Worth Reading: Wool by Hugh Howey

Even  though I read a lot of books, it's not often I like them enough to recommend them on my blog. But when I do, I'm happy to let the world know about an awesome read.

Last week I finished a series of 5 short novels called Wool by Hugh Howey. It's the best science fiction I've read in years. Wool is about a society that lives in a giant underground silo because the outside world that can only get glimpses of is uninhabitable. The writing it stellar, the characters are real, and there's enough tension and mystery that kept me up night after night way past my bedtime. Howey has a way to draw you into his world that makes you feel like you're living in this underground world.

So if you like dystopian science fiction, I highly recommend giving Wool a shot. In fact I like it so much that four co-workers and Marathon Girl are currently reading it and all are all enjoying it. (It's all I talk about at work with some of the guys.)

If you have a Kindle and aren't sure if the book is for you, click here and download the free sample. That will take you a read of  Book 1 and partway into Book 2. And if you buy it, get the Omnibus edition which combines all the short novels and novellas into one giant book.

Happy reading!

5/5 starts for Wool by Hugh Howey.

Books Read January 2012

A Series of Unfortuante Events #8: The Hostile Hosptial by Lemony Snicket

I've been reading this series of books to the kids before they go to bed every night. The first four or so seemed to be pretty much the same. However, they've been getting much better as the series goes on. This one was by far the best. And the older three are pretty much glued to the book when I read. Always a good sign. 4 starts out of 5.

Hour Game by David Baldacci

I like most of Baldacci's books but was disappointed in this one. Most of the characters felt flat and I had a hard time caring about them. A little more sexual tension King and Maxwell would have made their relationship more believable. And there were just some scenes (bullets colliding in midair) that seemed too far fetched. Baldacci's a good writer but I recommend checking out his other  books first. 2 stars out of 5.

The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet

Like all of Mamet's works, this book isn't a light read. Like a rich dessert, It's best read (or re-read) a chapter at a time so you can absorb the material then come back to more when you're hungry. It's also the first politically themed book I've read that written in a stream of consciousness like way. The best part of the book was seeing ideas expressed through the prism of a reformed liberal. The chapter about him giving a lecture at a prominent university is especially revealing on what a complete failure liberal arts education has become. The only place I found the book lacking and would have enjoyed reading more was his personal journey from a liberal to a conservative. 4 starts out of 5.

Book Review: Bloodborne by Gregg Luke

Gregg Luke’s new novel, Bloodborne, will make you want to stock up on mosquito spray with lots and lots of Deet. You may hate those creatures when they bite you during a backyard barbeque but you’ll hate them even more when you realize they can possibly be used to transport bioweapons that make the West Nile Virus look like the common cold.

But pesky misquotes are only a part of the suspenseful plot of Bloodborne. The hero of the story is Dr. Erin Cross—a brilliant research scientist who unexpectedly finds herself the target of terrorists. Throughout most of the novel Cross, aided by ex-Special Ops agent Sean Flannery, finds herself on the run as she tries to figure out why anyone would want to kill her or be interested in her research.

Luke does a great job with a novel that hooks you from the first chapter. Even though Luke has a degree in Biological Sciences and works as pharmacist, Luke does a masterful job of present complex research and biological information in such a way that any adult reader can understand. It makes the impending mosquito invasion seem all the more probable. The mystery is unveiled slowly but at just the right moments that it keep you turning the pages. Despite their shortcomings, Dr. Cross and Flannery characters that you can empathize with and root for. Even the main villain has a tender and caring moment which makes him feel human—even though you can’t stand the guy and hope he gets what he deserves. Admittedly I haven’t read a lot of books along these lines but the idea of using mosquitoes as bioweapons seems fairly original—at least to me. (If it’s been done before, let me know of the book in the comments below.)

If you like medical thrillers, suspense novels, or have a fascination with misquotes, then Bloodborne is the book for you. My only recommendation is that you stock up on some bug spray before reading it. Better yet, bring back DDT and eliminate those bastards once and for all.

4 out of 5 stars for the page-turning and intriguing novel, Bloodborne.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Purchase at Amazon here.

Book Review: Sleight of Hand by Deanne Blackhurst

Is it possible to con your way out of hell? That’s the question surrounding Deanne Blackhurst’s latest novel Sleight of Hand. Fifty-two year old Daniel Cabrero dies when a cons he’s running goes bad. After his death he finds himself in a purgatory-like place called the Wasteland. Aside from a guide named Jonah that comes and goes, Daniel is completely alone with only his memories of the past to keep him company. Eventually he realizes that his time in the Wasteland is only temporary and it’s up to him to ether redeem himself and move on to a place called Providence City or to a dark place from where there’s no return.

What I liked: The author did an excellent job of showing how one’s actions, for better or worse, affect other people. Many of the scenes where Daniel could see how his selfishness and scams hurt others people were very heart wrenching. The world of the Wasteland is also very creative and original. Though the Wasteland is very beautiful and many worldly pleasures can be conjured out of thing air but without anyone to share them with, the loneliness overshadows the world’s beauty. Daniel is also a solid character and the author does a good job of making Daniel’s eventual redeeming change feel natural and real—not an easy thing to do.

What could be improved: The relationship between Daniel and Jonah felt very stiff throughout the novel. While that worked at the beginning when they were getting to know each other, the relationship still felt rigid long after they had supposedly become friends. The book also could have used an edit. There were some glaring typos and transition issues that could have been fixed with the help of an editor.

Who would enjoy it: Though the book has a religious theme (concepts of right and wrong, heaven and hell) the author goes out of her way to create an afterlife something that someone from just about any faith could relate to. The book would probably be most enjoyed by those who are somewhat or very religious or have a belief in some kind of afterlife.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

How to Write a (Grief) Memoir

Since this post is on memoirs, a bit of shameless self-promotion: I’m teaching a memoir writing class in Ephraim, Utah on April 9. Don’t have full details as to where the class will be taught but it is part of Write Here in Ephraim Conference that will include many other wonderful authors and presenters. Stay tuned for details. If you’re in the area and want to know the ins and outs of memoir writing, I’d love to have you attend.

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Ever since The New York Times slammed Joyce Carol Oates memoir, A Widow’s Story, there’s been uproar in the widow(er) community about the review with many widow(er)s saying that the reviewer just doesn’t “get” what’s it’s like to be a widow. I haven’t read JCO’s memoir so I can’t say whether or not the book is worthy of the criticism it received. Thanks to a reader’s tip, I read an excerpt in The New Yorker. Though I was impressed with JCO’s prose, I found the telling of the last week of her husband’s life and first few hours of widowhood similar to what you might find on a recent widow blog. And, in my mind, that’s a problem.

Blogs aren’t memoirs. They have a different purpose and audience. When done well, blogs are vignettes that focus on one moment and give the reader some insight into that incident or person. Memoirs have more meat. Instead of focusing on a day or special moment, modern memoirs usually focus on a major event (or series of events) where the author learns something from the experience and shares it with the reader.

Maybe when I read JCO’s work in its entirety, I’ll feel different. But the little bit I read seemed like something lifted from a personal journal. It’s interesting if you know the person but utterly lacking the depth necessary to give the reader insight into losing a spouse. (I’m going to order the book later this week. However if any readers know of any more online excerpts, please email me or leave a note in the comment section below.)

So what does it take to write a good memoir? Five things immediately come to mind. (For those looking write a memoir on a different subject, just replace grief theme with whatever the crux of your experience is about. The suggestions below still apply.)

  1. Your story needs to be unique. You lost a spouse. So what. Millions of people lose a spouse every year. What makes your spouse’s death and your journey so different that other people will want to read it? You aren’t the first person to walk this path. To get the attention of agents, publishers, and readers your experience has to something unique about their story that makes it stand out from the crowd.
  2. You need to offer new insight on the subject. Many books have been written on losing a spouse. Most of them might as well be carbon copies of each other. What has your experience/journey taught you that may not be known by those who have written or walked down the same path? For example, most widow(er)s learn that life goes on and they can be happy again after losing a spouse. While that insight may be new to the writer, it’s not an earth shattering concept to most people. To make it worth the reader’s time, you need to offer some insight or unique perspective into death, grieving, moving on, etc. that other people may not have noticed.
  3. You need to be honest. With memoirs—especially grief memoirs—authors have a tendency to turn themselves look like a tragic hero for going through the experience. They don’t want to make themselves appear human. Big mistake. Even widow(er)s have flaws and make bad decisions. You need to appear just as human as the next person or the reader will feel you’ve been less than truthful and will blow your credibility. With a memoir you never want the reader to feel that way about you.
  4. You need to know how to tell a story. Good writers know what events to include and what events to leave out of their memoirs. For example, there’s no need to include the funeral of the late spouse unless something happened there that’s important to the story or can offer the reader some bit of insight into yourself or your culture that can’t come out in another part of the story. Otherwise you’re just filling up the book with pointless information and wasting the reader’s time. Good writers also know how to make quotidian events come alive and paint a vivid picture in the reader’s head. (Side note: This is one thing JCO is very good at.) They know how to take an event like death and widow(er)hood and make it interesting to the reader instead of it simply feeling like they’re reading something they’ve read a hundred times before. Being able to do this is a very difficult talent to master.
  5. Your book needs to appeal to a wide audience. Good memoirs will appeal to their target audience. Great memoirs appeal to a wider audience. If you write a grief memoir and get positive feedback from other widow(er)s, you’ve probably done a decent job writing what it’s like to lose a spouse. However, when you start getting good reviews and feedback from those who have no clue what it’s like to lose a spouse, then you know you’ve written a compelling memoir with the depth and insight needed (see #2) to get people to look at the world I a different way. These are the kinds of memoirs that agents and publishers are interested in.

When I do get around to reading, JCO’s memoir, the above five points are the standard I'll review it against. Once it arrives via Amazon, it goes to the top of my reading stack.

Worst Book Ever

Note: Be sure to read the Update/Correction below.

Most of my published author friends have a book or two that’s saved on their hard drive that will never see the light of day. They’re usually books that the author wrote early in their careers—usually before they had any kind of publishing contract. They could never find a publisher for the novel (or didn’t try) and moved on to other projects. Though the books were never published, they served as good learning experiences for the authors on what to do (or what not to do) when writing fiction.

I have one of these “learning” books on my hard drive. Between Room for Two and The Third, I wrote a novel titled Angel of Light. It was my first real attempt to write a novel and I’ll flat out admit that it sucks. However, writing Angel of Light was a good learning experience for me. It taught me that I write better with an outline, that I need to work on my dialogue, and that I do a decent job hooking the reader at the end of every chapter. Without putting effort into writing that book, odds are The Third would have never been good enough to find a publisher.

One of the lessons most these author friends have continually taught is not to be tempted to rewrite these books or resubmit them for publication no matter how much the author is in love with them. Why? Because making these books public generally drags down an author’s career not only in terms of sales but loyal readers. Once an author puts crap out there, he or she risks that it will be the first book a reader picks up. And if the book is awful, odds are they’re never going to touch another one of your books again. That’s why, aside from Marathon Girl, no one will ever read Angel of Light. I will never rewrite it or even attempt to have it published. It will remain on my computer until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. (Even then I hope to have the presence of mind to nuke that part of the hard drive before I pass on.)

So it’s sad when a talented author like Harlan Coben makes this mistake with his novel Play Dead. I like Coben’s novels and have been reading them voraciously since I discovered his books last year. But Play Dead is a torture to read. The characters have no depth and the reader hardly cares about them. The dialogue sucks. The plot had enough big holes that a three 747s could easily fly through them. The only reason I kept reading the book was because I thought there was no way the book could get any worse.

I was wrong. It got worse. Way worse. When I done reading it, I felt like I had been forced to watch Glitter and Gigli at the same time! As a result there are hours of my life and a million brains cells that I’ll never get back.

Granted, Coben warns the reader at the beginning of the book that he hasn’t “read Play Dead in at least twenty years” and that “it’s exact book I wrote when I was in my early twenties, just a naive lad working in the travel industry….”He also accurately compares the book to “that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that got you an A-plus on, the one your teacher called “inspired”—and one day you’re going through your drawer and you find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’”

My question to Coben is this: since you knew this book sucked, what were you thinking by publishing it? Play Dead reads just like one of those novels that never should have been published—EVER. Even you seem to know this but pushed it through anyway? Are you short on cash? Is someone blackmailng you?

I only wish I had read the warning before I started reading chapter 1 because I never would have read it otherwise.

For readers, unless you’re looking for 101 class on how not to write a novel, avoid even touching Play Dead. Your brain cells will thank you for it.

Update/Correction: Harlan Coben came across this review and emailed me a correction that I’ll pass on. Apparently Play Dead was Coben’s first novel and was published back in 1990. The version I was reading is a 2010 reprint. It’s NOT a book that he pulled out of the drawer after 20 years and decided to push through the publishing mill.

This error was my mistake. After I finished reading Play Dead and seeing how it wasn’t even close to the quality of other Coben novels I’ve read, I flipped to the beginning of the novel where I read his author’s note. After reading that and seeing the 2010 copyright date, I wrongly assumed it was something he decided to publish after he had become a successful writer.

So, I apologize for the misunderstanding, Mr. Coben. I appreciate you taking the time to email me and offer the correction. So you know, I’ve enjoyed every other book of yours thus far and am looking forward to reading Live Wire when it’s released in March. Had I known this was your first novel when I was reading it, I would have been a bit more understanding as a reader. You’re a talented writer and have come a long way since Play Dead.

For readers, I retract the reasons behind the publication of Play Dead but stand by my review of the book. It isn’t Coben’s finest work.If you’re interested in reading his novels, I suggest starting with some of his standalone novels like Just One Look or Hold Tight. If you enjoy those, then check out his Myron Bolitar novels staring with Deal Breaker.

The World’s Worst Book Covers

Shatner Quake: A Horrible Book Cover

While looking for a book cover for my post on self publishing, I stumbled across a blog run by a former librarian dedicated to “truly hideous” book covers. Then again, the subject matter of some of these books derserve awful covers. (William Shatner? Shattner Quake? What the...?)

Unless you’re self publishing, the cover is one of the few things out of the writer’s control of the final product. Bad covers can make a good book unappealing. That’s why any publisher will contract with or employ talented graphic designers to make their books pop off the shelves. Whoever did the covers on these blogs should be fired.

Just a few bad book covers you can find at that blog are the following.

Awful book cover

Bad book cover

Crappy book cover

You can see more bad covers here. Happy looking (or not).

Book Review: The Thorn by Daron Fraley

The Thorn by Daron Fraley

For a note about book reviews, click here.

Q: What do you get if you throw sci-fi, fantasy, history, and a smattering of theology together into a 300-page novel?

A: The Thorn by Daron Fraley.

When I first heard about The Thorn back in February, I was apprehensive about reading it because I worried that like many books with a religious theme, the theological ideas would overwhelm the plot, characters, and general storytelling. And though I’m fine with religious elements and characters in books, often they turn good novels and stories into sermons—something that I have a difficult time reading.

Thankfully The Thorn doesn’t fall into this trap. Though a religious idea is the starting point for the novel, Fraley does a good job of making the theology a subtle part of the story and does it in such a way that someone who doesn’t believe in the idea won’t be turned off by it.

The novel’s biggest strength is its descriptions of people and places. You can see the world of Gan, it’s towns and countryside as well as the people like you are watching a movie. In the descriptions you’ll also find a plethora of symbolism woven throughout. Each chapter was like going on your own little treasure hunt to see what symbols Fraley was hiding. The battle scenes were well done without being overly gruesome.

There are a few places where the narrative feels a bit forced in order for meet some of the theological aspects of the books and a few events that seemed a little too coincidental. But these are minor complaints for an otherwise enjoyable book.

Because The Thorn seamlessly blends several genres together it’s hard to classify let along say who I’d recommend it to. However, you should be able to read the first two or three chapters and get an idea of this book is something you’d enjoy. Fraley’s prose and descriptions are good enough that you should make it that far. You can read the first chapter of The Thorn here.

4 stars (out of 5) for The Thorn by Daron Fraley

Book Review: The Sapphire Flute by Karen Hoover

The Sapphire Flute by Karen Hoover For a disclaimer about book reviews, click here.

I have a hard time reading most fantasy novels because they usually tend to be knockoffs of Lord of the Rings. You know, the hero has to undertake a journey with an elf or some other creatures. There’s some magic involved and a quest to fulfill. Most fantasy writers are extremely talented but even with some great prose, I can’t get past a few chapters and put the book down because they seem to be the same type of story with different characters.

Thankfully Karen Hoover’s debut fantasy novel, The Sapphire Flute, isn’t anything like that. Yes, it has a lot of the elements that you’ll find in other high fantasy books (magic, creatures that aren’t what they appear), but the story’s refreshingly original and protagonists, Ember and Kayla, as well as the antagonist, C'Tan, are all female.

Ember, Kayla, and C’Tan are what keep the novel moving. Hoover does a good job making Ember and Kayla feel real and people you want to root for even though, like all great characters, they’re flawed and make mistakes. That alone made it me wanting to keep reading the book. Like all good, evil characters, C’Tan is fascinating and I wanted to see more of her. But since The Sapphire Flute is the first of seven books, I’m sure we’ll see more of her before too long.

Hoover also does a good job jumping between their three storylines though at times I felt I was just settling into, say, Ember’s story only to jump over to Kayla. It wasn’t a bad thing but there were times I wished I could get another Ember chapter in before making the transition to Kayla. I also enjoyed Hoover’s writing style—it’s detailed without being overbearing. Some people may not like that but it’s perfect for the YA crowd which The Sapphire Flute is targeted.

My only complaint with the novel is Ember and Kayla’s paths never cross—even though the reader knows it’s going to happen at some point. Yes, I knew that this is the first book in a seven book series and that Hoover is laying the foundation of a world that still has a lot to be explored but I was kind of hoping that they would meet in this book.

But that’s a minor complaint. Hoover is a very talented and imaginative writer and wrote a fantasy book that I actually enjoyed reading. That’s a big compliment considering I can’t get past chapter three or four of fantasy novels written by more famous writers. Good job, Karen. I can’t wait to read book two.

The target audience for The Sapphire Flute is teenage females but fans of fantasy and those who enjoy stories with strong (but human) female protagonists should enjoy reading it. (For the record, Marathon Girl enjoyed it and she’s generally not a big fantasy fan.) I wish my daughter was old enough to read this book because I’d be interested to see how the target audience responds. Alas, I’ll have to wait another 10 years for that to happen. Until then, you can read more about the book here and see for yourself if The Sapphire Flute is something you or your teenage daughter would enjoy.

4 starts (out of 5) for The Sapphire Flute

A Note about Book Reviews

Book Reviews

At least once a week I’m contacted by publishers, PR agencies, or authors asking if I’d like an advanced reader copy (ARC) of a book in exchange for a review on my blog. Because I’m extremely with a job, writing my next novel, and a father of four active kids, I turn down most requests. However, if a book piques my interest (read: it’s a genre that interests me and they make a good pitch) and I think have the time to read it, I’ll tell them to send it over.

However, ARCs in no way effect my review of books on this blog. My reviews consist of 1) whether or not the book fit my tastes, 2) the author accomplished his or her goal in writing it and 3) I would recommend the book to others. Aside from the free book, I am not compensated for posting a review.

Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story

Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story by Mark Shurtleff

Even though I love history, I rarely read historical fiction. The reason? I’d rather read a well-written historical account of real people than a book about made up people living during past events. But when asked if I was interested in an advance reader’s copy of Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story I agreed to read and review it since I was curious to see if Utah Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, could pull off a compelling account of a real people and events and put them into novelized form.

Much to my surprise, Shurtleff did a good job of weaving his research with his storytelling abilities. The result is a compelling read that tells the story of Dred Scott while examining the complex issue of slavery in the United States.

(For those who need of a quick history refresher, Dred Scott was slave who sued for his freedom. The result was the infamous Dred Scott v. Stanford decision where the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that persons of African descent could not be considered citizens of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.)

Am I not a Man? gives a detailed and fascinating account of the life of Scott and his fight for freedom and equality. What makes the book worth reading isn’t just learning about Scott’s undying desire to become a free man, but the human face Shurtleff puts on Scott, his family, his supporters, and his enemies. People are always complex creatures and Shurtleff does a good job of making Scott and others come alive in the book.

Shurtleff also does an excellent job of describing the complex issue of slavery and the strong emotions it evoked in people on both sides of the debate. After reading Am I not a Man? it’s easier to understand why the issue tore families apart and let to the costliest war the United States has ever fought.

Since Shurtleff is an attorney, he does a great job of unraveling the reasons behind the Supreme Court’s decision and examining the legal and political consequences—the biggest one being the election of our nation’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln. But even when talking about reasons for the decision, Shrutleff is able to telling them in such a way that the reader is seldom, if ever, bored.

My only complaint with the book is I wanted to know how much literary license Shrutleff took some of the characters and certain incidents in the book. Shurtleff does go out of his way to say that the book is historical fiction and based upon real people and his own research and that some liberties had to be taken—just not how much. (So, Mark, if you ever read this, I’d love to sit down with you and talk about how you weaved this story together. It’s more to satiate my own curiosity about the writing process.)

Despite this one issue, I found the book to be a worthwhile read and would recommended it not only to those who enjoy historical fiction but also to those who enjoy stories of people with unconquerable spirits to fight injustice and inequality.

The lessons of Am I not a Man? are just as relevant today as they were during Scott’s life. Freedom is something that is easily taken away but not easily regained. The fight for freedom is difficult to obtain and often takes a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve. Scott’s story is a good reminder that freedom comes with a price and we should always be vigilant to protect it.

Four stars (out of five) for Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story by Mark Shurtleff.

UPDATE: The publisher is classifying Am I not a Man as an historical novel rather than historical fiction. The history is accurate but the literary license Shurtleff was in the dialogue.