Thursday, April 28, 2016

Popular settings which have an impossible number of stories

However much we may love these settings, trying to collect several stories creates a bit of a reader's dilemma. Wanting to buy into all of them would be impossible in the mutually exclusive sense. If we get emotionally invested in any one of them, it would mean there's no way the others could have taken place. It may have to come down to choosing our favourite and sticking with it.

1) Biblical and Historical Novels
I'm talking about the type which adopt actual, historical figures from the Bible or later times as their main characters. If Nehemiah was staying with this particular family while he was organising the building of Jerusalem's wall, then there's no way he could have simultaneously stayed with these other people from a different novel. It's simply because he can't have been two places at once. If Mary of Bethany had a crush on a particular fictional man, then the attachment she made to another fellow in this other novel, when she was supposedly the same age, couldn't have happened.

The next setting is very far away and intriguing, and I've noticed it's had a lot of popularity in recent years.

2) The surface of Mars
It's a barren place in reality, but apparently a very fertile one for the imagination. One author may have it populated with the traditional little green men we see in funny cartoons. Yet another may imagine settlers from Earth venturing to create colonies there. A third author may choose to have aggressive Martians deciding to attack Earth (think The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells). And the fourth author may have just one hapless hero stranded on the Mars we know from photos and science books (think The Martian by Andy Weir). They can't all be true!

The third setting becomes impossible because of the sheer volume of literary characters who supposedly paid for passage. They couldn't have all fit.

3) The sinking of the Titanic
It was certainly a huge ship. Nobody who has watched the Hollywood blockbuster with its built to scale model could deny that. Just the same, the number of characters from different sources who supposedly set sail could surely fill a dozen Titanics. There are scores of main characters who either perish or get rescued. There may be even more side characters whose authors decide that having them board the Titanic is a convenient way to kill them off. All these doomed passengers are not merely in novels but movies, comics and soap operas set in the turn of the century. Who would have believed in 1912 that this sad setting would take off so many years later?

With the Titanic, maybe we can choose several of our favourite stories to be true simultaneously. It was big enough that the main characters of different novels would've been strangers to the others on board. I guess it's only when enough of them choose historical, named figures such as the captain and staff, that it gets mutually exclusive. Or maybe if there are too many fictional characters supposedly holding down the same positions simultaneously.

Anyway, I think books with well-loved settings are all great fun to read, and just because some novels cancel others out, it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of each one at the time. Maybe you wouldn't want to be reading two of them at the same time, but I don't do that with novels anyway. Why do you think some settings just fire off plot ideas for so many different authors? And while we're at it, can you think of any other settings which might fit this list?  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

'Career Advice for the Lost Soul' by Rebecca Hayman


Genre: Christian contempory fiction, Australian fiction.
Pastor Lydia Waters has a career plan. It is straight-forward, logical and more than likely to succeed. That is until she is stymied by her boss, the slightly sinister, can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it-but-I-wish-he’d-stop- smiling-at-me-like-that— Reverend Gordon Bates.
Lydia flounders and she doesn’t have a plan for floundering. Loss of a job she can handle, but loss of belief in the job she is qualified to do? What does it mean to pastor a church anyway?
In the lull answers come unexpectedly. Sid and Viv Vincent, with their awkward kindness, reinstate church as that place where you get a cuppa and a biscuit afterwards (sometimes even cake). Her mother Phyllis Waters leads Lydia into the wide expanse of Australia’s interior, where Luke’s Gospel demands of her an exploration of self. Then there is Malcolm Preston who can’t be dismissed quite as easily as she first thought.

At first I expected this to be a bit like one of those lighthearted church chronicles with amusing anecdotes. Think the Vicar of Dibley. It didn't take long to realise this novel was going to delve far deeper. It's not the sort of story where every plot thread is neatly tied up, but more like real life, where some may fizzle out while others shoot off suddenly into unexpected directions.

Lydia Waters is the burned-out associate pastor at a prosperous city church. On the surface, it would seem she's tired just because she works hard. But Lydia has misgivings that maybe there's something rotten at the core of the system itself. Senior Pastor Gordon Bates has left a trail of destructive actions behind him, but they're hard to bring to the light of day since he's a control freak who covers his tracks. And few people dare to question him anyway.

Another main character is Sid Vincent, the good-natured elderly janitor. He didn't want to make waves when his wife was unfairly treated, but now he's been asked to do something else which messes up his conscience. And there's Phyllis, Lydia's estranged mother, who regrets living her life for nods of approval. She's set off in a campervan as a grey nomad to figure out who she really is at last.

The book is all about social undercurrents, which are as prevalent in the City Church as anywhere else. The characters have several quiet revelations which may make us stop and wonder, 'Is this true for me too?' Is sheep mentality alive and well in intelligent people who claim that we think for ourselves? What are our real motivations for the good things which we do? Is the Kingdom of God really as simple as stopping our mad rush for validation to be with others?

Different readers may have different takeaways. One of my favourites is that life may not pan out exactly as we expect it to, based on our hard-earned credentials and careful plans. In fact curves in the path may appear even less prestigious in the eyes of the world, but still be exactly right.

For those who enjoy Bible study, it might be good to read this along with the Gospel of Luke, since several characters are wading through it and it spurs their personal revelations.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

4 stars

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Sneaky Plot Spoiler

We all know book reviews are way different from plot summaries. Their purpose is to give readers an idea about whether or not they might enjoy a particular book. If we love a book, we want to sing its praises. And if we find ourselves let down, we may want to give others the heads up before they commit. Since they're for people who haven't read the book, giving away too much of the story line is a big no-no. It's generally recommended that nothing which happens after the 50% mark should be written about in great detail. Some say it should be only 25%.

I know some people who are walking, talking plot spoilers (most definitely talking). My husband is King Plot Spoiler. He only needs to mention the name of a story and our nephew has learned to poke his fingers in his ears, shout out, 'LaLaLaLa,' and dash out of the room. My husband is the sort of person who shouldn't write reviews, and thankfully he doesn't.

I make an effort to stick to the 50% guideline when I write reviews, but on rare occasions someone will respond, 'Thanks for the plot spoiler' or some equally snarky comment. It's easy to feel chastened, but I've come to believe that spoiler accidents are a peril that goes with the territory of book reviewing.

It's a problem that seriously bothers some people. I've met several lovely ladies, who are courteous, considerate and understanding in the normal course of a day. Yet if they think they've got the whiff of a plot spoiler, they turn into raging beasts. It's like waving a red flag in the face of a bull. They hurl abuse at the poor reviewer as if she's gone on a killing rampage rather than let a few details about a story slip.

But I believe we would be kind to cut reviewers a bit of slack, if they are genuinely trying hard to do the right thing. Just as chocolate bars come with the warning, 'There may be traces of nuts', perhaps book reviews should have similar disclaimers. 'While great care has been taken to keep this review spoiler free, there may be traces of story line due to the nature of the processing'. I've read a number of articles about the art of writing excellent reviews. Here are some random snippets of advice which might help to prove how murky the waters can get when it comes to making reviews completely uncontaminated.

1) Tell us who your favourite character was, and why.
Well, just say the author planned him to be a red herring. From what we know of him in the first few chapters, he may well be a heartless criminal. And maybe that's exactly what the author intends us to wonder at that stage. Yet if enough reviewers write something like, 'I really loved Alex,' then surely we approach the book with a bit of a spoilerish impression that he'll be sound.

2) Explain why the book made you laugh or cry.
I picked up a novel that seemed set to be a whimsical, light-hearted comedy. Yet a few reviewers had written, 'The ending was absolutely gut-wrenching.' Even though no specific details have been revealed, isn't it still verging on spoilerish when we know from the outset that we have to brace ourselves for something?

3) What was your favourite part of the book?
Here's my warning to reviewers. If it happens to come after the 50% (or even 25%) mark, you should tread very carefully indeed. Don't be fooled by the community of seemingly docile readers. They may well take your vague impressions like a whiff of blood.

If you are trying your best to stick to the rules when you're writing reviews, I wouldn't feel too devastated if somebody accuses you of spreading plot spoilers. Read over it to see if they have a point, then either edit it, delete it, or ignore it. And readers, if you're the sort of people who need a guarantee that everything is completely spoiler free, then maybe you should treat all review forums as a bit of a land mine area and stay out. Or if you do enter, do so at your own risk.  

Image courtesy of pixabay  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Replicate' by Adele Jones


Genre: Young adult crime fiction, medical fiction, contemporary science fiction, Christian/mainstream fiction. 

Having read and reviewed Integrate the first book in this trilogy, it was great to get hold of Replicate. After the first book release, I even had an interview with Blaine Colton, the hero and teenage survivor of mitochondrial disease here.    

*    *    *
Blaine Colton is pulled into a chilling conspiracy when he discovers embryonic clones with his name on them.
Suspecting the research has breached ethics agreements, he brings close friends, Sophie and Jett Faraday, in on a scheme to find answers. Immediate threats reveal not everyone is happy about his discovery. The reappearance of an identity from Blaine’s past unsettles him further, and then a crisis fractures his world. Convinced his research objections and the tragic events are linked, Blaine pursues justice. But someone is watching him. Someone wants him dead.
Replicate continues the story of Blaine from Adele Jones' Integrate.

What an ethical can of worms the premise of this story opens. Living human flesh is being harvested for experiments, but even if the ultimate intention is to benefit humanity, does that make it okay? It all comes back to the question of whether one being should be sacrificed for the greater good. In this situation, the even deeper question is whether living entities should be created especially for the purpose of being sacrificed.

For the most part, we experience the story through Blaine's bewildered point of view. He has no idea what exactly is going on within the walls of the medical centre, but once again, it deeply affects his life. It's a medical drama, it's a crime drama, and the lines blur into each other. We know that Blaine, his parents and the Faraday family are totally trustworthy, but as for all the other characters, well they could be anyone's guess!

It might have been good to see Blaine argue the ethical issues with even more fervour. Why was the cloning such a reprehensible deed in his opinion? Taking his stand made the stakes so high and impacted his life so adversely, yet his main objections seemed to be along the lines of, 'That's my genetic material, they didn't ask my permission, and it's illegal.' Several readers might be in favour of cloning for possible far-reaching medical benefits. Would the strength of his argument be enough to convince them that he was right? I guess it depends on each individual reader.

Overall, it's a real nail-biting, fast-moving thriller, with several twists and shock revelations that are impossible to foresee. At one stage I was telling my husband, who'd read the book before me, 'You should have warned me.' With this sort of action to follow, I'm sure whatever happens in the final book, 'Activate' will be bound to astonish and take us off guard.

4.5 stars     

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

'Miriam' by Mesu Andrews

Genre: Biblical, historical fiction, Christian fiction

The Hebrews call me prophetess, the Egyptians a seer.
But I am neither. I am simply a watcher of Israel
and the messenger of El Shaddai.
When He speaks to me in dreams, I interpret. When He whispers a melody, I sing.

At eighty-six, Miriam had devoted her entire life to loving El Shaddai and serving His people as both midwife and messenger. Yet when her brother Moses returns to Egypt from exile, he brings a disruptive message. God has a new name – Yahweh – and has declared a radical deliverance for the Israelites.

 Miriam and her beloved family face an impossible choice: cling to familiar bondage or embrace uncharted freedom at an unimaginable cost. Even if the Hebrews survive the plagues set to turn the Nile to blood and unleash a maelstrom of frogs and locusts, can they weather the resulting fury of the Pharaoh?

Enter an exotic land where a cruel Pharaoh reigns, pagan priests wield black arts, and the Israelites cry out to a God they only think they know.

This is a story about one family's attempts to weather the plagues of Egypt, but it's not just any family. It's a well-known Biblical family, including Miriam the prophetess, her brothers, parents and nephew. Since it's easy to think of them as holy and intimidating, I loved this glimpse into their more human sides, and the confused questions which teemed through their minds. One of the main ones happens to be, 'Okay, how do we communicate with an invisible God anyway?'

I enjoyed seeing Moses as the humble and courteous house guest who amazes his family whenever he admits that he's clueless about God's intentions and indignant about his seemingly outrageous demands. He even declares outright that given the choice, he'd rather not be anywhere near there. It's a really thought-provoking portrayal for anybody who assumes that a person's calling is bound to involve something pleasurable which he looks forward to. Moses even rolls up his sleeves to help with the most menial cleaning jobs for his hosts. Good on him.

What captured me most about Miriam's position is the grief she experiences when it becomes clear that her God has taken away the prophetic insights she'd experienced all her life. It's evident to the reader that this has nothing to do with Miriam falling short in any way. It's just that her season for receiving prophetic pictures is over, and God is now doing something different with her brothers as his new instruments. However, I can't help wondering whether I would take it personally in a similar way if I was in Miriam's shoes. It seems natural to take such a loss on board as a chastisement, wondering whether it's your own fault, and feeling envious of the others, rather than simply acknowledging that a precious phase is simply over. (But then, I think I'd look at the burden Moses carried and forget all about envy.)

I found Eleazar the most easy main character to relate to. You might remember him from the Bible as Aaron's third son. At this stage of his life, he serves as personal guard to Ram, one of the Egyptian princes, and the ultimate bad boss. Eleazar is a straightforward guy who never considers himself to be spiritual. His biggest fear is finding himself in situations where he's helpless to protect his loved ones. Of course these can occur at any moment when you work in a court where someone's head can be cut off at a whim.

There are a couple of nice romance threads for those who enjoy them. I don't usually like stories when men pull back from their wives, but in Eleazar's case I can definitely understand why! Just the same, there's a good deal of 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' types of misunderstandings between him and Taliah. Judging by these two, it would seem Professor John Gray's book would have even been valid for those in ancient Egpyt. And Miriam has a romance of her own, in her eighties. Still, she and brothers come across as if they're in their sixties, while Eleazar, in his forties, seems like a fit young guy in his twenties. He really needs that athleticism in his workplace, that's for sure!

I preferred this book to its predecessor in the Treasures of the Nile series, The Pharoah's Daughter. I'm guessing there will be one more novel to make it a trilogy, and that it will take place during the wilderness wanderings. But I wonder who the main characters will be. This novel was chunky enough to take me a fortnight to read, and although I knew what was coming all the way through, there were still enough twists and surprises in this version to keep me hooked. I thought Mesu Andrews did a fantastic job and deserves full marks.

Thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah and Blogging for Books, for giving me a copy through NetGalley.

5 stars

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Legend of the Mean Girl - and Six Examples

So many mean girls pop up in literature, it's easy to assume they're all stereotypes. In a way, I wish that was true. The only problem is that most of us can probably identify at least a couple of girls from our own pasts who share some of their characteristics. Here are just a couple who have helped form the legend.

1) Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice
She sets her sights on Fitzwilliam Darcy from the get go, and thinks it will be easy to take Lizzy Bennett down in small, subtle ways. Snide comments about Lizzy's supposedly inferior background, condescending insults disguised as kindness, and compliments designed to stroke the male ego are all tools in her arsenal. Caroline knows how to use them well. She seemed to inherit her brother Charles' share of slyness and calculation along with her own. He never seems to have enough nous to latch on to the artificial ways of his society. That makes him prey for the crafty.

2) Josie Pye from Anne of Green Gables
This girl is adept at calling attention to the shortcomings of others. She's even better at noticing admirable qualities in other girls, getting her jealousy stirred up, and then twisting them to appear like shortcomings instead. Josie is the type others set out to impress, and learn later that it's an impossible quest. Her attitude probably stems from low self esteem, but makes her a parasite. She feeds on put-downs of others to build herself up.

L.M. Montgomery has equivalents of Josie Pye in her other series too. Emily Byrd Starr finds herself the enemy of the supercilious Evelyn Blake. And Pat Gardiner acquires a mean girl as her sister-in-law, when critical, controlling May Binnie marries Pat's brother Sid.

3) Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prarie
She first appears as the dolled-up little town girl who looks down her nose at Laura and Mary because they are poor. Nellie believes her shop-keeper father is far superior to their hard-working, farming Pa, who she perceives to be a loser. Never the type to keep her opinions to herself, she spreads her snobbery far and wide. Later when they're teenagers, Nellie has a good, hard go at stealing the affection of heart-throb Almanzo Wilder from Laura. To his credit, he never even notices the power-plays going on in his own buggy.

4) Pansy Parkinson from Harry Potter
Nastiness just seems to radiate from this pug-faced Slytherin girl. She's one of those people who derives genuine pleasure from making others upset. Instead of empathy, she thrives on bullying. I seem to remember J.K. Rowling revealing that Pansy was a composite of several mean girls she'd come across in her school days. And when asked why Pansy didn't end up with Draco Malfoy, JKR replied that she certainly wasn't going to let this anti-heroine get the man she wanted.

5) The Ugly Stepsisters from Cinderella
These two seem to be evidence that nastiness can be learned. They never question their mother's brainwashing that they are better than their step-sister, and therefore feel free to order her around, keep her confined to household drudgery, and call her names. It's a pity the father never noticed and put a stop to it. Several stories with nasty, conniving females also seem to have clueless males.

6) The Stepmother from Snow White
I get the impression the hapless man married a much younger woman than himself the second time round. That's why she regards Snow White as a rival for her beauty, rather than a lonely daughter to care for. And the blunt honesty of her magic mirror makes it too easy for this woman's jealousy to fester. She'd rather stage a gruesome murder than accept that she might be the second prettiest female in the land. That is one scary premise. Maybe it's even scarier that when we're little girls, we all nod and accept this without a turning a hair.

So there you have them. Although I can think of countless more examples from the pages of others novels, I thought I'd stop with these six, who most people would probably know.

If you want more examples of characters who have taken the mean girl persona to the extreme, you may enjoy an earlier post of mine, 10 Wicked Women in Novels

Thursday, April 7, 2016

'Reviewing as a Lifestyle' by Rebecca Johnson


This is an interesting book I came across some time ago and re-read. I've never come across another book quite like it, and it definitely inspires me to keep reviewing. That's why it's appropriate for this blog. 

Rebecca is a positive lifestyle reviewer who is on an eternal quest to find memorable books. She is as comfortable reviewing a household item as she is reviewing a book. In fact she has officially reviewed everything in her house that can be reviewed.
Authors think she is an ideal reader as she is able to extract the essence of a book all while telling readers what they really want to know in order to make good purchasing decisions.
What Rebecca loves most about reviewing is that it makes her happy. She mostly focuses on what she likes and loves, although she sometimes writes some more critical reviews.
In this book she reveals the secret of how to get and keep a reviewer's attention. She also includes favorite quotes about the love of books and a description of her fantasy book tower.

I read an interesting book review by this lady, thought her name sounded familiar, and decided to look at more of her reviews. That's when I found the link to this encouraging and unusual little book. I thought it serendipitous because people have been asking me why I'd bother writing reviews, when they just get swallowed up in cyberspace. What makes Rebecca Johnson's book so special is her focus. Most material I've come across about review writing deals mainly with the 'How'. Without neglecting this, she also devotes a lot of space to the 'Why'. That makes all the difference.

Rebecca describes how writing her first review back in 2000 set off a life-changing chain of events. She considers each review a special gift and believes a committed reviewer serves a noble purpose. She calls herself a review addict, with a soft spot in her heart for authors of self-published books who have plugged on without much encouragement. It started as an adventure in which she believes books that were 'looking for her' seemed to find her.

I love the mutual pay-off aspect. Rebecca sees herself as a helper and bridge-gapper between readers and authors. In return, she was pleased to discover that reviewers find it easier to see the beauty in the world. If we choose our books carefully, the best and noblest thoughts filter into our minds on a regular basis. She finds that overwhelming, positive themes keep re-occurring when you review lots. One of hers is keeping your mind free of negative thoughts, which has made her a happier person than before. I like this idea of writing reviews as a sort of health tonic or vitamin for our heart and soul.

Although not many of us will become Top 10 Amazon reviewers like Rebecca, with over 5000 reviews under our belts, I'm enthusiastic now, about staying in the ranks of reviewers. Review writing is something simple and powerful we can all do.

5 stars

Monday, April 4, 2016

'Next of Kin' by Carol Preston


 Fanny Franks was raised to believe in honesty, equality and acceptance, regardless of background or circumstances. When she meets brothers Jack and Jim, she is drawn to them by the alienation and injustice which seems to pervade their lives. She is determined to intervene and help them find happiness, until trauma in her own life brings discrimination and shame for which she is ill prepared. In dealing with her own struggle she comes to understand what Jack and Jim are going through, and they find where they truly belong.

Genre: Historical fiction, Australian Colonial fiction, Christian/General.

Fanny Franks works as a kitchen hand at a hotel. She finds herself drawn to Jim and Jack Schmidt, the nephews of her German employers, because they've had a very hard upbringing.

One of the main themes is that discrimination and intolerance for people in minority groups flourishes naturally. What makes this an interesting read is that it isn't obvious the main character needs to learn this for herself. Fanny already considers herself to be an unprejudiced person who is quick to jump to the defense of underdogs. But before the events in this story take place, she's never been on the receiving end of the same treatment. She comes to understand that even though she thought she wasn't judging Jack for his approach to his own problems, in some ways she really was. It's easy to think you understand a person's situation and can dictate what their attitude ought to be, but there is nothing like unexpectedly facing what they've faced to help put things in perspective.

I got the feeling early on that Fanny would end up with Jack, but I think the clues were there because we were meant to twig. It was his Mr-Darcy-esque gruffness, which suits colonial Australia, and the way she always notices his stormy looking eyes, even though she thinks him a grouch. There's plenty of time in the story when Fanny and the boys are separate from each other, but since it's far more than just a love story, this is fine.

It takes a good story to highlight the tension between two equally rigid attitudes in such a way that we can understand both. On the one hand, there's the German migrants who want to cling to the features of their homeland. Then there's the locals who believe they need to adapt to their new country.  Carol Preston's books can always stand alone, yet when you read several of them, the characters can be linked back to others, until there's a long line of several generations in a family to follow.

4 stars

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Value of White Space

I remember learning this interesting theory about the way modern readers set about choosing their books. We unconsciously scan the appearance of the page layout, and make decisions based on the amount of white space visible as we flick through.

When the pages are dense and blocky with enormous paragraphs, we subconsciously feel daunted. They appear like huge mountains to scale, and the more-fainted among us may chicken out and put them back on the shelves. It looks like too much hard work.

However, if we see generous white space in the form of shorter paragraphs and plenty of dialogue, it gives a friendlier impression, as if somebody has thoughtfully chipped steps into the side of that mountain. And paving the way for our readers may be as simple as breaking a couple of 7-12 line paragraphs into several shorter ones, of about 3-6 lines.

Since I learned the value of providing plenty of white space in books, I've noticed the need for it in several other areas of our lives too. There's the time aspect, for example. If every hour of the day is accounted for with long to-do lists, appointments and urgent work, we're thrown right off our feet by sudden curve balls. When a friend calls needing a shoulder to cry on, or a family member suddenly becomes sick and needs to be picked up, or we get an impromptu invitation for coffee, then our day is really thrown out of whack if we don't have white space.

Another need my family struggled with was financial white space. When our kids were small and my husband had recently left his job, every cent was accounted for in rent, food and general living bills. Sudden expenses left us reeling. A toothache requiring a filling, a fridge break-down, some beneficial group membership fee looming, or a birthday present for a son or daughter. They seemed to be petty annoyances to others, but were huge catastrophes to us, because we simply had no financial white space to absorb the added costs.

I've become such a strong advocate for white space in all areas of our lives, I prefer to call it by that name rather than brushing it off with a term I've heard others give it, which is 'nothing.' At first I thought the financial side might be the exception, since the white space we needed seemed to be more money. But no, on further reflection, the white space isn't the money itself, but the fact that it would have been nice to have some left over with nothing to spend it on. White space is actually a very vital form of nothing we would do well to fit into our lives. I've often found that many of my creative ideas have come to me in moments of white space.

I'm no scientist bu white space reminds me of the infinitesimal gaps, or synapses, between nerve cells which are constantly firing messages from one to another. Or they're like the short bursts of silence between the mighty notes of music in a symphony, or even the empty space which takes up some of the nucleus of a cell. White space, meaningful emptiness, room to breathe, whatever you choose to call it, it would seem God knew it was necessary in all of creation, so it's worth fighting for in our own lives.

I'd be interested to know if any of you have ever had to struggle to fit more white space into any area.