Fiction Reviews

Schlock Mercenary author Howard Tayler posts short reviews of the movies he watches, in the context of a totally subjective “Top Ten Movies I’ve Watched This Year” list. He updates it in real time, so you can see the changes as movies break current records, or slide off the bottom of the list.

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how writers must read incessantly. If you don’t read, you won’t see what others are doing. You won’t stay current. You won’t succeed — and you won’t deserve to. So, for no reason other than I think it will be fun, I’ll be taking a page from Mr. Tayler and do a Top Ten Fiction Novels I’ve Read This Year list. I read about one a month, along with my podcasts, nonfiction, blogs, reports and ebooks.

For now, I’ll post the books I’ve read so far, in subjective order based on how much I enjoyed them. If I enjoyed books equally, I’ll fall back on craftsmanship as a tie breaker. Going forward, I’ll be doing reviews — and will soon post detailed reviews of the ones that have already made the list. As of today, I’ve read 9 fiction books since the new year.

#1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I touched on this earlier. Best fantasy I’ve read in a decade, and I re-read Lord of the Rings in 2002.

#2: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Young adult fiction. A hilarious romp through an apocalyptic earth during the weeks between two alien invasions. Twisted humor, and an interesting weave between narrative prose and graphic novel. Had me laughing out loud.

#3: Bite Me. Christopher Moore’s newest in his San Francisco Vampire series. Competent, funny and sometimes poignant. It would have ranked higher if Wind and Smekday weren’t so damn good — and if Moore hadn’t written this book twice before.

#4: The Adventures of Ned the Seal, an early effort of Joe R. Lansdale, is a weird masterpiece of steampunk alternative history starring Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, Mark Twain, Jules Verne and martians.

#5: Sixkill. The late Robert B. Parker can be fairly accused of phoning in some of the later titles from his acclaimed Spenser series…but this isn’t one of them. It’s good for all the same reasons as the best Spenser, and puts Our Favorite Guy in a mentorship role again — one of the places I like him most. A fine finish to Parker’s career — though I would have liked to have seen Hawk and Paul one last time.

#6: Bad Blood, by John Sandford. I like Virgil Flowers, the protagonist in this book and several others in Sandford’s newest series. Good, tangled mystery with stellar dialog and plenty of violence. Like Bite Me, it would have scored higher if Sandford hadn’t written this story so many times.

#7: Devil Red. Ye mead-swilling gods, but I love me a Hap and Leonard novel. This is a recent addition to the Joe R. Lansdale series, complete with humor, introspection and copious kicking of ass. A weaker effort than Mucho Mojo, but still readable start to finish.

#8: Dexter Series, by Jeff Lindsay. I spent most of March working on home projects listening to the first four as audiobooks. I like the protagonist, and loved the series. Quirky and creepy, but weak on tension for a thriller…and I’ve kind of been over the serial killer thing since Thomas Harris ruined it for me with Hannibal.

#9: Rebel Island by Rick Riordan. I read this adult detective novel because of how much I loved Riordan’s Olympians series, and was disappointed. It’s on the top ten only because I haven’t read 11 novels yet this year.

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Writing Professionally: Pacing

One problem with taking on any profession is that it begins to taint how you look at the world. Cops and social workers probably get the worst end of that stick. On the other hand, spending a decade as a professional martial arts instructor gave me a new level of appreciation for film choreography and fight sports. I find the same thing is now affecting how I read.

I just finished the newest Virgil Flowers thriller by John Sandford: Bad Blood. Sandford’s books – and he’s certainly written his share – can be a mite formulaic, but I love the heck out of them. He’s not saying anything important, nor is he bucking for a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for literature. He just turns out good stories year after year. Sandford (and, yes I am aware that’s a pen name) uses some very specific techniques to make his pacing tight and engaging even though he’s really telling us the same story over and over again.

Structure

Sandford presents the story in chunks: short sections of just a few paragraphs that hop from viewpoint to viewpoint. Readers never get a chance to be bored because we’re moving around as much as the characters are. He does this more often in is Lucas Davenport novels than with Flowers, Kidd and his other protagonists.

Point of View

He examines key points from multiple views. He’ll describe eight seconds of a gunfight from one point of view, then review four of those seconds from an additional point of view. This builds suspense by delaying our gratification while simultaneously giving us further compelling exposition on what’s already happened.

Inevitability

Sandford often shows you the bad guy from early in the first chapter. You know what he’s about, and  – if you know the protagonists – you have a guess as to what’s going to happen when they clash. Anticipating the train wreck is half the fun.

Twists

By far the most common plot twist Sandford uses is something going wrong. It might be bottoming out a pursuit car in a ditch, or the weather ruining visibility. A great example was a dead headlight in a surveillance car that tipped off the bad guy to the fact he was being watched, throwing a kink in the progress of the cops and the story. It’s a bit of deus ex machina, but Sandford uses realistic problems and loads them with so much emotion that they feel natural, right and tense.

Characterization, dialog and word choice are other well-used weapons in Sandford’s arsenal, and I’m certain he uses others I’m not good enough to notice yet. But these are the insights I drew tonight.

Thanks for listening.