the same time. Like the recently reviewed Barren Corn, this one's about a mis-matched marriage. Elizabeth Arden is a sheltered young woman brought up by a spinster aunt in a Victorian dreamland; when she ventures out into the wide, wide, world, she's completely unprepared for the people and relationships she encounters. Stephen, an older man and a respected novelist, woes her and she agrees to marry him, imagining herself in love. Tragedy ensues, as she's completely unable to appreciate his habits and friends and is ferchristsake's, like, 19! Duh!

Sorry. At least this book doesn't end with her committing suicide. Elizabeth is shocked and appalled by sexual relations (that's the clear implication) and slowly begins to slough off her carefully built facade, learning about herself and the world as she goes.

It was refreshing to read a real romance that doesn't end with the beginning of the relationship. Life does not end at the altar! So there! Some of the advice Elizabeth got about male/female relations from the 'wise, motherly figure' jarred my funny-feminist bone, but that's just me being anachronistic. I can expect no better from a book written in 1923.

Note: The heroine is actually named Elizabeth Arden. I looked up the history of Elizabeth Arden spas to see if there was a connection. Elizabeth Arden was a real person, and she opened her first salon in Paris in 1922. Maybe Georgette Heyer walked by it and the name caught her eye.....

Reading Journal Entry: Inversions, by Iain Banks

I didn't expect this to be a Culture novel; but it is. Very good. Subtle. Parellel tales of a bodyguard and a doctor, each safeguarding the life of a loved ruler; I can't decide which I liked better.

Reading Journal Entry: The Last Hellion, by Loretta Chase

A nice hot-blooded early Victorian-era romance, with obligatory local color.

Reading Journal Entry: The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars, by Steven Brust

One of the 'Fairy Tale' series of books edited by Terri Windling.

Brust uses a Hungarian fairy tale as a clotheshangar for an exploration of the meaning of art and myth in modern life.

The main character, Greg, is one of five artists who have hung together for three years trying to develop themselves. We meet him as he begins to tackle his largest canvas ever. But the group is beginning to fall apart, from lack of success and lack of respect in equal measures.

Greg develops a mythological image on his canvas, riffing on the meaning of art and other bullshit themes, and occasionally drops bits and pieces of a fable about a gyosys trying to restore the lights to the heavens.

Greg is an annoying, pretentious, opinionated asshole. This supplies much of the charm for the book.

Reading Journal Entry: Some Bitter Taste, by Meredith Nabb

Now THIS is more like it!

I had begun wondering if I was out of my head for liking these books in high school. Finally, with Some Bitter Taste, I got a sample of the atmosphere and tension that got Nabb this best-selling series to begin with.

Some Bitter Taste is set during July, and she perfectly captures the mind-numbing heat that soaks the city.

Moreover, the book starts out with a prostitution ring and escalates quickly to a burglary and then a murder. This exciting beginning made me overlook a multitude of flaws, first the rapid transifguration of the murder into an accidental death, then the way some threads tied together much too neatly and others not at all.

I even forgive her for stealing the hook from Simenon's Maigret and the Spinster.

Reading Journal Entry: Love of my Life, by Meredith Bond

This Regency goes a little further afield than usual. The heroine, Cassandra, makes a flop in London and escapes to India for social rehabilitation. There she meets the man of her dreams who is, gasp, a half-breed! Bond gets points for trying to delve into the setting and culture but she didn't really succeed in bringing India to life except for a brief, amusing, scene at a temple with anatomically correct statuary. But there's so much more to deal with at the intersection between English and India.... Maybe it's not fair to compare a category romance novel to Booker Prize winner Staying On by Paul Scott, but it's a comparison that's impossible not to make.

Peeves: When the action switches back to England, things kind of fall apart. Bond doesn't do well at portraying the male friendships that develop. Also, Bond consistently uses the term 'Eurasian' to refer to Julian's mother and himself. That's a very modern-sounding term, and in fact it wasn't coined until 1844.

Reading Journal Entry: Bloody Mary, by J. A. Konrath

The second of J. A. Konrath's detective novels starring 'Jack Daniels' of the Chicago police force.

Konrath actually managed to make me laugh out loud at multiple times during this one. 'Jack' is a fun character, grown-up enough to be interesting. This time the eponymous drink is named for Jack's mother, a former police officer and libidinous retiree named Mary. He went some places I didn't expect, in terms of violence....but hey, it's a book about a serial killer. I can't legitimately complain.

I CAN complain about the give-away early on in the book. Don't make it too easy to figure out who the bad guy is, Joe.


Reading Journal Entry: A Rogue's Wager by Valerie King

Another category Regency. What can I say - I've got a new library system full of paperbacks to explore. Sadly, the Seattle Library System values category romances so lightly that most of them I don't even have to check out. They're not bar-coded, they just have a blue sticker on top that says 'Please return to the Seattle Public Library when finished'.

This one gets a solid B. The writing was a bit awkward (god that drives me crazy) but the pacing was tight. The characters reminded me a bit too much of 'the in crowd' from high school. My patience for characters that act like idiots is limited. So no A for you.

Reading Journal Entry: This Dame For Hire, by Sandra Scoppettone

Sandra Scoppettone has a blog which I've read regularly. She's got a long list of published works but I'd never heard of her before I started poking around in the literary blog world. But I sure liked the look of her book cover on This Dame For Hire so I put it on reserve at the library. I have just started doing this and I hesitate every time, because what if I hate it? It's much easier to post scathing reviews of books when you don't read their blogs.

Not a problem this time. I am, quite frankly, enchanted. Faye Quick is a detective doing her boss's job during World War II because all the good men are overseas fighting the war. Not just any gal, either - a New Yorker. Scoppettone gets the lingo down pat. The atmosphere is pitch-perfect without being overbearing. Faye Quick reminds me of no-one less than Miss Imbrie, the cynical female journalist from The Philadelphia Story.

I am considering buying this for my mom for her birthday. Can't wait for the next one.

Reading Journal Entry: Sethra Lavode, by Steven Brust

Brust is one of my favorite authors. These swashbuckling fantasies of his are beginning to run together. They're still loads of fun, but are not as demanding or interesting a read as his Jhereg series set in the same universe.

Reading Journal Entry: Property of Blood, by Magdalen Nabb

I'm getting worried about Magdalen Nabb. Not that she doesn't have a cool name. I always thought that Magdalen was the best name ever. If I had a kid, and I hadn't converted to Judaism, I totally would have named him or her Magdalen.
As mysteries go, this ain't one of them. There's a kidnapping. The victim is either retrieved alive, or not. The kidnappers aren't members of the family or anything like that. What mystery there is seems to be the Marshal's weird-ass 'insights' into the family of the kidnapping victim. She's got a freaky daughter who doesn't really want her back. So what? Who cares? What does this have to do with the central mystery? Nothing.

But seriously, WTF is up with Nabb's family situation? In the last book I reviewed, there was a severely damaged young woman, the daughter of the murder victim, who had slept with her step-father and hated her mother. In this book, there's a seriously damaged young women who tries to seduce her mother's boyfriend, and hates her mother. Maggie, is everything OK at home? Do you have kids?

I will give her credit for this - the description of the kidnapping, which opens the book, is riveting. Incredibly vivid.

shame, shame

I don't know who you are, at (

But you should NOT be looking for: journal entry to hand in on harry potter and the half blood prince&ei=UTF-8&fr=FP-tab-web-t-296&fl=0&x=wrt

Reading Journal Entry: The Reluctant Hero, by Mary Kingsley

Yes, another Regency! And finally, it's one that I liked. This is not your typical comedy of manners - the hero encounters the heroine running away from kidnappers, and it's a headlong tumble down the ski-slope from there. Charles Kirk is a younger son injured in the peninsular war, bored out of his mind now that he's back. Lady Serena Fairchild is the toast of the Season, until she's kidnapped by no-goodniks* after her dad's money.

Kirk rescues the fleeing Serena from Bad Guys #1 and #2. In the course of the difficult journey to return her to her home, he compromises her utterly and falls firmly in love. He manages to shake off the ghostly hands of a dead Portuguese love, she manages to get over the fact that he had feelings for someone else, and the no-goodniks get what they deserve.

The writing was smooth (if only Regency authors would rid themselves of the habit of using 'Tis' instead of 'It's'), the characters believable and, more importantly, not boring stupid-heads. B+. It doesn't get an A only because the behavior of the secondary characters is at times contrived.

*Oddly, the word no-goodnik is not used in the book.

Reading Journal Entry: Miss WIlson's Reputation, by Martha Kirkland

What can I say about this? The 'hook' - heroine as goldsmith - isn't a bad one. It's just that it never came to life for me.

The cover was nice.

Author Highlight

Unpacking a box of books today I found a Regency novel that has survuved all the winnowings that my book collection has gone through over 6000 miles and four+ moves.

It's The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase. I picked it up for 50 cents at the Friends of the Library used book store in Newport Beach about 7 years ago. It impressed me so much as an example of the way Regencies should be written that I've kept it all this time. This is the book I reread at the beginning of my multitudinous attempts to write category romances. It's a great example of best of breed. In fact, I just learned it was awarded the RWA's Best Regency the year it came out.

I googled Loretta Chase and I'm happy to know she's still writing. I've reserved a passle of her books at the library and will be reading them soon. I hope this will convince people that I don't hate all romances!

Reading Journal Entry: A Much Compromised Lady, by Shannon Donnelly

What's the hook? you ask. OK, you don't ask that. Editors and PR people ask that. The hook, in this case, is 'A Regency Romance with a Gypsy heroine'. And it's not too badly done.

Glynis is the daughter of a secret marriage between a lord and a gypsy woman. Her inheritance was stolen by her father's brother, who succeeded to the title and destroyed what evidence he could find of the union. Twenty years later, Glynis and her brother are out for what's theirs, attempting to steal a wooden box which in a secret compartment, may hold the evidence to their claim. Glynis stumbles into the arms of Lord St. Albans while attempting to rifle her uncle's room. Hilarity ensues.

I like reading Regencies which try something different; Glynis gets a + from me for being different from the usual run of heroine (even if she does turn out to be the daughter of an earl*). Lord St. Albans is supposed to be a rake under reform but as usual is not actually a bad guy at all, just misunderstood. This somewhat lessens the drama, no? The ending, which some will object to, is perfect - Glynis, raised as a gypsy, would not realistically give two figs about the strictures of formal society.

I read the paperback edition of this book, which I checked out of the library for free. It has apparently been released in hardback (possible POD?) for $28.95. Now, it was an OK book, but it wasn't worth thirty dollars.

*Was it an earl? So hard to remember - read it yesterday.

Reading Journal Entry: The Irredeemable Miss Renfield, by Regina Scott

Leslie and Cleo are the heros of this Regency Romance. Straight up in almost every sense of the word. Cleo and Leslie start out with interesting enough backgrounds (she's a former tomboy; he's the son of the recently deceased master of a spy-network) but quickly reveal their utter boringity. She's supposed to be a take-no-holds independent shocker, but in fact she's trapped under the thumbs of her older sisters and has to wrack her brains for scandalous ideas. He's supposed to be - something. But he's not.

Beyond the plain vanilla flavoring is the mediocre writing that gives it that special artificial-flavoring aftertaste. Every third phrase of dialogue seems oddly stilted and over-formal. The same goes for the descriptive passages.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Rengencies. But I also like to get lost in the story, and the kind of florid over-writing Scott indulges in here snaps me right out of it.

Reading Journal Entry: The Memory of Whiteness, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is well known for his best-selling Mars trilogy from the eighties. I enjoyed reading about those imaginary Martian settlers, and I've read his later work , The Years of Rice and Salt, Forty Signs of Rain, and recently, Fifty Degress Below.

With each book he's become less connected to the indivuals, the rich inner life, that made the Mars trilogy so special. The Memory of Whiteness was written after Green Mars, in 1996. The inner narrative is so detailed and textured as to be overwhelming. It is the story of Johannes Wright, 9th master of a unique musical instrument that allows one man to play an entire orchestra. Wright is touring the solar system (an incredibly advanced solar system, in which near unlimited energy has allowed the creation of hundreds of individual worldlets) with the Orchestrina from the outside in; as the tour approaches Earth, Wright begins to understand the secret purpose of the instrument's designer (a famous physicist who equations, much like Einstein's today, define the shape of society.

As Wright approaches his moment of insight, rumors increase that he is targeted for assassination by an extreme religious group. Friends and colleagues try to protect him, but someone in their midst seems to be involved.

The subtitle A Scientific Romance is perfectly apt; Wright is a Byronic hero, doomed (DOOMED!) to gain knowledge that will destroy him. Robinson uses an interesting device (author intrusion!) addressing the reader and directly invoking the imagination in description of the spacescapes and of certain emotional moments....I liked it, but it could be a turn-off for some. Reminds me a bit of Brust's The Phoenix Guards.

Original and engaging. But the conclusion left me unsatisfied. What is the answer to 'life, the universe, and everything'? I suppose Robinson couldn't satisfactorily answer that within the confines of a novel. But Wright's descent into wordlessness as he enters more fully into his musical world excluded me as well as his companions.

Reading Journal Entry: The Marshall at the Villa Torrini

Magdalen Nabb's mystery series is located in Florence, and her detective is a 'carabiniere' - a member of the local police force. Carabinieri are famed for being blockheads, probably because they give out traffic and parking tickets as well as investigating murders. I read a few when I lived in Florence and was reminded of them recently (thanks Mom) so picked this up at the library. Unfortunately, neither te Marshal now Ms. Nabb's writing seems to have aged gracefully. I remember him as a charming young man - now he's a grumpy married dad who can't finish a sentence without trailing off into contemplative haze. This confusion is supposed to indicate a genius at work, I understand, but at times this intuitive power is attributed to the reader as well, who is expected to figure out what the heck is going on when the Marshal wakes up in the middle of a conversation.

I'll try some of the earlier volumes, I expect.

Reading Journal Entry: Whiskey Sour, by J. A. Konrath

Konrad has a great blog full of advice for beginning writers. After hearing so much about his publicity efforts, I had to give this series a try. It's a detective story set in Chicago. His heroine 'Jack' Daniels is a plucky-but-bitter police lieutenant. As the books open she finds out that her live-in lover has left her, and a dead body has been left outside a 7-11.

The tone is just right, with tension in the serial-killer-kidnaps-women bits and humor in the Jack-Daniels-on-blind-date bits. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and will probably check the other volumes out of the library.