Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Elements of My Reviews

On May 11th, Tom Schreck posted the interview I did for his series "Reviewing the Reviewers" (posted here on March 13th). As a result, a couple people have asked about my process for writing reviews.

When I was evaluating manuscripts for Poisoned Pen Press, they taught me to look at eight elements of a story. It is the combination of those elements which determine the quality of the book.

The eight elements are:
1. Hook – Does the story grab you from the beginning
2. Setting/Descriptions/Sense of Place – Is it evocative
3. Characters/Character Development – Do they come to live, do you know their back story, are they fully-developed
4. Dialogue – Does it work and provide a sense the character
5. Plot – Does it work, does it make sense
6. Cadence/flow/style – Does it keep you involved
7. Originality – This is an extra points element for when I find a story that is truly original
8. Overall quality of writing – What is my immediate reaction upon finishing the book.

And there you have it. I have found it a very effective, and helpful, way of looking at each book without ever diminishing my enjoyment of reading. Oh, and I do take notes as I read.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton

I don't normally post book reviews here, but I read a new book yesterday which deserves to be an exception.  Even so, this, and all my reviews will be posted on GoodReads.

BLOOD HARVEST (Susp-Rev. Harry Laycock/Dr. Evi Oliver/Ensemble-England-Cont) - Ex
Bolton, S.J. – Standalone – 3rd book
Bantam Press, ©2010, UK Hardcover – ISBN:  9780593064115   

First Sentence:  “She’s been watching us for a while now.”   

Reverend Harry Laycock has come to his new parish which includes Heptoncough in the Yorkshire Pennines.  Here there is an old church, a very old church a village which still carries out the old traditions and where young girls have disappeared or died.  One of the girls died in a house fire, but her mother, Gillian, never accepted her death and constantly roams the moors at night.  Psychiatrist Evi Oliver is trying to help her put her life back together.   Tom Fletcher and family have moved to the village having bought the only new house built in many years.  It was built on the old Church’s land, next to the graveyard.  They all learn that events of the past are still part of the present.

Although I really liked Ms. Bolton’s first two books, this one knocked my socks off.  Everything about it was so well done, it’s hard to know where to start.  Even from the page before the prologue, I was captivated. 

I am not a particular fan of prologues, but this one really worked.  However, I think the book would have been more suspenseful had the information in the prologue been in the correct chronological space within the story; about Chapter 50. 

I was introduced to a number of the significant characters who immediately jumped off the page and made me want to know more about them.  I am also not usually a fan of ensemble casts.  Again, this worked.  Although Harry, the antithesis of a stuffy vicar and for whom I would have provided a different surname, and Evi, the physically impaired, intelligent and independent psychiatrist, are the pivotal characters, all characters were alive and their interactions realistic.  

Dialogue is such an important element of a story.  Ms. Bolton has a skill with dialogue that echoes in cadence the speech of the characters.  As well as establishing a strong sense of place, she incorporates the history and traditions of the area. 

Combined with all these ingredients, what caused me to read this 421 page book in eight straight hours was the authors voice and the plot.  The first half of the book is an amazingly skillful balance of humor…”I haven’t had this much success with a woman since I got drunk at my cousin’s wedding and threw up over the main of honour.”… and underlying, delightfully creepy menace.  There is a real sense of “things that go bump in the night” which made me happy I was reading the book during the day.  The second half of the book moved to police and forensic investigation, and a race-against-time fear.   The climax was filled with an increasingly ratcheted tension and surprises right up to the very end. 

One observation is that Ms. Bolton does have a penchant for her female protagonists to be somehow physically impaired.  While the overcoming of the particular impairment shows the character’s strength and resolve, it can also become formulaic or even cliché over time.  However, as this is a general observation and not a criticism of this particular book, it does not impact my rating at all.  In this case, it greatly added to the suspense.  This really was an exceptional, “wow” book and one I shan’t soon forget. I cannot wait for Ms. Bolton's next book

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My True, Personal Ghost Story

Cindy Maher and I were exchanging emails about the sad loss of pets and sometimes feeling their spirits were still around.  I mentioned I had lived with a human ghost and she asked to hear about it.  Once I sent her the following story, she suggested I post it here.  So, on the proviso that she will also share her story with us, here it is.

My True, Personal Ghost Story

My former husband and I were looking for a house to rent.  From the moment I saw the turn-of-the-century, Craftsman-style house sitting on a hill--literally before I’d even stepped from the car--I knew I had to live there.  Almost from the day we moved in, I would find kitchen cabinet doors open and hear the open and close of the door to the outside side deck which connected the breakfast room to the back bedroom.  I would often sense someone in the kitchen.  I told Richard, we had a ghost.  Happily, he didn’t immediately send me to therapy.  After about a week, Richard came to me and said “we have a ghost.” 

I was in the kitchen one day and felt him--somehow, I knew it was a him. I just said “okay, here’s the deal.  I don’t mind you being here, but no funny stuff.  No more cupboards being left open, no knives floating around, nothing moving.  When I know you are here, I’m happy to say hello. I’ve no problem with you being here.”  After that, the movement stopped and when I felt him there, I’d chat with him.

One day, Richard and I were out in toward the back of our very deep yard.  We were picking plums when we saw our neighbor.  Richard commented that the property must have been beautiful once as you could see where there had been planting beds, paths, and water faucets.  He told us it had been previously owned by an elderly English couple; Fred and Edith Pfeiffer.  They absolutely loved to garden but they fought all the time; yelled at each other constantly.  One Christmas Day, Fred went out under the apple tree in the far back corner of the lot and killed himself with a shotgun.  Richard and I looked at each other; we just knew our ghost was Fred. 

Learning about Fred explained two things.  I only sensed him in the kitchen/breakfast room and the back bedroom.   I never sensed him any further out into the house.  I surmised the back bedroom was where he slept.  He could get to the kitchen via the deck without having to go through the house, which explained hearing the deck door.  We also learned they were very Catholic, so my guess was that he was afraid to cross over having taken his own life.

Richard sometimes had an explosive temper—never physical, just loud and rather frightening.  He would occasionally go off over seemingly small things that were accidental; his brother's girlfriend accidentally chipping the edge of an antique bowl and not telling me, my trying to carry too many items from the car and dropping an expensive bottle of wine; to me, dumb things not worth the extent of his reaction.

Even so, when Richard left me, I didn’t see it coming. The night 3 months after he'd moved out and in spite of our going for counseling, he announced he was filing for divorce and I was devastated.  I went to a friend’s house, sobbed my heart out, came home, and cried some more. Because I had become so physically overheated, I decided to take a shower before going to bed.  The house was so old, poorly insulated, and drafty, so I always kept the door closed to the back bedroom.  When I came out of the bathroom, situated between the two bedrooms, the door to the back bedroom was open.  This was not something Fred had ever done before.

I went to bed and sleep, but during the night awakened and was in that floating state where you know you’re not asleep but you’re not quite awake either.  I sensed someone standing by my bed and a stream of bright energy circling from him to me. I had a sense that I would be okay; the worst pain would be over and although it would still hurt, I would get through it. 

You know that difference you feel between when someone else is in the house but you can’t see or hear them and when you are absolutely alone in a house?  When I woke up in the morning, I knew I was alone and that Fred had left.  My theory is that by helping me with my pain, it allowed him to move on past his. 

It is odd how empty the house felt and how much I missed him as I always felt, during the two years I sensed he was there, that he was looking after me.  A few days later, my landlord’s gardener was there and called to me to see what he had found.  He had been working under the apple tree and found a completely intact green glass hip flask with a metal flip top, indicating how old it was.  He gave it to me, I cleaned it up and have had it ever since.  I figure it was Fred’s way of saying good-bye.

I ended up living in the house for 21 years until the landlord announced he was moving his college-aged kids in.  It was felt to be my safe place and I loved it.  Before I left, but after the house was empty, I went through with burning sage blessing the house, and thanking it for all the years it took care of me. 

I have had other brief experiences with the supernatural; heard the footsteps of one residual ghost and did not enter the hall where a less-than-welcoming presence seemed to exist, but nothing such as my experience with Fred.  Time and my life have moved on but I still have Fred's flask and think of him often. 

So there you are.  Just so I know I'm not alone, please do come and share your personal ghost experiences with me.

ADDENDUM from October 31st, 2020:  This has been a hell of a year, and tonight is not only Halloween, but there is a rare Blue Moon--they only occur approximately every 2.5 years, but it will be 2039 before another appears on Halloween.  In honor of that, my friend, author Brendan DuBois, posted his real-life ghost stories on Facebook, and others followed suit.  With their permission, I have added these to the comments.  Please feel free to add your stories, too.  Enjoy.