Thursday, September 4, 2014

TMI, Mr. Fforde. TMI.

As I type this, I'm about two hours into a 13 hour plane ride. I've achieved the rank of Peggle Master in my latest app obsession, and am working my way through my second tiny bottle of a surprisingly good Pinot Grigio.
Buy from Amazon: First Among Sequels

I'm also working my way through Jasper Fforde's fifth book in his Thursday Next series, "Thursday Next, First Among Sequels". And I'm not particularly happy.

Oh I'm happy about the trip, despite the fact that I'll likely miss my connection flight. And I'm happy that I have a row to myself, nice wine, and the rumble of jet engines to lull me to sleep.

But I'm not happy about the book. I adore Ffforde's writing, I really do. And his stories are amazingly creative, and whimsical, and funny. But having read the first 14 chapters of First Among Sequels, I'm terribly disappointed. It's just one long back story so far, 124 pages whose sole purpose seems to be to catch up the story for new readers.

To make matters worse, the plot devices for revealing said backstory are weak and shallow. In one case, Thursday, a Jurisfiction agent in BookWorld, drones on and on to her cadet trainee: explaining how BookWorld works, taking tours, going on ad nauseum about stuff that was delightfully woven seamlessly into books 1-4. In another case, Thursday takes her son to a ChronoGuard recruiting seminar, where, similarly, a recruiting officer drones on and on about time topics also covered in depth in the earlier books. The only light spot is when her son, Friday, asks, "Is this going to take long?" My thoughts exactly!

Now as an author whose first novel is still very much a work in progress, this has me thinking (or maybe it's the wine): When writing a sequel (or two or three or four), how do you catch up your new readers without boring your loyal followers to death? You can't just pick things up without some sort of transition (or can you?)? But holding the reader captive while lecturing the finer points of earlier novels doesn't work either.

So what then? In the types of writing I do daily – scholarly scientific articles, test plans, project proposals, and the like – there's always a backstory. In some cases, depending on the topic, the foundational work goes back decades, or even centuries. Now most articles in technical journals are dry and dull enough without years upon years of backstory, so deciding which elements to include and how to include them is a sort of art form. Is it necessary to mention the Wright Brothers when developing a new test procedure for jet engines? Probably not. But if adding a new term to an existing equation, discussing the original work is a good idea.

Many authors approach the issue of previous work by just stuffing a few paragraphs into the intro. Something along the lines of: Guy1 did this stuff [see reference 1], guy2 did this other stuff [see reference 2], guy3 did some more stuff [see reference 3], blah, blah, blah until it's practically unreadable.

The better authors, in my opinion, not only weave the past work into appropriate sections of the paper rather than blast the reader with a tally sheet of backstory, but they also include a discussion of how the earlier findings contribute to the current work. 

This approach isn't unique to technical writing. Look at some of the hugely successful sequels, such as the Harry Potter books or the Series of Unfortunate Events or any number of multi-book stories. The best sequels don't bore the reader with in-your-face, not-letting-you-go-until-I've-had-my-say backstory. Rather, they introduce relevant points through the actions of their characters, or the setting, or natural dialogue. Could Fforde have describe BookWorld without the tedious tour scene? You betcha! Tuesday could've whisked her cadet away on their first assignment (after a behind-the-scenes tour and in-processing, presumably) and the important details of DiscWorld would've been revealed more naturally. Ditto for the ChonoGuards and time travel – introduce the concepts when they impact the current storyline, not before.

Okay, I've had my say and I'm ready for another tiny bottle of wine. Feel free to direct me back to this post if at some point in the future my (wildly successful) sequels have you bored silly.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What a souper book!

 The 5:2 Fast Diet: Soup Recipes
$.99 on Amazon, £.77 on Amazon.UK
Yes, it's an excuse to use a dreadful pun!

Way back when Jay and I started this blog, we were looking with envy at the piles of cash being turned in by Fifty Shades of Grey, and deciding that we, with our demonstrated ability to write technical engineering documents with literally tens of readers, could quite clearly do much better. And earn even bigger piles of money, naturally. 

Having flirted briefly with erotica (Jay is still far too embarrassed to show me what she wrote!), so far we have two children's books in progress, a thriller in the early stages, and a very long list of plot ideas (some of which made sense when scribbled down, probably after a rather inadvisable quantity of wine had been consumed, but are utterly incomprehensible now), our actual successes to date have been with two cookbooks to support the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet. 

Yes! You did read that right: two cookbooks! Following on from our 5:2 Breakfasts cookbook, which we're delighted to say has sold steadily since its launch, we've followed up with a book all about soups. Again, it's geared towards the 5:2 diet, so it's not a place to find rich buttery high-calorie mixtures, but any cookbook that gives you 84 recipes for under a dollar has to be worth a look. You might be interested in the diet plan as well. 

So please buy, enjoy, and let us know how you like it!

Friday, August 15, 2014

One Man’s Spam is Another Man’s Shmangle

Early last year we posted a short piece looking at some of the humorous consequences of skipping transition scenes in fiction (I Sent My Kid to School Naked). Since then, it’s received more than 40,000 views and over 2700 comments – 7 that seem more or less real (thanks, Mom!), and the remaining 99.7% so spammy the almighty Google intervened and blocked them on the spot.

Interesting, right? No, really. After having spent the better part of an afternoon reading through the comments, I’m fascinated by the fine art of spamming.

So who are these mystery spammers and why are they drawn to this post like Rob Ford to a crack pipe?

Figure 1: Distribution of Spam Comments

As can be seen in Figure 1, the overwhelming majority of our fans (those with comments intelligible enough to discern their background) are purveyors of male enhancement products, offering such sage advice as:
You have to have a strong belief that penis enlargement really possible.”
[Translation: If the crap we’re hawking doesn’t have you looking like John Holmes, it’s your fault for not believing.]

Online casino spammers make up the next biggest chunk of the spam market, although they tend to simply leave their URL in the comment box without additional text (see Figure 2 below). Pharmaceutical sales, pictures of naked people, and offers for high-end (translation: fake) designer shopping make up close to 10% combined, as do wart removal, weight loss, and mail-order brides:
"Wheen tthey have one of their greatt sales, you get a phone call frm youjr perspna shopper that there is a salles promotion."
Who wouldn’t jump at that offer?!

Figure 2: Content of Spam Comments

Interestingly (no, really), many of the spammers don’t spam about their actual products (Figure 2). Most, over 70%, try to hook us in with compliments:
"Thanks for every other excellent article."
"The overall glance of your site is magnificent, as smartly as the content!"
"I have understand your stuff previous to and you're just extremely magnificent."
Aw, go on, you [blush]. I almost feel bad blocking them [not].

Not all spammers share the love, though. We definitely have our share of critics:
"I advise you charter an SEO associate to do the apply for you."
I am more than capable of doing the apply myself, thank you very much. 

"It promised so much when it was initially announced, but delivered so little by the time it was actually released."
That’s just mean.
"You've been lax in keeping up with your diet and exercise program."
Well, screw you and your little website too, NSA. I AM TRYING MY BEST! I walk at least 10 miles a week, have cut way back on alcohol, and we’re on the verge of releasing our second diet cookbook. And I only gobbled down that six-month old Valentine’s Day candy last night because dark chocolate helps with PMS cramps. So quit your spying and leave me the eff ALONE!

Ahem. Back to the comments, the final batch represents our spam fashionistas:
"Christian clothing is becoming more and more popular and for boys that often has a touch of the demon in them."
Christian clothing. Okay, then. Kind of like a mail-order exorcism?
"There will be fewer creases in non-knit fabrics if they are folded in half horizontally." 
Wouldn't the number of creases depend on the number of folds?

And finally, 
"The Shmangle is another similar hooded blanket idea."

Yes! At last, a spam comment I can actually use. Turns out the Shmangle is not only real, but can be purchased for about £22 on Happy Shmangling!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Turning a Blind Eye

Available from Amazon
The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen
I'm very partial to a good history book, and I've just come to the end of one of the best that I've read. It has the three criteria that I think make for a good history book: it's meticulously researched; it paints a picture of the broad context of the period, without which any history book can descend to being a list of facts; and it's well-written (sadly, there's a lot of turgid prose out there on the History shelves).

The book is "The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen" by Dudley Pope. Hard to get hold of these days, and you might think an odd subject for a post here, but as the battle of Copenhagen led to the phrase "turning a blind eye", there is some broader relevance. At the height of the battle, the commanding Admiral (Sir Hyde Parker, who was four miles away, and because of the conditions, coming up very slowly) ordered the attacking fleet to disengage. Nelson ignored this, at one point putting the telescope to his blind eye and saying "I really do not see the signal". Hyde Parker was a cautious commander, judged by Pope to be the wrong man for the job: Pope has a lovely analogy that Parker crossed the North Sea at the start of the mission at the same pace as a child dawdling to school, because of his nervousness over losing ships onto the coast. 

The signal to cease the attack occupies a large chunk of the book plus an Appendix, to debunk a subsequent tale told in Hyde Parker's defence, that the signal was to be obeyed at Nelson's discretion. Pope destroys this with a mix of eye-witness accounts and sound reasoning (the signal was made to the whole fleet, not to Nelson alone, and some ships obeyed it). 

Pope's account of the careers and personal lives of Nelson and Parker, and the background diplomatic failures that led to the battle, are absolutely superb. The battle itself does degenerate into a list of facts as to which ship attacked which, but that's almost unavoidable. 

So I very much enjoyed this.  It won't appeal to all readers, but it certainly has a place on my shelves. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bone Dancing, Blood Dancing

Last year we ran a series of posts on Jonathan Gash's Bonn/Burtonall series, but neglected to post the reviews of the final two books. Today, we correct that oversight. To catch you up, here's where we left off:

Book 1: Different Women Dancing
Nik's Review: Different Women Dancing
Jay's Review:  Different Women, Different Reader, Different Review
Book 2: Prey Dancing
Nik's Review: Prey Dancing
Jay's Review: Book Musing: When Characters Seem Too Old
Book 3: Die Dancing
Nik's Review: Outta My Head
Now on to the final two!

Bone Dancing

Available on Amazon: Bone Dancing
So here's a thing. I was quite happily working my way through Bone Dancing, the fourth book in Jonathan Gash's Clare Burtonall series (though I still maintain that it's misnamed, as she is more bystander than protagonist), when I suddenly had a bit of a shock. 

You see, there's one particular sequence I remember from the books (they are indeed unusually memorable). Rack, the main fixer of the seedy world of crime, is refused protection money by the new manager of a car showroom, so he has the entire stock stolen. It's almost peripheral to the story, just a lovely vignette of life in the shadows. 

So, there I am, lapping up the book, when I suddenly realize that I'm virtually at the end and it hasn't happened yet. After a bout of confusion and concerns of incipient senility, I come to a joyful conclusion. 

I'd misremembered. There aren't four books in the series, there are five.

Yes! A whole other book to enjoy! So I suppose that this post should have a subtitle:

Blood Dancing

Available from Amazon: Blood Dancing
The final book (so far, I live in hope) is a real cracker. Not only does it have that sequence that has stuck with me, but Clare Burtonall finally seems more integrated than she has since the first novel, even though the previous book appeared to leave her cast out by her underworld associates. The plot centres around a vigilante wreaking lethal justice on paedophiles. And why not. Well, the why not and its resolution is the core of the story, and it's great. I expect the book is now hard to come by, but it is well, well worth the effort. 

I still have a minor grumble over continuity. There's a definite disconnect between the end of Bone Dancing and the start of Blood Dancing. At the end of Bone Dancing Clare has been cut-off from the underworld syndicate, and given the track record of everyone else who's suffered that fate over the course of books, she's lucky to do so alive. But there's the suggestion that Bonn, her hired lover, will take her as his live-in woman. 

By the start of Blood Dancing, though, there's almost been a reset back to business as usual. Maybe Gash found that the change was too restrictive on the storytelling, I don't know. It certainly didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it's a small niggle nonetheless. 

This is one of my all-time favourite series of books. Please, please, Mr Gash, write another one?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Orphan Stories

When I was a kid, my dad often sent me and my sisters off to sleep with tales of The Meanest Man in the World. Although I can't recall the exact words, it always started something like this:
"There once was a man," he'd begin. "Was he a green man?"
"NO!" we'd shriek.
"Was he a lean man?"
"Was he a keen man, a bean man, a metal machine man?"
"No," he'd continue, his voice so quietly sinister I used to get goosebumps. "No. He was a mean man, The Meanest Man in the World."
Then the night's story would start. Oh, he was mean alright (the Man, not my dad!), with a particular penchant for torturing orphans. Not Hannibal-Lecter-style torturing, but psychological mind games. 

Like the time he delivered a beautifully-wrapped package to the orphanage, bedazzled with ribbons and bows and sparkle and glitter. It was the first present the orphan had ever received, and was so incredibly stunning that the orphan just stared wide-eyed for hours. When he finally set about to unwrapping, he painstakingly removed the trimmings one-by-one, each more glorious than the next, and put them aside carefully (no doubt to relive this wondrous event over and over). 

As he peeled back the layers he wondered with anticipation, what riches lay inside? A toy, perhaps? He'd never had a toy. Or maybe sweets? He'd heard of something called chocolate, where a single bite could fill one with joy. Or maybe a small puppy to love and to hold and to be his friend forever? He'd never had a friend. He almost dared not think it. 

The last layer was off and all that stood between him and his heart's desire was the cardboard lid. His heart was pounding and he could scarcely breathe. He closed his eyes and slowly lifted the lid. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and looked inside.

Any guesses on what he saw?

Anyway, decades later, I'm still drawn to orphan stories. Thanks to a recent discovery by Nik (I Judged a Book by Its Cover) I've had the pleasure of reading two absolutely fantastic orphan-themed books by Baltimore author Laura Amy Schlitz.

The first is Splendors and Glooms (titled Fire Spell in the UK). My local library had it filed away in juvenile fiction, but it definitely transcends this age group. The other, released a few years prior, is A Drowned Maiden's Hair (filed under Young Adult, presumably for content as the writing style is less complex than Splendors.) Both feature orphans pressed into service by not-particularly-nice adults. And both feature the deliciously creepy specter of long dead children who shape and influence events.

A Drowned Maiden's Hair tells the story of Maud Flynn, orphan and troublemaker, who's adopted solely to help her benefactors, the sisters Hawthorne, conduct fake seances for grieving parents. At first just happy to be out of the orphanage, Maud soon is torn between her desire for affection from her adopters, and her growing uncomfortableness with the deceit. 

There's a great supernatural element that I love, woven in with very real human emotions, both good and bad. I enjoyed Splendors just a tiny bit more, but both are excellent choices for a shivery read.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

To Serve Man

My oldest son was almost eight and we were at the small, local airport to see my mom off for her trip back to New York. The queue at the security line was long, way longer than usual, but people were laughing and smiling and didn’t seem at all grumpy.* My well-traveled child studied the situation for awhile, experienced enough to know that happy, waiting passengers were something of an oxymoron, then (never one to hold back), turned to me as he pointed to them and shouted (way too loudly for an airport), “Mom! Mom! It’s a …COOKBOOK!!”

Funny kid.

cookbook, mark bitumen
Great book at a great price! Less than $20 on Amazon. Buy here!
The same line went through my mind when I received my latest Amazon purchase in the mail this week. If ever there were a time to yell, “It’s a cookbook!” this would be it. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is a massive tome:  over 2 inches thick, 1000+ pages, and nearly 5 pounds.  I’d been stalking the price for some time and when it dropped a few bucks I decided to spring.

But does it truly tell one how to cook everything? My oldest, now almost 11, put it to the test:
“Chicken pot pie?” Check. 
“Hazelnut brownies?” Check.
“Crème brulee?” Check. 
“Hmmm, I guess it really does have everything. Good job, Mom.”
I’m only a couple of chapters in so far – Kitchen Basics  & Sauces – but what I’m really loving about Bittman’s approach is that it’s more of a cooking tutorial than simply a collection of recipes. He includes of course the basic ingredients and preparation instructions, but also explains, where relevant, how to choose ingredients, why they work together, and how to create almost endless numbers of variations.

He also includes recipes I would’ve never thought of making from scratch – like ketchup and coconut milk.

Each chapter starts with instructions for what he terms Essential Recipes: basic recipes that every home cook should know. For example, in the section on grains, the essential recipes cover simple cooked grains, basic pilafs, fried rice, and couscous – the types of cooking that, with a little practice, won’t require a recipe at all.

There are tons of tables in the book, too – lexicons with descriptions and uses for basic ingredients and also mix-and-match charts for recipe variations. The idea is that once one’s mastered the basic recipes, a few simple guidelines can help to create a huge variety of dishes.

I’m looking forward to donning an apron and delving in this summer. My sons and I put in a small vegetable garden in the back yard, and have allied with our neighbors to form a barter-based co-operative (basically a table where we can all trade our excess veggies).  Bittman’s section on vegetables is mouth-watering: layered tortes and Asian stirfrys; outdoor grilling and curried everything. So many options it’s almost overwhelming, but I’ll start from the basics and go from there. Wish me luck!

* The date was 02 May 2011. News had just been released that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. 

Spoiler Alert! To Serve Man is a 1962 Twilight Zone episode in which suspiciously nice aliens – the Kanamits – come to Earth to assist mankind. Aided by their trusty book, “To Serve Man,” they do all sorts of nice things to make us safer, happier, and healthier….and tastier…