Aaaarrrgggghhhh!!!!! Now I Have to Write a Review!

StaccatoWhile most of the world is talking about the new Dan Brown bestseller, Second Wind Publishing, LLC has quietly released a thriller of its own — Staccato by Deborah J Ledford. You won’t find all the elements that have become Brown’s hallmarks: cartoonish characters, amateurish prose, tin-ear for dialogue, internal inconsistencies. What you will find is a well-written, well-constructed story that will keep you enthralled.

The product description on Amazon says it better than I could: Performed against the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Staccato transports readers to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of professional musicians, the psychological twists and turns of its characters, and in the end, retribution that crashes in a crescendo of notes played at the literary pace of a maestro’s staccato. The only drawback to Staccato is that it doesn’t come with a soundtrack — each meticulously chosen piece of music enhances the mood of the scene it accompanies, and unless you are much more informed about music than I am, you will miss some of the brilliance of this composition.

Readers are in for a treat, and me? Aaaarrrggghhhh!!! I have to write another review! Well, I don’t have to, but the book deserves all the attention it can get. So, I will add it to the stack of other books I’ve promised to review, yet haven’t:

Lacey Took a Holiday by Lazarus Barnhill
The Medicine People by Lazarus Barnhill
Steel Waters by Ken Coffman
Toxic Shock Syndrome by Ken Coffman
Mazurka by Aaron Lazar
Heart of Hythea by Suzanne Francis
and now, Staccato by Deborah J Ledford

Although all these books are much more literate, readable, and enjoyable than Dan Brown’s pap, the best I can come up with as a review for each of these deserving novels right now is, “Good book. I liked it and you will, too.”

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Twits and Tweets

I’ve been sitting here for about thirty minutes trying to come up with a topic for my online live chat tomorrow night at No Whine, Just Champagne on gather.com, trying to think of a bloggery for the Second Wind blog tomorrow, trying to think of something to write for my blog tonight. While I’ve been waiting for my brain to kick into gear, I’ve been doing the online equivalent of channel surfing — checking my emails, checking Facebook to see if anything is going on, checking Twitter.

Ah, Twitter. Now that’s something I can talk about. Is Twitter still a good way of connecting with people? It seems as if the only people who are adding me are multi-level-marketers, people posting links to nude pictures, people actively looking to sell me something, or people with more than 10,000 followers. I can’t imagine that any of those people will see or care about my tweets. In fact, it’s probably time for me to go through my followers and block those I’m not interested in. I should also go through the list of those I am following. When I first started with Twitter, I followed everyone who followed me, but I can see that’s no way to use the site. Maybe it’s better to have just a few followers and followings, people who actually care about one another’s twits and tweets?

I’ve read that Twitter has a 60% 30 churn rate, which means that 60% of those who sign up don’t return after 30 days. So there’s a good chance that more than half of those who follow me or who I follow aren’t even on the site. If I had the time, it would be a good idea to clean up my account, but if no one is paying attention, does it matter?

What I’m really looking for is the next fun site. Facebook is fun for me, but that’s because I’ve figured out a few things to do on the site, and I’ve actually been able to connect with people. Same with Gather. Goodreads should be fun, since it’s about books, but I find I have nothing much to say about books any more. In fact, I have four books sitting here on my desk — Steel Waters and Toxic Shock Syndrome by Ken Coffman, and The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday by Lazarus Barnhill — books I promised to review but haven’t (sorry Ken and Laz), books I read and loved, yet the only thing I can think of to say about all four books is, “Great book. Read it.” Not much of a review, though it is the truth. So the books sit here, taunting me. But I digress.

So, what is the next fun site? If you hear of a site that’s easy to use, that get’s your name out there, that helps you make friends and connections, let me know. I need more places to check when I go surfing.

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Steel Waters by Ken Coffman — a Sort-of Review

When I first saw the movie Lone Hero starring Lou Diamond Phillips, I wasn’t impressed. It seemed trite — a retelling of High Noon with outlaw bikers set against the background of a wild west show. Yet the next morning, as the story slowly sank into the backwaters of my mind, one scene after another percolated to the surface, and I found myself smiling at the sly humor and wry nuances I was discovering. Lone Hero is now one of my favorite movies, one that gets richer with each viewing.

This retrospective appreciation has happened with a few other films, but I until recently I never read a book that became better with aging. Most go in one synapse and out the other before sinking into oblivion, but Steel Waters by Ken Coffman refuses to stay there.

Coffman’s wry humor and gritty descriptions immediately captivated me, but his hero didn’t. I have no use for characters (or people) who bring about their own miseries. Glen Wilson walked away from his wife and farm for no other reason than because he thought needed to. When he ended up in a Bolivian jail, I didn’t care. And neither did he. He seems to have a great capacity for accepting the status quo until suddenly he wants something else. (Usually without knowing what that something else is.)

Still, Glen Wilson was unique and compelling enough for me to keep reading. He is a mixture of opposites: hard-boiled and quixotic, opportunistic and idealistic, down-to-earth and impractical. And I enjoyed the book.

As Steel Waters percolates, however, I see much that I missed. Sure, Glen Wilson brings about his own predicament, but he is a victim of his own unresolved wants. They pull at him, buffeting him from one wild adventure to the other. The book has an episodic feel to it, but all mythic journeys do, and in the end, that is what Steel Waters is: mythic.

You are familiar with the mythic journey template. It’s the basic format of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunt for Red October. An ordinary person answers the call to adventure. Meets mentors, allies, enemies. Passes tests. Undergoes the supreme ordeal, seizes the reward, and finally returns home — a hero in truth. Or not. Coffman doesn’t follow the format exactly. Glen Wilson may or may not be a hero. He may or may not be changed. This is the beauty of the mythic journey template — it is infinitely changeable without ever losing its power.

So now I have to go back and reread Steel Waters with this percolation in mind, see the layering of the nuances and the humor. I’ll let you know if it’s as good the second time around as it is in memory.

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels

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A Thrill of Books

A murder of crows. A quiver of cobras. A charm of finches. A mischief of mice. A tower of giraffes. A scurry of squirrels. To this list of wonderfully evocative group names, I’m adding “a thrill of books.”

When I was young, I used to love coming home from the bookstore or library with an armful of books. I’d study the covers, read the blurbs and acknowledgments, open the book and sample a few words. It was a special thrill, this stack of new worlds that would soon be a part of me. Where would I go? Who would I meet? What challenges would I have to overcome?

The years did their damage, as they always do. Or maybe the culprit wasn’t the passing years, perhaps it was too many trivial stories, too much homogenization of genre, too much corporate policy infringing on the art. For whatever reason, I lost the thrill of having new books to read, and I thought it was gone forever.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I offered to review a few books, and today I received two of them in the mail: Steel Waters and Toxic Shock Syndrome by Ken Coffman. I looked at the covers (okay, I did more than look, I ran my hand over them, savoring the feel of the brand new books). I read the back covers, the acknowledgements, the author’s signature — “To my friend and fellow writer, Pat Bertram. I wish you all the best with your work.”

Already I could feel the glimmer of that old familiar feeling. Then I opened Steel Waters to the middle and saw, “I looked and smelled like a Bolivian sewer rat.” From comments others had made, I knew this was no homogenized piece of corporate bilge, but right then I felt it — the thrill.

So thank you, Ken, for giving me — one more time — a thrill of books. 

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels
                On Writing: Style and Cadence by Ken Coffman
                A Cheapskate Guide to Creating a Publishing Company by Ken Coffman

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On Writing: Style and Cadence

Ken Coffman, my guest blogger today, is the author of eight books, including a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog. He could easily make money writing additional technical books, but has more fun writing absurd novels like Steel Waters and Glen Wilson’s Bad Medicine, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. Ken writes:

Recently, my friend Lisa said this to me: “You tend to like more baroque-type authors, gravitate towards writers with that style, and write in that style.  Ironically, I really do like Hemingway, in that when I read him way back when, I immediately liked and related to the prose style . . . “

It’s true. We’re diverse, and different things float our metaphorical schooners. See, there I go. I could have simply said boat and your eye would have slid smoothly over the cliché. But, I didn’t want to.

Anyway, back to the point I’m laboring to make.

          Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
          “It isn’t fun any more.”
          He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
          She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
          He looked on at her back.
          “Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
          “No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
                — 
Ernest Hemingway, The End of Something

Of course, I can appreciate Hemingway’s sparse mastery. In feeble imitation, sometimes I report things in a flat tone to emphasize a point or work against the reader’s mental picture. But, generally, my ambitions lie elsewhere. I like prose that is more playful and convoluted.

Tom Robbins, who I like to call my neighbor, writes like this:

          A few months later, everyone of the bride’s relatives, including even distant cousins, decided that life was meaningless without that most talented, most delightful girl, not to mention her pious and generous family, and so the relatives, as well, set off for the hills and Fan Nan Nan. Their departure tore a hole in the fabric of the community; there was an abiding emptiness there.
               -
- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito

The difference in style could hardly be more obvious. Tom’s zany prose dances.

          Then I looked at Dale, my sergeant, wringing out his shirt in a metal water drum. His back was brown, ridged with vertebrae, his ribs like sticks against his skin, the points of his black hair shiny with sweat. Then his lean Czechoslovakian face smiled at me, with more tenderness and affection in his eyes than I had yet seen in a woman’s.
          He was killed eight days later when a Huey tipped the treetops in an LZ and suddenly dipped sideways into the clearing.
                —  James Lee Burke, Heaven’s Prisoners

Burke has a huge vocabulary and is unafraid to take a risk. He sits on a limb and with careful, deliberate, thoughtful strokes, works his saw.

To my taste, the master of mixing the eloquent with the absurd is Nabokov.

          I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: “And whither,” he asked picking up his cap from a stump, “may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers).”
          I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara’s lovely little revolver. Only half an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
              — Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

So, how am I doing? You judge.

          “I’m bored,” Nort said.
          “That’s because you’re not doing anything.”
          “And you can’t make me.”
          “Right,” Jake said. “Exactly.”
          “I’m not staying here. I’ll beg on the street.”
          Jake looked up.
          “It used to be that a man would rather die than be a beggar or take charity,” he said.
          “Things are different now.”
          “I can see that. Good luck out there.”
          “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care about me at all.”
          Jake licked the tip of his pencil.
          “When I was in Da Nang, I was stabbed in the gut with a sharp stick by a starving 11-year-old who wanted the three dollars in my wallet.” He lifted his shirt to show a twisted scar. “After I killed him with a brick, I realized either God either didn’t exist or was the biggest asshole of us all. I care about you, but out in the world you’ll die of AIDS or get stabbed in an alley by a cracked-out whore. It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”
               — Ken Coffman, Fairhaven 

You plant your butt in your chair and you face the demons that live in that blank screen. You spend hours and hours wringing words, situations, and plots from too-thin air.

Who are your influences? And, what are your ambitions?

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