Category Archives: Reviews

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.

The Last Analog Summer – and the vexed question of genre

picture of book coverWhat genre does the book fit under? It’s one of the catch-cries of publishing. Where do we put the book on the shelf? Which other books are its peers? That decision isn’t always easy, and Fred Limberg’s The Last Analog Summer is a case study, if you will.

Here’s the blurb

Welcome to Dodge, Iowa. Population: Frustrated. Why? Because it’s a digital dead-zone…a lonely analog island in an ocean of corn.

Old cars, record players, and some radios work okay—but there are no iPods, no internet, no video games or laptop computers, no cell phones, and some days…not much hope, it seems, for kids who’ve visited the big city.

The government insists an ancient magnetic meteorite is buried beneath the town. That’s what fries everything electronic. Uh-huh…right.

And, hey…pay no attention to the razor-fenced tower complex way out there in the corn, guarded by gun-toting camo-dudes. What secret compound? What power surges?

What a bunch of Bullthit!

Kevin, Tandy, and Deke, just graduated, are desperate to get out of Dodge. Trouble is, they’re flat broke and stuck in a bad ‘60’s movie. A mountain of debt looms, as well as a mountain of doubt.

Then Deke stumbles across ‘The Stratocaster’ at a farm auction. It’s old…way old…a pristine sunburst ’57 Strat. And it’s valuable…way valuable. They know immediately it’s their ticket out, a head-start on a real life…of having a chance.

The Last Analog Summer is a coming-of-age thriller—quirky, funny, tender at times, and full of worrisome twists. Kev, Tandy, and Deke desperately try to hang onto the old guitar. If it isn’t the town punk tricking them at the auction, it’s his misguided mom giving it to the radio preacher at WWJD, because, well… that’s what Jesus would do. And just when they have Reverend Diz on board— Ivy and Remy’s antics, which are antagonizing the camo-dudes to no end as they try to finally get some answers about the tower surges, go horribly wrong.

Will it take an Act-of-God, intervention by the mysterious and enigmatic Elston Gunn, or maybe…an all-out invasion by the U.S. Army to get the Stratocaster in their hands, once and for all?

****************

On the face of it, this is out-and-out YA. After all, a YA book normally has protagonists in their late teens, and the main plot arc is ‘coming of age’. This book shouts all those things.

But wait…

If you said the names Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper , or Ritchie Valens to your average sixteen-year-old, he/she would give you one of those looks. What? Who? But if you’re my age (I’m in my sixties), the songs would play in your head. You might even start to sing the words. If you knew… Peggy Sue… I’ll stop there.

This book commences with a prologue, on that fatal winter’s day when Holly and his mates died in a plane crash. Old farts like me will know the names, know the songs, know about that accident. It’s a brilliant prologue because when it’s finished, the reader knows something the main characters do not, and this fact adds so much to the story of the Stratocaster, which is the star of the show. I found myself thinking, ‘if you only knew’ – rather a lot. Take heed, all those who favour prologues. They’re fine, if they have a real purpose. This one has.

But as they say, that’s not all. The other aspect of this story which takes it over into adulthood, is the town itself. Dodge, Iowa, with its old cars, vinyl records, an all-purpose bar-come-eatery and church on Sundays. The corn is beginning to grow, the water flows around a great, big rock in the creek, where the kids gather to talk and do a bit of skinny-dipping. Kevin angles for a kiss, and hopes for more. School’s finished, so they need jobs. Any kind of job.

Do you remember all that stuff? I do. Maybe not in small-town, middle America, but it wasn’t so very different down in Western Australia when I was growing up. The offset of that, is I appreciate all the modern technology, so I can indulge in a bit of nostalgia, while still understanding how the kids would feel, effectively cut off from their own generation.

So I was well and truly sucked in. The story is told from eighteen-year-old Kevin’s point of view as he wrestles with all those issues of growing up; honesty, trust, sex and doing what’s right. Limberg has drawn all his characters with loving care. You very quickly get a grasp on the teenagers, and their different personalities. The secondary characters are just as real. I could see this story roll out like a movie script. The only people who are a tad two-dimensional are the bad guys, the camo-dudes protecting the Secret of the Tower – but that’s actually okay, because of the way the book is written. That’s what Kevin thinks, who are you, a mere reader, to argue?

This is a terrific story for people of all ages. It would be one real, Goddam shame if the book is tucked away on some shelf labeled ‘YA’. It’s the last place old farts would go and look. Isn’t it? Personally, I’d rather see books put in the adult section. When I was a kid (as in early teens and up), I rarely looked at the kids’ books, I was past them in reading ability, and subject matter. I’m inclined to think that The Last Analog Summer is more likely to appeal to adults, than to teenagers.

Which shelf? I dunno. Is it a mystery? Not really, although there are a few mysterious goings-on. Is it a thriller? No. It’s a lovely little story that brings the past into the present – and in the end, you have to wonder how much has really changed. So… literary fiction, then? Shudder?

I’d love to know what you think.

Roman: Saints and Sinners

Picture of cover for Roman: Saints and SinnersThis is a review Amazon refused to publish.

I admit it, the author is a friend, in fact we have had a business collaboration in the past. But I gain no profit from the sale of this book and I am not in direct competition with the author. I don’t write YA books – although I think this one is a cross-over. I do wonder if Amazon would have published my review if I had written a 1 star screamer. But I haven’t. If I didn’t like the book, I would have told the author so, and said why, and I would not have reviewed. You’re right not to trust all Amazon reviews. But you can trust this one.

Blurb

In a dying town, two teens marked as broken struggle with the burden of lies masquerading as truth. Not even a man of faith is strong enough to hold back the coming darkness.

  • Benedict Nowak bailed on his marriage, taking his son with him but leaving behind his five year old daughter. He had his reasons. He had no idea they’d come back to haunt him.
  • TJ had come to terms with the mother she despised, making those small concessions that made life bearable. But her mother’s death changed everything.
  • Her brother, Anton, was the parent missing in TJ’s life, until he found a calling in violence, and left his sister at the mercy of shrinks and a mother with ice in her veins.
  • Roman Rincon was the juvie rescued by Father Marcus and placed in the care of Benedict Nowak. With his records sealed, no one knew what happened that fateful night when Roman was only fourteen.
  • All Father Marcus knew was the boy had confessed to a crime not even the cops would talk about.

In the small coal mining town of Montville, two teens whose lives have been shattered beyond repair must find a way to cope … with school, with each other, with growing up marked as broken in a town dying under the weight of secrets and lies. Warned off having anything to do with Roman, TJ is all too willing to agree, except for one little thing. The young man lives in the apartment above her father’s car repair business so avoiding him might be a problem.

As for Roman, he will take his secret to the grave, no matter what the cost.

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 *****.

PS. I LOVE the cover, designed by fellow author (and friend) Poppet. It truly suits the story

PPS. The book was written as a serial, a couple of chapters a week. I dips me lid. I could not possibly write a book in that way, especially as the writer just… goes with the flow without elaborate planning. Kudos.

 

 

The Gospel According to the Romans – a non-believer’s view

Forget the legends. Jesus was a Jew, and he hated the Romans. I know, because I lived with him and his followers for a year.

That’s the first sentence of the blurb for Robin Helweg-Larsen’s novel “The Gospel According to the Romans”.

I was brought up in a ‘Christian’ household and attended Sunday school as a child. So I heard all the stories about Jesus – the Star of Bethlehem, the virgin birth, walking on water, feeding the multitude, healing the sick, raising the dead – indeed, rising from the dead. When I grew up and became a doubter and then a non-believer, I simply dismissed these tales as fairy stories. But now, the author has written this highly entertaining book about how it might have happened if a zealot called Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died in Roman Palestine at the start of a new era. If you’re a dyed in the wool, born again Christian, you might as well leave this page now. Helweg-Larsen warns that parts of his novel may well offend Christians.

Those bible stories I heard never talked much about Romans, which meant Jesus was never placed into context as a Jew living in occupied territory. Mister Helwig-Larsen has written this story from the point of view of Matthew Levi, one of the disciples who had been a Roman tax collector – and a spy for Pontius Pilate. Yes, that Matthew, the one referred to as Saint Matthew, which in this book is ironic in the extreme.

It is an enthralling story, providing on the way historical background about the Roman occupation and way of life, the countryside, the lives of the various Jewish factions and the impact of history on the population. In particular, the impact of the Roman’s brutal suppression of a revolt 20 years before and the subsequent crucifixion of 2,000 men. The story is completely plausible – although, of course, it is a work of fiction. The characters are 3 dimensional, each with virtues as well as flaws. Matthew is a pragmatic character, principally absorbed with making his way in society. Pilate offers him Roman citizenship in return for espionage and he is prepared to risk his life to earn the right to wear the toga. Hence, given the opportunity to join Jesus’ followers, he takes the risk. Matthew the spy who is at first totally committed to self comes close to reversing his allegiance at one point and his friends the Romans have their good points – and their bad. The author peppers this book with wonderful detail, such as showing the discipline and precision of a Roman detachment sent to quell the rioters in the temple and the deep gulf between the Roman way of life and that of the Jews.

This is one of those stories, like the fate of the Titanic, where we all know what the outcome will be, yet I kept reading, waiting for the explanation of the next ‘miracle’, for the next revelation about the disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, the meeting with Jesus’ mother, the last supper and the crucifixion itself. Matthew’s relationship with Judas, who the gospels tell us ultimately betrayed Jesus to the Romans, adds drama to the narrative. In the opening chapter we learn what Judas Iscariot really means – Judas, who carries a large dagger called a sica, is a ‘sicariot’, a word the Romans use interchangeably with ‘robber’, ‘insurgent’ and zealot. That information in itself sets the tone of the book. Judas never trusts Matthew, despite Jesus’ remonstrations and continually looks for opportunities to expose Matthew as a fraud. Towards the end of the book, I was drawn into how the author intended to resolve the issue, leaving Judas as the man who betrayed Jesus.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read. Throughout, Helweg-Larsen adds some intriguing insights into how people think and the very nature of religion itself. At one point Matthew ruminates on the problems of having only one God as opposed to the Greek or Roman approach of many Gods. One God must cover so many different facets – at once the God of mercy and of retribution, whereas in a pantheon different Gods represent different aspects of nature. The author also dwells on the way truth is distorted and exaggerated to become legend. The same process still happens today.

The depth of Helweg-Larsen’s research is impressive and he provides an extensive bibliography.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. It is a voice of reason which I might even liken to the small child in ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. In the same vein, I recommend Mister Helweg-Larsen’s website where he posts always entertaining, often challenging stories about religion, myth and reality.

You can buy ‘The Gospel According the Romans” on Amazon.

Why is ‘The King’s Speech’ a good movie?

the-kings-speech-movie-posterI’ve just watched the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. For me to enjoy a movie is in itself a rare and wonderful thing. I don’t as a rule watch movies and my taste is limited. I loved the original ‘Star Wars’ films and the LOTR films. And ‘Bambi’. So now, days later, I’ve begun to wonder why I enjoyed ‘The King’s Speech’ so much. And I think we, as writers, could learn from the answers.

In essence this is an exceedingly simple tale. The man who will be king has a speech impediment. When the story starts, he is a young prince whose stammer leads to public humiliation as his failure on the wireless is broadcast to millions. Then he meets a man who fixes him. In the end he delivers an important speech to the world and does so effectively.

This is a story set in the 1930’s, when the British Empire was still a powerful entity and when Adolf Hitler was a rising threat in Germany. George V was still on the throne, his oldest son, David (who would become Edward VIII) was next in line and Bertie, the stutterer, was the Duke of York. Then David has his fateful love affair with Wallis Simpson, almost bringing down the Monarchy, a stalemate finally ended when he abdicates. The movie includes cameo appearances from Winston Churchill, Alec Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, all pivotal players in the inevitable spiral into war in 1939. But all of this is just scenery, backdrops to the main play which is the relationship between two men who could hardly be more different. The prince, born into royalty and Lionel Logue, the self-taught Australian speech therapist who refuses to call his client anything but Bertie.

So much of this movie is simply conversations between two men as Lionel breaks down Bertie’s barriers to discover the reason why he stutters, revealing a tyrannical father, abuse by a nanny, over-expectations. All of this has resulted in feelings of total inadequacy, which Bertie must confront as the horrifying possibility of him having to be king edge toward probability.

There is conflict between Logue and Bertie, of course. But also between Bertie and his brother and his father. Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, is unfailingly supportive and we are given a glimpse into the relationship between Bertie and his two daughters – one of whom is now Queen Elizabeth.

Why does this movie work? There are no gruesome deaths, no car chases, no violence of any sort. Nobody steals anything. The background facts are well known. There is no suspense, no horror; just a man with a speech impediment and a man who treats him.

The screenwriters have created conflict in a number of ways, the most important being the differences between the two men, one a Royal Prince, the other an Aussie larrikin.  To start with we are shown Bertie’s excruciating first radio speech, then Bertie’s initial reluctance to play by Lionel’s rules in his home (‘my castle, my rules’). But  the screen writers have, I suspect, bent the truth just a little to increase the tension. For instance, in the movie Bertie learns at his rehearsal for the coronation in Westminster Abbey that Lionel has no formal qualifications, that despite his Harley Street address, he is no doctor. I find that a little bit hard to believe, but it adds to the tension. In similar vein, there are several countdowns to Bertie having to make a speech and we’re along for the ride. In the end, when Bertie delivers his ‘we are at war with Germany’ speech, the audience inevitably remembers that first speech which he completely mangled. And so, indeed, does he. After a slow start, Bertie delivers. One of the great things about this movie is he is not miraculously cured. Lionel enables him to function, but he hasn’t waved a magic wand. So for writers, use conflict, contrive conflict even if it is conflict within an individual and you can have a gripping story.

Of course, the acting is just terrific. Colin Firth does a wonderful job of showing Bertie’s shyness, his lack of confidence and his desperate attempts to overcome these characteristics as a Royal Prince. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for an actor to convey a man with a stammer – for me it was absolutely convincing. And Geoffrey Rush is great as Lionel Logue.

One other little tip for us writers – the way detail was sprinkled in. The wonderful scene where a man leads a car containing the Duchess of York up Harley Street through a London fog, Bertie storming off through a park with a horseman riding the other way, glimpses of Lionel’s family – most especially his intelligent oldest son who drives the car to take his father to meet Bertie before the final speech. That boy would be caught up in the coming war. And the scenes of Bertie with his daughters, the dying king, David and Mrs Wallis.

Just a simple little movie about two blokes talking to each other. Wow.