Book Review: Christmas on Nutcracker Court by Judy Duarte

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
What else would I be reading this week but a heartwarming Christmas story? I won this book from the author by commenting on a blog post and couldn't wait to start it. I've previously read "Mulberry Park" the first novel set in the fictional town of Fairbrook, and loved it.

Judy Duarte writes wonderful Christian romances. Or maybe they're women's fiction with strong romantic elements. Regardless of what genre you classify them in, they're stories of families and love and faith. They're books that, like "It's a Wonderful Life", are filled with hokey good things. And, just like I watch "It's a Wonderful Life" at least once every Christmas, I love reading stories by Judy Duarte.

In this book, we follow the stories of a number of characters. There's Carly, a single mom with two boys and serious financial trouble. Josh is troubled by the problems of growing up and having to take care of his younger brother, Mikey. He'd rather hang out with his friends. There's Lynette, who tries to play matchmaker for Carly, but finds herself attracted to the very man she's picked out for Carly. Grant isn't particularly interested in a relationship, but agrees to the date with Carly. Susan is just looking for any man so she won't be alone. She has her eye on Grant as well, but Max, the other bachelor in the neighborhood, would also work for her. Max, whose wife left him, has taken a year's leave of absence from his job as a probation officer to write a novel. He writes nights and sleeps days and is seen as a bit odd since when he does come out of his house during the day, it's usually in his bathrobe. And there's Maggie, the cousin who has shown up to watch Helen's house while she's away on a cruise, and touches the lives of all of the characters by her gentle suggestions.

We follow these people through their ups and downs and learn to care about them as they care about and for one another. It's a story of Christmas wishes and the power of prayer. And the perfect read for the week before Christmas.

Book Review: The Lord is My Shepherd by Debbie Viguie

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I downloaded this nook book when it was a free offering from Abingdon in late October. There are so many free books that it takes a long time for me to get around to reading those I've already downloaded, but I was attracted to this book because it was a Christian murder mystery, which is what I'm writing. It's always smart to check out the competition. :-)

The reviews I've read of this book tend to be at one extreme or the other. Readers either love it or hate it. Generally those who hate it object to the number of murders for a Christian book. That's almost right. The real problem is that this book is in a cozy voice, which means the murder usually takes place offstage, there's not a lot of violence, and the stories are generally character driven. Villains aren't really, really bad guys in cozies. At least, we don't feel like they're bad guys through most of the book. But the murderer in this book is a serial killer who not only kills dozens of people in this book, but has killed multiple people in other cities before. Serial killers and cozy mysteries don't fit together well. The reader is left with this disjointed feeling. My best description of how I felt when I finished the book was "Huh."

The story is told from three different viewpoints: Cindy, a church secretary, Jeremiah, a rabbi, and Mark, a police detective. Unfortunately, no matter which point of view a chapter is told from, they all sound alike. At first I thought the author was slipping out of the point of view of one character into that of another but the more I read, the more I realized that wasn't true. If a story is told from more than one point of view, each character has to be reflected in the language, the sentence structure, and the attitudes of the telling of events. That wasn't the case in this book.

Last of all, there's a concept attributed to the Russian playwright Anton Chekov which (roughly) states that if you have a gun on the wall in the first act, you'd better have someone use it by the third act. "The Lord is My Shepherd" violates the converse of this, i.e., if you have a gun in the third act, you'd better set it up in the first act. It's not a gun in this book, but something unlikely happens without having any reason given either in the current scene or, better yet, having been set up earlier in the book. I don't want to spoil the plot by explaining too much, but that kind of thing made me immediately downgrade my opinion of the story.

I have mixed feelings about this mystery. It's not a bad book, but the writing level isn't quite there yet. I can see where the author might develop into a good mystery writer, but this novel didn't appeal to me enough to make me want to read future books of hers.

Book Review: Skeleton Canyon by J.A. Jance

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
One of the reasons that I started this blog was because I wanted to do something to let the rest of the country know about Tucson and the Southwest. There are so many unique things here to see and do. It's a very different culture than the Northeast where I came from.

It's also the reason I wanted to write a mystery series set in Tucson. By telling stories, I think I can make people see the beauty of this area as well as problems that are specific to the Southwest. I also wanted to write about real people, people who went to church and had feelings about social issues and real relationships.

J.A. Jance beat me to it.

Skeleton Canyon is a book in her Joanna Brady series. Ms. Brady is Sheriff of Cochise County, based in Bisbee, Arizona, but with plenty of journeys to the Tucson area. It's fun to read a book and know the places that are part of the story. As the story opens, Joanna Brady is driving her daughter to the Girl Scout camp on Mount Lemmon. That's not too far from my house.

Meanwhile, a young girl back in Cochise County tells her parents that she's going to spend the weekend with a girlfriend in New Mexico, but is really having a rendezvous with her boyfriend in the Peloncillo Mountains. The secrecy is made necessary because Nacio, the boyfriend, is of Mexican heritage and her parents, particularly her father, are biased against Mexicans. Unfortunately, Nacio has to work and can't join her right away, so she goes up by herself to wait for him.

When she hears a car coming up the mountain, she assumes it is Nacio coming to join her. It isn't. She is murdered by the intruder and it's Joanna Brady's duty to find her killer. Of course, there are other complications.

This is a very enjoyable mystery. It has all the elements of a well put together plot. But what I really liked was the fact that there's a believable cast of characters. One of these is a woman minister. People in this novel go to church, call on the minister for help, and even offer brief prayers when the occasion calls for it. There's tension between Joanna and her mother, but also love. There's the friend with the shady past who's really a decent person. We root for her as she tries to turn her life around and gets disappointed.

I own several of J.A. Jance's novels. I've been to a couple of her book signings here in Tucson. But somehow this is the first book that I've pulled off my To Be Read pile (or TBR shelf on my nook). This is definitely a series I want to read in total.

And maybe I can learn to write a series as engaging as this one.

NaNoWriMo Results

Sunday, December 04, 2011
Once again November has ended and with it NaNoWriMo. This year I wrote 26,405 words, a little over half of the amount necessary to "win". But I hardly consider myself a loser.

Twenty-six thousand words in one month is a significant amount of writing. I got back into the habit of writing new words on a regular basis. Before NaNo started, I did the planning for this book, which is a sequel to the novel that I'm now submitting to a critique group. I developed a couple of interesting characters. I had that wonderful experience of having them do unexpected things, of telling me the story instead of the other way around.

I don't usually write about writing on this blog. There are too many unpublished (prepublished/wannabe/amateur) writers blogging about their journey to publication. Our stories are pretty much all the same. We discover the same books, the same newbie mistakes that beginning writers have to learn to correct, the same articles online, the same blogs written by other writers, published and unpublished. The world doesn't need another one of those. However, I'm going to indulge myself a little this morning.

I've done a lot of thinking about the left brain/right brain schism we all have during the past month. If you don't know, the left brain is responsible for logical functions like math and the right brain is where most of our creativity comes from. They're two entirely different ways of thinking. That part I wrote about the characters taking over? Yeah, that's the right brain or, as artists like to refer to it, the muse, letting loose, being given free rein to play in the fields of fantasy.

I've made my living as a computer programmer for most of my life. Guess which side of the brain that comes from? Oh, there's some creative aspects to programming. There are the times when you come up with an out-of-the-box solution to a problem or when you're entranced by the elegance of code you write. But, for the most part, it's logically putting together a set of instructions that a series of logic gates can follow.

Writing fiction is primarily a right brain activity. Just as programming isn't all logic, writing isn't all muse. There are definite structures to stories, a pattern that people expect that, if it isn't followed, will leave a reader dissatisfied. We all know that feeling of getting to the end of a book and having too many loose ends that aren't tied up or having what has traditionally been referred to as a deus ex machina rescue the hero and save civilization. The muse, if left to herself (and mine is definitely feminine), will ramble all over the place, decide that aliens landing in a flying saucer to end nuclear war is a perfectly good way to resolve your story, and not care that you didn't tell the reader what happened to the orphan lost in the snowstorm at the end.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can feel which side of my brain is in control. I write morning pages, a journal of free associations, planning, rambling and miscellaneous thoughts while drinking my first cup of coffee. This practice comes from reading Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" many years ago. Overnight your right brain is most active, creating all those dreams with the weird stuff in them. Your right brain doesn't care that you can't actually fly; you'll do it in your dreams anyway. So, while the right brain is still more or less in control, it's a good time to brainstorm about characters and stories and plot ideas. That's when I believe I can write a time travel romance where aliens really are responsible for some of the plot.

As it gets closer to the time I have to get ready for work, my left brain kicks in, nagging me to stop writing about all this stuff and think about what I'm going to make for lunch, what I'm going to wear, what I need to do at my job that day. My left brain stays in control pretty much all day because of the nature of the job and the fact that you need to pay attention while driving and stuff.

And that's why it's so hard for me to get back to writing in the evening. It's hard to shut down the left brain and let the right brain out to play when you're tired and wound up from a day at work. And, if I do make that effort, my muse is rather sulky and liable to toss me ideas I can't use, words that make no sense, diversions that will only need to be cut from the final manuscript.

For most NaNo participants, the drivel is fine. If you read the forum boards, suggestions for making the day's word count include plot bunnies and random challenges to work a frog and a robot into your plot and other insane ideas. The main concept behind NaNo is to silence your inner editor, a.k.a. the left side of your brain, and let your muse write a novel. The first two years I participated, I really needed to do this. It worked wonderfully for me.

But I've gotten past that blockage and now want to write "real" novels, not just make sure I write 1667 words every day during November. And it's too difficult for me to switch to right brain mode after being in left brain mode all day and write a lot. According to my tracking spreadsheet, I averaged 880 words per day. But it was more variable than that number would imply. If I wrote more than 1,000 words one day, I'd probably write only 600 words the next day. If I wrote 2,000 on another day, there was a good chance I wouldn't write anything the next day.

And that's okay. Sometimes. Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, which are huge fantasy books, told me at a signing that she writes slow. Her books come out years apart. George R.R. Martin, of "A Game of Thrones" fame, also takes years to write a single book. This seems to be acceptable in the fantasy world.

However, in the world of cozy mysteries, publishers expect a book a year from a series. The belief is that if you can't write a book a year, your readers will forget you and start buying someone else's books. And people like Dean Wesley Smith, who advocate self (or indie) publishing, insist that the secret to success in that world is having lots of books available for readers to buy. And Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown that, for indie published authors, series are the way to go. Readers love series. After they finish one book, they want another one to tell them what happens next in the lives of those characters.

Which is why I decided to write a sequel to my first Community of Faith mystery during NaNo this year rather than that time travel romance with the aliens. Not that I don't want to write that time travel romance with aliens. I really do. But I made a choice because I want to build a career as a writer and, much as my muse hates to hear it, there are business decisions to be made in that case. One of which I'll have to make early next year. But that's the topic for another blog.
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A Clash of Kings
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