Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Skin Deep by Nora Roberts

I’ve recently been rereading Skin Deep by Nora Roberts. I should probably tell everyone up front that she is my favorite author, and Skin Deep is, I believe, the first of her books I encountered. Its copyright date in my current copy is 1988 (This is my second copy of the book. The first one, used when I got it, has long since disintegrated from time and use.)

I read the story for the first time years ago and remembered the tale, but not the title or author. So when I found the book in a paper grocery bag full of romance novels several years later, I didn’t realize till several pages in that I knew the story. I not only reread the book, but kept it. (The women in my family passed around romances by the bag load for years as we have been prodigious readers for generations.)

It was probably around that time I started looking for Nora’s books. She’s written about a gazillion stories, and I currently have copies of most of them. Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed them all, some more than others, naturally. But, not a dog in the lot. How the heck does she do it? How does she draw me in, make me care about and believe in her characters? And, how does she keep from getting stale and monotonously formulaic. I mean really, how many ways can boy meet girl after all? At least a gazillion, apparently.

Not that there is no formula behind many of Nora’s books. In Skin Deep, Chantel O’Hurley, a Hollywood star finds herself being stalked. Like so many of Nora’s female characters, Chantel is strong-willed, self-reliant and knows her own mind. Her manager introduces her to an old friend and security expert, Quinn. And, like so many of Nora’s heroes, Quinn is strong, reliable and sensitive. The sparks fly in instant dislike and distrust between the two. As the story progresses, tension increases with the danger of the stalker and the attraction between the two main characters. The story culminates with the stalker attempting to kill Chantel and the day being saved by Quinn. At which point they agree to marry and live happily ever after.

A lot of Nora Robert’s stories follow similar patterns, but each manages to be unique. The characters are well rounded and believable. The locations are varied but each is brought to life with vivid descriptions. Nora has an ability to convey ideas succinctly, impressions strongly. Each sentence packs a punch. Her stories waste no time on extra words, ideas or characters, but each is packed full of texture and color. Skin Deep is no exception.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

I’ve been rereading one of my favorite books, Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. It’s a sweet love story of a lonely girl grown to womanhood in England in the first half of the twentieth century, who through the auspices of her aunt – a woman of “power”, finds a place to put down roots and a man with whom to share her life and build a family.

I pull this book off my shelf about once a year, and every time I do I wonder why exactly it draws me back over and over. Maybe because it is sweet and simple. Maybe because the idea of “the sight” and “witchcraft” intrigue me. Maybe because it is reassuring to think that ordinary people can find true happiness leading ordinary lives. Maybe it is simply a case that Ms. Stewart has a knack for crafting a story that touches basic human elements in me.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Burn by Linda Howard

I’ve spent some time listening to Linda Howard’s Burn on audiobook. I generally like her books, and this is no exception. The characters are believable and most are likeable. The premise is plausible enough. I’d give it a 7 of 10. I enjoyed the story, but probably won’t reread it. It had several good story lines, any of which could have made an excellent novel in themselves. They were dealt with in enough detail to cause the story to drag in places, and were left behind a bit as the main plot line developed.

The story revolves around Jenner (yes, Jenner), a working class stiff who hit a huge lottery jackpot, and Cael, a US government agent (sort of) who needs the use of Jenner’s stateroom on a charity cruise to spy on the bad guy. The use of the stateroom is assured by kidnapping her and her friend Syd and insisting that Jenner play the part of Cael’s lover. The urgency underlying the spying on the bad guy, Mr. Larkin, has to do with the possible sale of cutting edge arms technology to the North Koreans. However, has the tale unfolds, Cael and Jenner become aware that Larkin’s evil plots run not only to treason, but to mass murder as well. He plans to destroy and sink the luxury cruise ship with all passengers and crew aboard. The good news is that he plans to die in the destruction as well.

As the story progresses, Jenner and Cael fall in lust followed quickly by love, Cael and his group foil the treasonous arms sale and discover the plot to sink the ship in the nick of time to save most of the crew and passengers from death. Not bad for a couple week’s work.

The beginning of the story tells the tale of Jenner’s rise to wealth, and the fear and frustration of having a winning lottery ticket, but being required to wait weeks for the payout. Linda Howard describes in vivid detail the joy, frustration, fear and devastation of going from a hand to mouth existence (Jenner doesn’t even have a bank account) to becoming one of the world’s ultra-rich. The heartache of losing everything familiar from her dead-end job to her best friend as a result of the acquisition of money is rendered beautifully. The first several chapters are devoted to this transition and are wonderful to read.

Then things shift to Jenner’s new life, her one true friend Syd and their time spent on the charity circuit. Ms. Howard works hard to make Jenner’s life among the idle rich seem less idle and more rich. The next section of the story is spent describing how Jenner and Syd met and became friends which leads to their plans to travel on the maiden voyage of the luxury liner on which most of the story takes place.

The next portion of the story deals with Cael and his group planning the necessary surveillance on the cruise ship and the kidnapping of Jenner and Syd required to affect the task.

Next, the story deals with the details of the surveillance of Larkin, and Jenner’s growing understanding of Cael and his group. She begins to comprehend that while they’ve done some despicable things, they are the good guys. A lot of time is spent on the details of watching Larkin and trailing him to the treasonous data transfer. And during this surveillance, Cael begins to believe there is more afoot than weapons sales.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, Cael’s group discovers Larkin’s plan to blow up the ship. They have less than an hour to avert complete disaster, and there is simply not enough time. While most of the passengers and crew are driven to the life boats and escape, too many are killed in the first round of explosions. On the upside, Larkin’s plans for instant, painless suicide fall apart when the bomb he perches upon fails to go off and he is burned alive in the flames from other bombs that explode as planned.

It seems to me that this story is either longer than it needs to be, or not nearly long enough. The transitions in the story line seem a bit rough. The abrupt and devastating changes to Jenner’s life upon winning the lottery are described in heartrending detail, and then she is suddenly in Florida seven years later. And that’s okay with me. You can get away with one big jump in a story line – two if you use the prologue/epilogue device, but several chapters are too long for a prologue. The treasonous weapons sale is dealt with in great detail and then disappears until the epilogue. Even then it is not brought to a real conclusion – although it is safe to assume the good guys triumph in the end.

Jenner’s tight friendship with Syd is not dealt with in a way that pleases me. Syd keeps popping up in the story for brief moments. There is enough detail to leave me wanting to know her better; there is too much detail for her to be a bit character in the tale. I am left feeling unsatisfied.

And, the thing that keeps Linda Howard off my list of favorite authors is my inability to truly despise her bad guys. Larkin, a mean-spirited, rude, treasonous mass-murderer has a brain tumor. It leaves him in constant pain and warps his thinking. I have to feel a tiny bit sorry for him – and I don’t want to. I can’t help but think that maybe he is not in complete control of his actions. I want to hate his guts, but can’t quite get there. That annoys me.

All in all I liked it. I probably would have preferred it had I read it instead of listening to it. Reading aloud takes much longer than reading the written word. Perhaps my feeling that the story dragged in spots was exacerbated by the time it took to listen to it. I’ll get a hard copy of her next book or at least a Kindle copy and probably enjoy it just a bit more.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What do I like to read

My tastes in reading tend to be fairly eclectic. I’ll read pretty much anything in print – up to and including the back of the toothpaste tube!

I strongly favor fiction. I want to be entertained when I read. I want to get away from the everyday. I prefer happy endings and moral clarity. I have a vivid enough imagination and good enough memory to really enjoy science fiction and fantasy. That may be why I enjoy history as well.

While I favor fiction, I don’t’ dislike nonfiction. I shy away from true crime and autobiographies though. I avoid true crime because it frightens me to have to face the reality that some people are genuinely evil or abysmally stupid and they could very well be my neighbors. (Or worse, my daughter’s neighbors!) True crime stories leave me feeling dirty, inside and out.

And, autobiography? You want to write a book and can’t come up with a better topic than yourself? Can you spell narcissism? Can I believe anything you say? Reading an autobiography seems very similar to standing at a party, trapped against the wall by some boring guy who wants to tell me how wonderful he is. I can’t even pay attention to what he’s saying for trying to figure out how to escape. I think the story of a life is generally more interesting told from a more objective point of view.

I don’t like a lot of violence, blood and guts. I don’t like stories that leave a lot of loose ends hanging out there. I don’t like being preached at. I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end. And, yet, I have any number of favorite books that have one or more (okay, or all) of these characteristics.

What I do like is any piece of written material that draws me out of where I am and into where its tale is being told, that makes me care about the places and people about whom I’m reading, that has me both laughing and crying aloud. If a book can do all those things, I consider it an good read.

A great read will do all the above and make me think on top of it. Once I lay the pages aside, the words stay with me. They may make me consider my beliefs and habits. They might cause me to wonder how the universe really works. And most of all, they make me want to come back and revisit them again.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How Can Paradise See?

In Ted Dekker’s The Bride Collector, the author uses a concept that seems inexplicable to me. Paradise, the female lead, can “see” the last memories of a dead person by touching the body.

The basic concept does not stretch the bounds of my ability to imagine. Perhaps it is possible to connect via some chemical or electrical or magnetic means if one has the proper gift. It is potentially plausible that coming into contact with the recently dead could somehow “download” the final moment of memory.

However, the use of the concept in the story is a bit difficult for me to buy. Paradise is asked to touch the body of a murder victim in the hope that she will “see” something in the poor dead woman’s final memory that can help the FBI track down the killer. The victim has been dead for at least two days and has undergone forensic analysis and an autopsy. Thus the corpse has been handled by any number of people before it is brought to Paradise. Once Paradise touches the dead woman’s cheek, she is assailed by a lengthy and detailed memory, including dialog, more than a minute long.

This is much more than the glimpses and hints usually given to psychics upon contact with a person’s things. Of course, this is the physical body being contacted, not just a possession. But this body has been drained of fluids, its organs removed and examined during autopsy. It is more a collection of parts than a body any more. Any chemical, electrical or magnetic energy it may have retained after death must be long gone. How can it retain any memory, much less impart it to another.

And why is the memory so detailed? The woman was killed by draining her blood. I find it surprising that the last thing retained by the body was not fuzzy and incoherent from blood loss and terror.

I realize that this concept is a device to move the story along, but it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. I also realize that this is fiction – it does not have to have any connection to reality. But it seems to me that if you are telling a cops and killers story set in present day, you should not step too far into the paranormal for a single plot device.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Bride Collector

I recently finished listening to Ted Dekker’s The Bride Collector. It is a cop vs. serial killer thriller with a love story included. While Mr. Dekker has produced more than two dozen books, this is my first encounter with his work. It wasn’t bad for a first date. I’d give him a 7 on my personal scale. I’d be willing to spend some time with him again, but I’m not ready to give him a spot on my list of favorite authors just yet.

The serial killer, Quintin, was appropriately creepy and twisted. The killings pushed the envelope of nasty and weird. The FBI agent, Brad, was big, handsome and skilled. And then there are the denizens of the asylum for those not only psychotic but highly intelligent as well. These folks not only help break the case, but the FBI agent finds his one true love among their ranks.

The story started out great; it’s pace and level of detail just right for my taste. My heart rate actually increased as the agency pulled out all the stops to find a female FBI agent taken by the killer as his sixth victim. The tension rose as the first place Brad goes to rescue the woman turns out to be a false lead. And, my heart plummeted as they find the female agent – moments too late.

At this point things take a bit of a left turn in my estimation. I have a pretty well developed ability to suspend disbelief, but the progression of the story from this point left that ability a bit frayed around the edges. I found it difficult to believe that the FBI would release case files, much less the body of a victim, to the inmates in an asylum, no matter how brilliant they are. I also can’t quite fathom an FBI agent and a psychotic agoraphobe with personal hygiene issues falling in love after one afternoon spent chatting. And, in the final scenes, I just cannot buy a serial killer who can go, in the space of a few minutes, from using a power drill on a man’s shinbone just to hear him scream to sobbing in the arms of his intended seventh victim because she displays an understanding of his psychological pain.

The story follows a formulaic wrap up to boy meets girl. Love conquers all, including ritual murder and assorted psychoses. The story closes with the entire cast gathered together to revel in their success and happiness – ala Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Am I Here?

Why am I here?

I’ve been considering this whole blog thing for several months now. I miss the conversations I used to have with coworkers when I was working (I’ve been unemployed for the last 10 months). And, I really miss the chats with my younger sister (who died last Fall). Since I’ve lost the audiences on which I’ve relied, it has occurred to me to throw my thoughts out onto the network in the hope of discovering new ones.

I’m not terribly interested in going over the day to day details of my life – that’s what my husband and parents are for. What I really want is some intellectual stimulation. That is why I’ve been thinking and not doing for months. What can I consistently think and write about that other folks might be interested in? I’ve been thinking of and rejecting ideas for quite some time. I finally ran the blogging concept past my husband (how novel!!). We tossed ideas around for a couple of days and this one caught my interest: write about books I read and the ideas they cause to trickle through my brain.

I read a lot. I usually have at least two stories going at any given time. And I don’t necessarily just “read”. I also regularly listen to audiobooks. I generally have a “hand” book – a library book, paperback or my Kindle – that I can carry with me and read when I have a free moment. I also usually have a book on tape that I can listen to while doing housework and yard work.

I always have an opinion on what I’m reading. Sometimes it is on the work in general, sometimes on a particular idea put forth therein. It is my intent to put those thoughts into writing and send them out into the network in the hope of generating a dialog that will stimulate further thoughts.

That’s why I’m here. With luck I will find plenty of others to hang out here with me.