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Book Reviews

June 2014




StoryTrumpsStructureStory Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules

by Steven James


I will confess that I’ve heard Steven James teach the craft of writing, and he is one of the best. I always learn a ton from him. When I heard he had written a book utilizing his keen insight and knowledge, I bought it sight unseen. From the first chapter, I knew this was one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read.

James explains why the story elements are more important than following the established rules of writing. Does it matter that the novel follows the three-act structure? Who cares if you establish an outline before you begin? James sees these elements, and others, as a potential hindrance to crafting the best novel you can.

Though James is known for writing nail-biting thrillers, the advice he lays out applies to every writer, both the newcomer and the established professional. Buy two copies: One for scribbling notes inside to help with your own writing, and the second just to read and admire.


Reviewed by Jeff Ayers



AnotherGreatDayAnother Great Day at Sea

by Geoff Dyer


British journalist Dyer recounts his brief stint as writer-in-residence aboard the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Arabian Sea. He was allowed to join the 5,000-person crew in the middle of its seven-month deployment specifically to document everyday life aboard this floating city. Through a series of short chapters, we meet everyone from the captain, whose morning greetings over the PA system to his crew give the book its title, to the chef in charge of 112 cooks and several apartment-sized freezers. A positive attitude pervades the ship. Mostly this is the “suck it up” attitude required to endure the cramped quarters and twelve-hour workdays found throughout the military, but several crew members are the embodiment of the idea that if not for the Navy turning their lives around, they'd be either in jail or dead. But what about the stuff we really want to know? The brig is empty during Dyer's stay. The most common offenses involve disrespecting superiors and result in “restriction—no shore leave and having to attend roll call several times a day (with the attendant embarrassment of your shipmates seeing you do so and knowing why). Any display of affection between shipmates is strictly prohibited, though the security guards find couples in “close proximity” (less than one foot) in out-of-the-way places aboard ship all the time. Being British, Dyer sometimes focuses on things Americans might not see; an entire chapter is devoted to his excitement at being able to get his teeth cleaned aboard. We love inside looks at closed societies, and this fulfills all your expectations.


Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



ManWhoLearnedRobert A. Heinlein, Vol 2: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better

by William H. Patterson, Jr.


In 2010 William H. Patterson, Jr. released the first part of his monumental, two-volume biography of arguably the greatest and most influential science fiction writer of the twentieth century, Robert A. Heinlein. Learning Curve covered his first forty years (1907-1948) and included Heinlein’s Naval career, his early writing, and the start of his efforts to break out of the pulp writing ghetto and into more mainstream publications. Now comes the second part, The Man Who Learned Better, which details Heinlein’s second forty years (1948-1988). As fascinating as the first book was, this is the one I’ve been looking forward to. This is where we see Heinlein at the height of his powers, producing such classics as Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. As with the first volume, Patterson draws on previously unavailable material including Heinlein’s massive correspondence archives and interviews with his third wife Virginia (who authorized the biography before dying in 2003). Because he’s been claimed by both the far left and the far right, and the political aspects of his works have sparked such discussion and controversy, Patterson’s tracking of Heinlein’s politics is crucial to understanding the man and his works. Heinlein called himself a “liberal,” yet was staunchly anti-Communist and part of the Citizens Advisory Council: a group of scientists, science fiction writers, and military who created the Strategic Defense Initiative, the mere threat of which was instrumental in the fall of the Soviet Union. Heinlein himself distilled his politics to “for freedom, above all.” In this volume, we see Heinlein’s evolution from freelance writer living royalty check to royalty check to his years as a mainstay of best-seller lists. He works in Hollywood as the technical advisor to George Pal’s 1950 film Destination Moon, where he struggles to keep the film scientifically accurate while studio suits want to add gags and maybe some musical numbers. Even as he writes more adult material like The Puppet Masters, he still faces prejudice from editors who think all SF is like his earlier juvenile novels and insist on editing them as such. We follow the curious second life of Stranger, published in 1961, through the decade as it’s adopted by non-conformists as a sort of bible and—extremely tenuously—connected to Charles Manson’s murders. This book paints a portrait of Heinlein’s wife Virginia as a true helpmeet (sometimes just a word of two from her be enough to set his typewriter flying) and devotes space to his considerable charitable work with rare blood type science and donation recruitment. The book is rich in details, highly entertaining, and truly captures the spirit of the times (bomb shelters, sunbathing, the first work processors). As with all the best biographies, this sends you back to your bookshelf eager to reacquaint yourself with Heinlein’s works.


Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale





FTroopF Troop and Other Citadel Stories

by Tom Worley


Worley’s fictionalized memoir of life as a cadet at The Citadel (formally, The Military College of South Carolina) in the 1960s is a short collection of seventeen stories, most centering on the travails of “plebes”—the lowest of the underclassmen. The physical and intellectual hardships that plebes endure were made famous in Pat Conroy’s novel The Lords of Discipline, set at a fictionalized version of The Citadel during the same time. Each year’s class is divided into 20 companies; of the 45 young men Worley’s company, 19 finished their first year, and only 14 eventually graduated. Worley’s tales are lighter than Conroy’s, and concentrate on the building of camaraderie through shared misadventure. A junior officer of the day, who is supposed to be on guard duty all night, makes his first “command decision” to attend a baseball game instead. Mess hall gets an entire story with plebes only allowed to eat after answering questions from upperclassmen like how many bricks are in a particular campus structure. The title tale comes from Worley’s F Company embracing their own lack discipline and rebellious spirit and branding themselves “F Troop” after the 1960s sitcom about a bumbling cavalry troop in the Old West. Although Worley occasionally mentions the more harrowing aspects of cadet life, this collection is like listening to a bunch of old alumni sitting around at a party telling comfortable tales the good old days. To paraphrase one character, The Citadel was a terrible place to be at, but a terrific place to be from.


Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale






by Joseph Finder


Sometimes the smallest decision can change our future.

With that pitch perfect opening, Joe Finder’s mesmerizing Suspicion bursts out of the starting gate at a pace that doesn’t slow for a single moment. This stand-alone departure from Finder’s solid Nick Heller books takes us into the all-too-relatable life of the aptly named Danny Goodman. Such a good man is Danny, in fact, that he will do anything to keep his daughter enrolled at her posh private school, even when he finds himself down on his familiar financial luck. Unlike most who’d been there and done that, Danny finds a guardian angel in the form of Thomas Galvin, father of one of his daughter’s classmates who comes through a loan when Danny needs it the most. Well, the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for” has never been more true, as our good man finds himself anything but that in the eyes of the DEA who take an immediate interest in his windfall along with, especially, its source.

The Boston-based Suspicion is post-modern noir at its level best, packed full of lies (both good and bad), betrayals, double-crosses, threats and mind games presented in wondrously staccato fashion, as Danny searches for a way out that doesn’t leave him holding the bag. Speaking of bag, Finder’s usual one full of tricks is keenly on display here since little, if anything at all, is exactly as it seems. That’s the great thing about his books in general and Suspicion in particular. The book maintains its spontaneity while never sacrificing its ambitious structural narrative—not an easy compromise to forge and Finder does with enough aplomb to make his latest one of the very best thrillers of the year so far.


Reviewed by Jon Land




by Marianne de Pierres


Peacemaker introduces Virgin Jackson, head ranger in a nature reserve in Australia. The park is the closest thing left to a natural landscape in this future of urban sprawl and pollution. High-tech security ensures no unauthorized entry so the carefully cultivated desert landscape can be preserved for tourists. Jackson does her best to protect the park in the face of corporate politics and bureaucratic red tape. When an American marshal, Nate Sixkiller, is brought in by her boss at the same time as she witnesses a murder in the park—when satellite-based security shows her as the only person inside—Jackson realizes there’s something going on behind the scenes, something that she’s going to have to fight.

Although a futuristic sci-fi world forms the backdrop, there’s also a layer of supernatural mysticism added to the mix. In her youth, Jackson would see an eagle following her, half stress-induced, half imaginary friend. The eagle is back now, and the Native American marshal has no problem believing in it—and warns that there’s more to come.

Peacemaker features interesting characters, a believably overcrowded megacity, and plenty of action. Although obviously setting up a lot as the first book in a new series, de Pierres is generally successful at weaving in the background to the story, keeping things moving forward. The mystical elements—to be featured more prominently in future books—sometimes sit a little awkwardly atop the future tech, but do add a fresh spin to the sci-fi/Wild West atmosphere. This is a solid start to a promising series.


Reviewed by Scott Pearson





by Richard Castle


Richard Castle might be dead on his TV show, but he is still a force in the book world. His latest Derrick Storm thriller literally starts with him having to stop an airplane he’s a passenger on from falling out of the skies. Other planes arriving in the D.C. area around the same time also crashed. Each plane met an untimely end for different reasons so a simple explanation like explosives does not fit the scenario. It would be logistically impossible to engineer a plane to malfunction from different cities and countries to all fail at the same time. Storm receives the call to decipher what actually happened, while the United States’ entire airline industry grounds their planes. What he uncovers leads Storm from California to Panama to Egypt, and a confrontation with a villain so diabolical that manipulating entire governments is just a typical day for this person. James Bond and Clive Cussler fans will love this as well as fans of the television show. The in-jokes spread throughout will be humorous to readers not familiar with Beckett and Castle, and laugh-out loud funny to diehards. In any case, this is a fun read.


Reviewed by Jeff Ayers




IAmLiviaI am Livia

by Phyllis T. Smith


This entertaining biographical novel tells the story of Livia Drusilla (37 B.C. – 29 A.D.), wife of the Roman emperor Augustus (here, still the young Caesar Octavianus), mother of Emperor Tiberius, and grandmother to Emperor Claudius. Indeed, Smith takes her cue from Robert Graves' I, Claudius, giving us the family's-eye view of the assassination of Julius Caesar and the civil wars that marked the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Empire. Married at an early age to an older patrician for political convenience, she fell in love with the charismatic Octavianus, her father's enemy, and eventually married him. If you've read or watched I, Claudius, you know Livia as conniving, manipulative, and possibly murderous. This novel eschews melodrama, but still captivates by bringing the place and times vibrantly to life. It's well-seasoned with the details and surprising facts that readers of historical fiction crave. Smith's Livia is complex. Tired of war—especially Romans killing Romans—her actions are all for the betterment of Rome. Even her power-behind-the-throne suggestions to Octavianus are to make him popular in order to stabilize the world. Livia lives at a time where simply to be a woman is to have your ideas ignored. Yet, she founds the first Roman public fire brigade, preventing needless death and destruction of property, and she agitates to be allowed to handle her own money and property (like all married Roman women, her husband controls them).


Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




edited by David Baldacci


Harry Bosch cocked his head.

Patrick Kenzie said, “You’re a cop. From out of town. I can barely get away with this shit, but you? They’ll take your badge, man.”

No that’s not a typo, but an excerpt from the contribution of Michael Connolly (Harry Bosch) and Dennis Lehane (Patrick Kenzie) to the splendid Faceoff, the most original and effective crime thriller anthology to come along in years, maybe ever. That’s not just because of the incredible roster of participants assembled, so much as the fact that these bestselling authors, and thus their series heroes, are paired together. Lee Child’s iconic Jack Reacher, for example, perhaps finally meeting his match in Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller. Or Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme joining forces with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. Normally, such a high concept would collapse under the conflicting baggage (and egos?) of its weight. Not so here, where the paired-up writers somehow find a middle ground in their respective styles that make their joint efforts seem utterly organic and seamless in nature. Editors David Baldacci and Steve Berry (who also penned one of the entries in tandem with James Rollins) prove effective literary magicians in this regard, as well as recruiters for their wand’s ability to assemble such a roster in the first place with what must’ve taken a whole bunch of waves.

As Stephen King once said, though, it’s not the tale, it’s the telling; in this case, that’s actually eleven entirely independent tales. But the quality of their telling helps Faceoff somehow meet the impossible expectations the book has set for itself. Like having a dinner party where all the guests get along, so funny and charming at all the right times that you don’t want the night to end.


Reviewed by Jon Land



TheQuickThe Quick

by Lauren Owen


It’s helpful to know from the start that is a vampire novel. The first fifth of the book establishes it as a gothic tale set in late Victorian England, laden with gloom and a general sense of gas-lit unease. After growing up in a secluded country estate, James Norbury moves to London to be a poet. He falls in (and in love) with a member of the upper classes, and the two begin a clandestine affair. Then vampires attack them. What follows is a Dickensian kaleidoscope that takes readers through all the social strata of the City. Along with James, involved are a secret society of vampires, a neighborhood of the very poorest of these “undid,” scientific researchers studying the nature of the creatures, and even a plucky young female vampire slayer of a sort. When factional clashes reduce the number of members of the vampiric Aegolius Club, they decide to the begin “the Undertaking.” Where once conversion was strictly voluntary, now they propose to take men of the best position, intellect, and wealth, and forcibly convert them . . . all for the betterment of England and the world, of course. Throughout this long novel, characters come and go, and points of view shift frequently, but we always twist back to the central tale.


Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale