Archive | December, 2010

Loving books —

29 Dec

Somewhere along the line I managed to get involved in reviewing books. I think it started with a writer’s newsletter in the early-mid 90s, when I would insert a review of a book I thought the readers might also enjoy. I’ve not stopped since. As far as I can be certain, my first reviews at Amazon.com date from July, 1998, and as of now there are 403 of them! To be honest, not all of these are books–some of them are music CD’s.

On occasion, I review books for other sites, too, but these are generally books that pertain rather specifically to music, or sports or Cleveland, for that matter. Sometimes I hit the jackpot with a book that combines two of those things. Of course, I don’t review every book I read, mostly because too many of them are not really all that good. Sometimes I don’t even finish reading the book, and generally think that’s not compatible with trying to give my opinion of it. However, there are times . . . (see below for more on that topic.)

Even though I’ve always been quite explicit as to my likes and dis-likes, that doesn’t seem to deter some people from asking me to please read and review their book. These folks generally praise my reviews and are convinced a good word from me will make their book a best-seller. As if!

I don’t read horror or very much science fiction, either. While I love mysteries, I prefer cozies to gruesome. I’m a real panty-waist in that regard, preferring the crime to have been committed before I blundered on the scene. I fail to see the lure of vampires or were-anythings, although I’ve read and greatly enjoyed the vampire mystery series by Dean James. These are outright comedies, featuring a modern-day vampire who plays the oboe! Hard not to like Simon Kirby-Jones.  I’ve also read a few Regency vampire romances (seems like that should be an anachronism, but isn’t) and a few short stories that featured were-bunnies or some such creature.

After classical music/opera, probably my greatest love is history, specifically British history, especially the 1400s and the Regency (1811-1820). Georgette Heyer was the greatest writer of Regency novels ever, although there have been numerous others I’ve also loved. Since the BBC/A&E landmark production of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, there have been a multitude of new concepts regarding Regency, especially in the mystery field. And even though most commercial publishers say the Regency romance is dead, there are countless smaller, independent publishers who keep us happy by continuing to publish such books. Some of these are better than others, but still – we do have Regency novels to read. Hooray! A surprising number of these books are issued in e-book versions. On the other hand, the Regency era is the most popular setting for historical romance novels. Go figure.

I know I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I do want my history to be accurate! Just saying a book is set in a given time doesn’t necessarily make it so. I want the people, costumes, language, architecture, etc., to be true to the times, as well.

Two of my books Secret Shores and Windsong are set on Mackinac Island, Michigan during the 1800s. Windsong takes place in 1837, and Secret Shores in 1861-63. I did an immense amount of research for both of these books, mentioning some real people where expedient. Therefore, it’s a real kick to me to suddenly be confronted by an on-line teaser such as the one I found the day after Christmas. You can read it here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101225/ap_on_re_us/us_message_in_a_bottle

Lieutenant Pemberton was mentioned in both my books, mostly as a villain of sorts, as he’d been stationed there in the 1830s. Once he left the Federal Army, he went back to his native Pennsylvania, then south on a visit. While there, he married a Southern woman, and joined the Confederate Army! This was before the war broke out, obviously, as by that time, he’d attained the rank of General. It was perhaps ten years after the publication of my books that I discovered he was also the General who surrendered Vicksburg to General Ulysses Grant on July 4, 1863. So, finding this article on-line was like a slightly-belated Christmas present – something of interest, to be sure. Even if only to me!

But reviewing has become a rather large part of my life in the last few months. I stumbled over a review site while looking for information about a particular book. This site was www.sacramentobookreview.com and to my surprise, I learned they have a sister-site: www.sanfranciscobookreview.com and they were looking for reviewers. (Most such sites are always looking for more contributors, as very few of them pay anything, although generally one gets to keep the reviewed books.)  Following their instructions, I submitted several past reviews—and was accepted. One thing I really like about this arrangement is that I get to choose the books I’d like to review. Of course, if I make a bad choice, it’s my fault, and I’m expected to read it anyway and write an impartial review.

To my great surprise—and greater pleasure—I’ve been introduced to a good many books whose existence I’d probably not otherwise have known about. Two of the very best of these (some 30 or so by now) were self-published works of fiction. One is considered a thriller, and that’s not too inaccurate a label, while the other is fiction. Both books were written by older men. Granted, they do have unusual plot elements, but nothing that should scare a sensible publisher!

The first is The Jefferson Project by Thor Duffin. It’s just simply extraordinary! You can read the review here: www.sacramentobookreview.com (search for the title or author name). In an e-mail exchange, the author said he’d submitted it to about 75 publishers, most of whom said it didn’t  ‘fit their requirements’ while the rest said it was too long! I didn’t find it to be one word too long, but thoroughly enjoyed all of it, and will highly recommend it. The most astonishing part of this book to me was the total lack of profanity! That alone should endear it to almost anyone. www.thorduffin.com

The other book is a mix of yesteryear and today in Philadelphia – Crossing the Line – by Lynn Miller. When the main protagonist, Owen Gilroy, is down-sized from his bank job at the age of 53 or so, he and his partner decide to move from their condo to a historical townhouse they’d looked at some years previously. Now it’s on the market again, and they’re intrigued not only by the structure and the possibilities for renovation, but also by the fact that an ancestor of Gilroy’s had lived there some 150 years earlier. While cleaning out the attic, he stumbles over a trunk filled with diaries, letters and other memorabilia of that man, Hiram Milhouse, a noted scientist, who had corresponded with Charles Darwin among other prominent scientists of the era. It was so real I found myself Googling Milhouse, to be sure he actually lived. Or didn’t—as the case may be!

An author note at the end explains the whys and wherefores of Milhouse’s life, which was borrowed from a real person. I’m not sure when my review will appear, but the book is for sale now, so you should be able to get it, if you’re interested. http://www.lynn-miller.net

Sad to say, not all of the books I’ve reviewed so far have been this wonderful. In my unhappy opinion, the worst offenders have been from the big commercial houses. Fortunately, I am allowed to express my honest opinion of the book, even if I didn’t/couldn’t finish it, for whatever reason. If I didn’t finish it, however, I do say so in the review. These two book review magazines are available on-line or in print. Information is available at either web-site. Look me up, if you like!

Whatever your reasons for loving books — I hope it’s a life-long love affair!

If you have questions, please write to me at: bookmechanic@gmail.com

 

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Location == part two

22 Dec

Last week’s post about location was a bit brief and possibly mis-leading. My apologies.

Of course, not every book requires the writer to personally inspect the place where the action happens. I’ve written books set in places I’d never been – a Regency novel was my first ever, and at that time, a visit to England was only a cherished dream. It’s since been a dream-come-true on three occasions! My fourth novel — Ardenwycke Unveiled — was set in upstate New York along the Hudson River, and I’ve never been there, either, but it didn’t hatch as being so entirely site-specific.

I did go to Mackinac Island to gather info for Secret Shores, although I’d been there several times previously. The two days I spent there was of enormous help, however, in getting the geography settled in my mind. But then, when I began Windsong (the prequel, written later) I ran into problems because the Algonquin village where she lived was on the Canadian mainland, and I’d not ever been there.

Actually, finding the right place for that village was almost a spooky occurrence, as it also solved a major plot point that I’d not yet been able to resolve. In Secret Shores, I’d named all the children of Etienne and Windsong by what I thought was appropriate considering their heritage. They had a French first name and Algonquin middle name. Thus their first-born son Jock was really Jacques Little Otter Nicolet. In the middle of Windsong, I was having a late-night conversation with a friend, discussing the progress of the book, and frankly, at that point I was stumped. I dug out my road atlas and began to look at the page featuring Ontario and upper Michigan.

Suddenly, a name popped off the page at me! Ottertail Lake was shown to be a sort of horseshoe shape, which seemed the perfect place for the Indian village to be located, and after all Jock had been conceived while his parents were there.  But, having the place in mind, I still felt I needed more information about the actual geography, and another trip up there was just not in my budget. So I called the Canadian Tourism telephone line and discovered there was a small museum in Bruce Mines, a little town not far from Ottertail Lake.

I was so fortunate to be able to talk to a nearly 90-year-old man who’d grown up in the area, been a teacher, and was now volunteering at the museum. He filled in a lot of detail for me, then referred me to a local man ( a former student!) who actually lived at Ottertail Lake! This kind gentleman gave me an hour of his time on the phone one night, describing the locale so clearly, I could easily envision it all in my mind. And then he said the magic words! “There used to be a waterfall there at one end of the lake. It wasn’t a huge fall, but enough that you wouldn’t want to go over it, if you could help it. Of course, it’s not there now, the Army dammed it up about a hundred years ago.” Since this was in the summer of 1992, that didn’t affect my story which was set in 1837.

However, my story desperately needed  something that would be hazardous to a runaway toddler, and the waterfall was it! I am forever grateful to this man for giving me all this background information–he made my story so real.

One of my best friends – ever – lives in England—the multi-published Sandra Heath. In my mind, she is a genius for her many-faceted books. They are so well done, the reader is convinced that this story could never take place anywhere other than the time and place she specifies. Her imagination absolutely defies description. Her descriptions are awesome, right down to the nth degree!  Of course, I continually tease her that she has an unfair advantage – she lives in the middle of history. On my last visit there in 2007, we went to a Saxon church that dated to the early 1200s. You don’t find that sort of thing in the US.  Or, at least I’m not aware of any!

When she read my Location piece last week, she wrote to me:

“My comment really is that although you found exactly what you wanted in the very place you wanted it, writers can’t always go visiting. It costs. I’ve written about various parts of the world without ever having been there, and at first my research was all done through library books. Library shelves were emptied of travel books! Now, of course, there’s the Internet. My method is to choose my exact spot in whatever country it is, and then delve around until I find an in-period property in the general vicinity. After that I choose (or invent) the site it’s going to occupy and then off I go. Oh, and then I gather info about the climate, weather, flora and fauna, recent or far-back history, etc. All this is done from home (apart from visiting the libraries, of course). I have also done as you’ve done, and visited the area of the country I want to write about, e.g. Dunster in Somerset.

So, perhaps a few lines to say that all this research needn’t cost anything? Or at least not much?”

Indeed, my friend. Consider it done. Her most recent book is set in Ancient Egypt, and to be honest, I don’t think even she could have managed a visit there for first-hand information. But it’s dazzling, anyway. It’s an erotic romance, so be prepared for that element, should you be interested in reading it. It’s only an e-book at the moment, but look for Pharaoh’s Beloved for Kindle. It should be in print sometime next year from Ellora’s Cave.

Information about my books is at the About Me page in this blog. Or you can write and ask me for more specific details. They’re all currently available, by the way.

I wish you all –all sorts of joy in this holiday season! And tons of interesting and fabulous words! All of which will fall exactly where you want them!

 

 

Location, Location, Location!

15 Dec

Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with real estate has this saying engraved on their brain! It’s hammered at you every day. Location determines selling price, asking price, and eventually buying price. And all three of these may be different numbers. Anyway, this relates to books as well.

You can’t just say a book takes place in a certain setting without knowing for sure that your story could indeed live there.  You can try, of course, but it’ll probably come back to bite you in the end. Of course, if it’s a historical tale, the proper location becomes even more important.

In the summer of 1997, our local paper featured a travel piece about Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. In addition to the historical aspect, to many people, its greatest claim to fame (and rightly so) is the Shaw Festival, renowned throughout the world for absolutely first-class productions of plays by George Bernard Shaw, and his contemporary compatriots. (Is that redundant?)

Otherwise, however, NotL was an important factor in the War of 1812, as it’s just across the Niagara River from Youngstown New York, close enough for a strong swimmer to cross over. The Falls are downstream about twenty miles, and until the birth of the Welland Canal (in 1824, although the current incarnation came about in the early 1920s) there was no way to get by water from the eastern end of Canada (Toronto, Montreal, etc.) to the rest of the Great Lakes area. Lake Ontario is 365 feet lower than Lake Erie, where it ends.

What so intrigued me about all this, however, was this brief note: “The Angel at Niagara-on-the-Lake, claims to be older (than 200 years old). The Union Jack flies perpetually outside because, if it doesn’t, the ghost of a British captain, killed in the War of 1812, is said to appear.”

Well! What self-respecting writer wouldn’t feel some kind of twinge at reading that? Immediately, the thought popped into my head ‘there’s a book in there!’  Of course, it took years to germinate, and finally about 5 years later, maybe, the story popped into my head. But . . . there was this wee little problem of my never having been to NotL, and having absolutely no notion of the geography, etc.  I’d spent a fair amount of time in Northern Michigan wandering around Mackinac  Island and the tip of the mainland at Fort Michilimackinac and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario inspecting other sites of battles from that war.

But this was different. I just couldn’t picture it. Move ahead to 2007, and there I was, standing in front of the Olde Angel Inn! I was so thrilled. Sure enough the Union Jack was aloft, fluttering slightly in the gentle evening breeze. My companion and I went in and after a great pub meal, were given some info about the place and the ghost, Captain Colin Swayze by name. I was ready to write!

And I did. I managed to write two whole pages of prologue, when my heroine played a trick on me! I had decided she’d buy an old house and renovate it into a Bed n Breakfast Inn. Darned if the house she chose wasn’t an octagon house. Really? I was totally stymied. Once upon a time, this was a fairly popular architectural style, but they’ve sort of fallen out of favor. I remembered there was one near where I grew up (Washington, Michigan) but I’d never been in it. I had to find out more. That little project took me nearly three years!

I’d never have managed all this without Google, I have to say. I found several sites devoted to Octagon houses, and discovered a few within visiting distance. I’ve been able to visit two of them, and take lots of pictures, so I had a general notion of the layout, etc. There’s a book about the house by the man who popularized them in the US—Orson Scott Fowler. (Although Thomas Jefferson was there first – as usual. After he retired from being president, he built an Octagon house in the mountains for his summer house. It’s called Poplar Forest, and is even now being renovated in Lynchburg, Virginia.

So, from there, I was able (with help from another friend and his grandson) to configure the floor plan to a more suitable size. Each of my house’s 8 walls are 24 feet instead of the original builder’s 32 feet! What a massive house that must have been. Then I stumbled over one photo of a faded pink brick house with a Mansard roof and fell totally in love with it. Unfortunately, that house in Windsor, Ontario, burned some 20 or so years ago during renovation, and was damaged so badly it had to be torn down. But I have that photo for inspiration.

But still, there was one slight problem! Just where, in NotL was this house to be located? It’s a contemporary story, with flashbacks to accommodate the ghost, but I desperately wanted it to be on the water. I had an image in my head of the land itself, but no good idea where that might be. Or if it was even reasonable to dream about it!

So, off to NotL I went. With friend. It was rather cold, and windy, but the weather was so invigorating! We walked all over, taking literally hundreds of photos. Each time I’d see what I thought might be a logical spot, we’d inspect it carefully, and I’d say, “I think this could work” but then we’d go on. And I’d find yet another ‘possible’ site.

But then. Ohhhhh! There it was. Perfect! Right on the lake, but up on a slight rise sat a big white house with trees nearby but not too close. There is a small municipal park to the west, with a few benches for watching the lake, before the land curves around to the south and eventually over to the Welland Canal, some few miles away. Of course, most of the lakeshore in that direction is given to wineries. Bunches of them!

And to the east of my chosen spot is a small inlet or creek, which I saw in my mind as I was creating all this. My heroine has a degree of isolation, but not total. She can easily walk along the road in front of her house to visit a neighbor or just cross the road to the quite a few houses over there.

I’m so thrilled! I can easily picture (in my mind, that is) that gorgeous pink brick octagon house sitting on that little bluff looking out over tempestuous or tranquil Lake Ontario. On a clear day, one can see Toronto!

Now to write it.  Saint’s Harbour is about to come to life. Wish me luck, please?

If you want to visit the Olde Angel Inn, I can heartily recommend their ‘bangers and mash’ for a great pub dinner! Otherwise, you can visit them here, as well: http://www.angel-inn.com/index.php

I’m bbbbaaaaaccckkk!

8 Dec

Yes, I am, although to be honest, I never really left, except for a brief trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake last week, about which more next week.

Please accept my apologies for being absent for so long, and to those of you who wrote to find out what happened, your notes cheered me up more than you’d believe. What happened was – I got a job! Granted, it was only a part-time, temporary job (which I knew going in, and was part of its great attraction for me) but it did represent a major change in my lifestyle.

For the last four years, I’d been more-or-less gainfully unemployed, although I did have some writing clients and students. But this was all pretty much an unplanned series of events, highly dependent on the progress of my clients or students. And that was fine with me.

During the first eight months of this year (2010) I was happily engaged in attending musical events (concerts and operas) and writing about them. Plus I was doing a bit of PR, etc., for a smallish, newish musical adventure here in Cleveland. I had time to work on getting my first book Secret Shores back in print again (which did happen—see the about me page for details) and was working towards getting a collection of short stories in printable format.

Then, just about when fall came on the scene, I stumbled over the afore-mentioned job. I was chosen as one of the workers, and for the next two months (it stretched out thanks to Cleveland’s wonderfully capricious weather!) I was seemingly out of the apartment more than I was in it! Not really, it just seemed that way. (Good news is that I’ve been told I’ll be able to do this again next year in April and August when the project repeats!)

My adopted home-town, (which I dearly love!) Cleveland is a much-maligned city on the southern shore of Lake Erie. While once it was among the top ten largest cities in America, a great proportion of its population has gone elsewhere; some to the suburbs, some to other states. The economy, which was heavily industrial, tanked, and our political fortunes (along with our sports teams) have acted like overgrown yo-yo’s for the past few decades. We have many wonderful, unique components that make us attractive to visitors, but of course, many of these are unheralded and generally unrecognized by the locals. We have the magnificent Cleveland Orchestra, known around the world for superlative performances, especially those within its equally world-renowned home, Severance Hall.

As part of University Circle, on the city’s east side, it joins other world-class institutions that draw out-of-towners like magnets:  the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospital are just a few. Slightly to the east is John Carroll University and even closer to the west is the Cleveland Clinic. Visitors stand in awe of this accumulation of marvelous places in such a small space.

Another treasure of Cleveland is the ‘Emerald Necklace’ or Cleveland Metroparks – a 16-member chain of parks that surround the city like a large necklace. I’m embarrassed to admit that until this job came along, I’d never (in the 46 years I’ve lived here) spent any time on the ground in any of these parks. I’d certainly driven through a few of them, but never left the vehicle to explore. What a dunce I was! These parks rival anywhere in the world for beautiful, unique scenery, enhanced by fall colors that compare to anywhere ‘up east’ as they say, meaning New England.  There are rock formations enough to enchant a geologist for years, creeks, lakes (fishing, too!) and waterfalls, animals (I had a rather close encounter with a pair of deer in mid-afternoon one day – fortunately without casualties on either side, but it was a near and exciting thing!) There is a large marsh with bird sanctuary, miles and miles of walking trails and nearly as many for horse-back riding, plus many separate trails for bicycles.

Not all of these amenities are in each park, of course, but many of them are. An abundance of trees provide shade and quiet (sometimes isolated) places for dreaming or thinking or picnicking, and just generally enjoying the respite from city noises. All of this within a range of maybe 30 miles from the city center. Magnificent!

My job was to go out to several of these parks and interview the people who visited there. Different days of the week, different times of the day, it was all marvelous. I met many interesting people and not a few interesting dogs, as well!  (The pay wasn’t so bad, either!) I’m really looking forward to next March and April for the next go-round. I loved every minute of it, but I did get more exercise than I’ve recently become accustomed to, and would come home at night and just fall into bed. Wiped out!  A few things had to go by the wayside—one of them was my own writing. Now I can play catch-up again.

I’m already working on next week’s post – it’s about Location, Location, Location!  And I’m not talking about the Real Estate application of that phrase, but rather how much does location affect your book. It certainly affected one of mine, but finally, after thirteen years, I can ‘see’ my story’s location in my mind’s eye, so I can get busy writing about it.

More next week. Honest! But in the meantime, I’d like to recommend an article that was in our paper today. I found it on-line at its syndication home. Mr. Shribman is a most graceful writer, and I adore everything I’ve ever read by him. He combines information with accessibility, making you want more and more of whatever he’s writing about. I’m not at all surprised that he won a Pulitzer award (in 1995) for political writing. He’s currently the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I cannot recommend him highly enough. Please read and enjoy this article about December 7. If you do a search for him, you’ll find many, very astute non-political articles out there.  http://www.uexpress.com/davidshribman/

But it’s the writing, more than the content that just grabs me! He makes so much sense of everything!

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at   bookmechanic@gmail.com Thanks!