Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review: County Line by Bill Cameron

My initial reaction when I saw that this book was available for free some time ago was excitement. As another reviewer has said, while not familiar with Bill Cameron's work, he is represented by Janet Reid, a respected agent whose blog I read almost every day. I remember when she had featured "County Line" on her blog and being entranced with the storyline. It had to be a quality book, right?

But, skeptic that I am, I wondered what the catch was that this book was being offered for free. It's not the first in a series, which is often given away free for a period of time to entice readers to buy the rest of the series. It's the fourth book. There wasn't a special marketing campaign that I was aware of. It just showed up one day, as a Free Friday selection on Barnes and Noble if my memory is correct.

It turns out I still feel two ways about this book after reading it.

This novel and I got off to a bad start. Skin Kadish, a retired police officer, comes back from a month away and heads to his girlfriend's apartment. He hasn't been able to get in touch with Ruby Jane and is concerned. Deservedly so, it turns out, since there's this old homeless guy lying dead in her bathtub. So what does Kadish do? He stomps all over the house and pokes around, contaminating the crime scene, before dialing 911.

Maybe it's because I recently finished taking a class on police procedure with Lee Lofland, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. I would think a retired police officer would know better. I might even have bought it if Kadish had acknowledged he was doing the wrong thing, but felt driven to know what happened before calling in the authorities. No. He doesn't even think about what he's doing wrong.

The style when we're in Kadish's point of view is choppy. He thinks in phrases, sometimes just words. It takes a while to get used to the clipped cadence. I got used to it.

The middle section of the book is backstory. It's as if Cameron had developed all this interesting background information on Ruby Jane, why she was living in Oregon, what had happened with her family, why the rift between her and her brother Jimmy, and really wanted to use it. He'd resisted in the first three books, probably following the rules (more on that in a bit), but now just had to get all that good stuff out. It probably was more interesting if you'd read the previous books in the series, had more curiosity about Ruby Jane based on what you'd read in the past.

But I found most of this middle section interesting. I like reading about people and how they got the way they are. A lot of readers had trouble with the middle of this book. I had trouble with the beginning and the end.

I've already written about the beginning. My problem with the end was the resolution of whodunnit and why. There was at least one too many twists and I didn't believe it for a minute. It's so difficult to write a satisfactory ending to a mystery. This book didn't have one for me.

I mentioned following the rules up above. One of the "rules" of writing is to use all five senses in your descriptions. The natural tendency is to describe what a character sees. But, in the real world, there are also sounds and smells and touch and taste. A setting seems more alive if the writer includes descriptions of what a character hears and smells than if it's just what he sees. Unfortunately, there were sections of description where it seemed like Cameron was following a checklist as he wrote his sentences. It sounded forced to me.

Mostly what I felt after reading this book was disappointment. I was hoping for a great read and it didn't live up to my expectations.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Finding NOOK Books

I love my NOOK (which seems to be the new way to write this, as opposed to "nook" with no uppercase letters). I'd much prefer to read a book on my NOOK than in paper copy if at all possible. There are two reasons for this. As I've mentioned before, an ereader gives you the option of making any book a large print book. With my older eyes and staring at a computer screen for ten to twelve hours a day, this is a BIG DEAL. The other reason is portability. My NOOK is almost always in my purse, letting me carry whatever I'm reading, or thinking of reading, with me all the time.  Much better than carrying around an actual book, particularly when I'm reading something by Diana Gabaldon or George R.R. Martin.

Barnes and Noble has done a pretty good job of keeping ahead of Amazon on the hardware side. I have the original NOOK, which introduced the little color touch screen at the bottom that enabled readers to turn pages with a finger swipe, navigate through the options by tapping the screen, and display book covers beautifully. They were first with a color device, a touch eink screen, and, most recently, a built-in reading light.

Barnes and Noble is a major #FAIL in making it easy to find books. Amazon is the king of book searches and recommendations. I know I'm hardly the only one who searches for a book on Amazon, then types the exact title into the Barnes and Noble site to buy the book. If you don't remember the exact title or the spelling of the author's name, Amazon can usually find it for you anyway. Barnes and Noble--not so much.

What brought this up today was that I received one of their regular promotional emails this morning with recommended reads. One of the categories was "Gripping Short Fiction from NOOK Snaps." NOOK Snaps? When did that category show up? Obviously (or not so obviously), Snaps are essays, short stories, and novellas. As usual, the first screen, should you chance to find it, is broken into categories so you can narrow down your search. Also as usual, if I choose a category and then type in an author's name, I get not only short works, but everything B&N sells by the author. :::sigh:::

Okay, so, while interesting, how was I supposed to know this category existed? I looked at the left side of the screen where they have the NOOK book categories. Nope, not there. I hovered over NOOK books in the menu bar to bring up another list of categories. Not there, either. It was only when I clicked on the "See More" under Subjects on that pop-up that I got to this screen where it showed as a separate option. Curious as to why Snaps weren't easier to find, I went back to the main NOOK books page and scrolled down. Sure enough, under "Quick Links," there it was. No explanation for what it was where a casual browser would see it or anything.

Also on the Browse eBooks screen and under the "Quick Links" you can see NOOK First. NOOK First is sort of Barnes and Noble's response to Amazon's KDP Select program. It's ebooks that you can only find on Barnes and Noble. Less onerous than KDP Select, the exclusive period is for thirty days instead of ninety. But the catch is you can't buy your way in, but have to be approved by B&N for this program. That's why the "sort of" in my description.

Tucked under the "Quick Links" is also where you'll find PubIt ebooks. These are self-published, just like Amazon's KDP. If you're looking for Indie authors, this is where you'll find them. Again, other than the predefined categories, there's no way to narrow the search further. Lots of authors, while remaining traditionally published for some books, are indie publishing their backlists and new work themselves. Lots of times I'm looking for just the self-published works.

EARTH TO BARNES AND NOBLE!!! No one scrolls down on a web page unless they're sure something exists on that page and they're determined to find it. Quick Links should be the FIRST section of the sidebar, not the last. NOOK First should be a tremendous marketing advantage and should be one of the things you see first when you go to the main NOOK eBooks page. You shouldn't have to scroll down to see it. And, oh yeah, you might want to mention that these books are EXCLUSIVELY available on NOOK. Just like with Snaps, YOU might think your clever marketing term is obvious, but the average reader isn't going to take the time to figure it out.

And on Friday, the main NOOK eBook page should have at the top, in a large font with an exclamation point, FREE FRIDAYS! Yes, every Friday B&N features a free book from a traditional publisher. You'll see these if you turn on wifi, select Shop, then page through the Special Offers & Articles section of the NOOK; but that requires that you remember you should do it. I don't know about other readers, but when I turn on my NOOK, I do it to read, not to shop. If I want to shop, I go online.

And you know how you find this out online? It's in the Nook Blog. What's that you ask? It's part of the Community section. Never saw that? I'm not surprised. They only way I've found to get there is to select Help, then Frequently Asked Questions, then B&N Book Clubs. That gets you to the Community Page (only one section of which is actually about Book Clubs). Another well-hidden feature.

These free books used to be something special. A couple of years ago, publishers were eager to develop their ebook markets through free books. Currently what you'll mostly see is books that were already free. Maybe the program lost traction because no one knew about the Free Fridays book?

A more reliable way to find free ebooks on Barnes and Noble is to go to the Nook Book Discussion topic on the Boards and select the "Free NOOKbook summary thread please no OT" and select the last page or so. This is maintained by readers who discover current free books from traditional publishers.

This Community Page should be another thing easily visible from the Barnes and Noble home page. And the links to the B&N Twitter account and Facebook page should NOT require scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the home page. Being online is all about Community. People want to interact. 

I didn't mean for this to turn into a rant. I meant it to be helpful. Unfortunately, I get frustrated with the way Barnes and Noble has failed to capitalize on what is a wonderful device with terrific books available... if only you can find them. If they truly want to compete with Amazon in the eBook market, they're going to have to try a little harder to make books easier to find for their readers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Last Light by Terri Blackstock

There are just too many books to read. I have a huge number of books on my To Be Read shelf on my nook, most of them from free offerings. Like most people, I tend to read the books I pay for before starting one of the free downloads. Both of these take a backseat to books I borrow from the library because of the time constraints on library books. So I have no idea when I downloaded Last Light from Barnes and Noble, but when I was looking for a book to counterbalance the last book I read, which made me feel dissatisfied and soiled somehow, this one called out to me.

Terri Blackstock is a bestselling Christian author who says, "It’s my goal to write fiction that will keep you up all night." In Last Light, she succeeds.

The premise of the story is what if all modern electronics failed due to some natural phenomenon that caused an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP)? Planes fall out of the sky, cars stop working, there's no internet or telephone or even water because the pumps don't work. We follow the affluent Banning family, who live near Birmingham, Alabama, as they learn to cope with the new reality and how it changes people.

What most impressed me was how well the characters were drawn. Deni, the daughter in her early twenties with a wedding to plan, lands at the airport with her father just before planes start crashing. Totally self-absorbed, she thinks that her problem of being apart from her fiance and the job she's supposed to start in Washington, DC is the most important thing in the world. Her younger brother sneaks off to a pool party with his friends, drinks beer, and is a little too intimate with a girl than his father would like when he's supposed to be taking his turn to watch over the family. In other words, they behave the way kids do.

I have to admit I'm somewhat of a literary snob. I like books that increase my vocabulary, that have plots where everything is not as it seems, and have complex characters that make me wonder about human nature. Last Light has none of these. Written at what I believe is no more than an eighth grade level, with some annoying conventions (including men toting guns to protect the women), and a strong dose of Bible, it's exactly the kind of book I should have disliked.

But I didn't dislike it. Quite the opposite. I kept turning the pages, couldn't wait to get back to reading it to find out what happened next, and thoroughly enjoyed the story. It's probably the first time the tactic of offering the first book in a series for free with the hope that the reader will want to buy more books in the series has worked for me. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Answered Prayers

There's never enough time in my life to write. Working full time, taking care of a house and yard, volunteering, trying to participate in church functions and classes, family visits--the list of things to do seems endless. I used to try to write at night, but I'm usually much too tired to write anything that's halfway good. Too often, by the time I'd finished dinner, all I wanted to do was sit in my recliner in front of the television.

After taking Margie Lawson's Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors class in January, I managed to make an attitude adjustment. I got over my belief that I needed at least two hours of writing time before I could start by making a list of writing-related tasks I could achieve in fifteen minutes. I also decided to try getting up earlier and writing then, even though I am so not a morning person.

I've been writing between the hours of five and six before I get ready for work for three months now. Somewhere in that hour, with the help of enough coffee, I wake up and the words start flowing. I've managed to actually make progress on my current novel by doing this.

It's not enough.

I've been wrestling with the decision of when to retire for over a year now. Several times a week I agonize over whether I can afford to retire now, in three months, in six months, a year. Will I have enough to live on if I take a reduced benefit from Social Security by retiring early? Will I eat up my savings in health insurance premiums?

On the other hand, I hear the clock ticking. I'm not getting any younger and I wonder if I'll die before publishing one novel, much less the dozens I want to write. Recently a coworker, many years younger than I am, passed away from a stroke. It makes you pause and reevaluate when something like that happens.

I also wonder if it's just my fear that keeps me from doing what I really want to do. I've always been conservative where finances are concerned. It comes from growing up poor, remembering days when there was no heat in the house because my parents didn't have the money for an oil delivery, and days when dinner was scrambled eggs. I kept telling myself there are times when you just have to take the risk if you want your dreams to come true. But still I couldn't commit to a firm date, even to myself.

I've prayed a lot about this decision. Keep working and hope that I'll reach full retirement age and that, when I do, I'll still be healthy enough and motivated enough to write novels? Or take that leap of faith now and hope that, if I need to, I'll be able to work part time in some retail job to supplement my retirement income? I asked God to help me choose and wondered how I'd recognize His response--if I got one.

This week, God supplied another answer.

Monday morning I found an email in my work inbox notifying me that my company was offering a transition to retirement program for employees of a certain age. If approved, you can work three days a week with full benefits, as long as you commit to retiring by a certain date. The date given is one month before my full retirement age for Social Security purposes.

I felt like I had won the lottery. Two full days a week for writing! I keep my benefits! I was doing the Snoopy dance all morning.

It was only later that I realized that this was the answer to all my prayers. No, God hadn't told me which of my options was the one I should choose. He gave me a better one.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Book Review: Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman

Surprisingly, I don't think I've read any of Laura Lippman's popular Tess Monaghan series before. I don't know why not, other than that there are so many books and so little time. I believe I downloaded this to my Nook when it was offered as a free book. Since there are so many free books offered, I have lots of them waiting to be read. I also have a bunch of samples which sounded interesting, but not quite interesting enough to push the Buy button.

But I digress.

When the story opens, Tess is drifting through life, surviving off the generosity of relatives after having been laid off from her job as a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper. She works a couple of part-time jobs, but hasn't thought about another full-time career, much less looked for one. The closest she has to a passion is her physical activity, rowing in the morning and running in the evening.

When her rowing partner, Rock Paxton, is arrested for the murder of a prominent attorney who was having an affair with Rock's fiance, Tess starts poking her nose into things. Her investigative skills as a reporter are well-suited for a sleuth and Rock's attorney, rather than having her go off the reservation and jeopardize the case, hires her as much to keep an eye on her activities as to use her help.

Needless to say, Tess doesn't follow the rules she's agreed to. She continues to investigate on her own, often dragging along one of her friends.

There are a couple of times later in the book where Laura Lippman stretches reality close to the breaking point. Without giving away any of the story, there's one point where Tess needs to do something that I know could take weeks or months to set up. This would have brought the story to a dead halt, losing all momentum, and I wondered how she was going to get around this fact. Her solution seemed too convenient to be believable to me, although the casual reader might not notice it.

Since Ms. Lippman has won every major award in the mystery field and is a perennial New York Times bestseller, I was surprised that this was so obviously a first novel. That's not saying it was bad. I would give it a solid three stars, maybe four if I was feeling generous that day. While enjoyable, it's not outstanding. I'd like to try one of her more recent books, maybe one of her standalones or possibly the most recent Tess Monaghan, to see how she's grown as a writer.