Monthly Archives: May 2013


READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose is a gem of a book for those of us trying to hone the craft of writing. Ms. Prose’s advice can basically be boiled down to five points:


  1. Be able to look at a sentence and decide what to cut.
  2. Read your work aloud, listening closely for cadence and rhythm. It’s best to have a group of friends for this activity.
  3. When you read literature, you should be able to trace patterns and make connections. This is the backbone of literary criticism.
  4. Close reading means reading one word at a time WITHOUT skimming. You should develop this habit.
  5. As you slow down to read word by word, ask yourself what sort of information is EACH WORD conveying.


ReadingLikeAWriterThe book is organized into nine chapters, starting with close reading, and going through words, sentences, and paragraphs to narration, character and dialogue, and finishing with details and gesture.


Ms. Prose has wonderful examples from the work of great writers. She uses the party scene from James Joyce’s THE DEAD as an example of “how to orchestrate the voices of the guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forwards, in turn, to take their solos.” She uses the opening sentence of Katherine Mansfield’s THE DAUGHTERS OF THE LATE COLONEL to show how the construction of that opening sentence contributes to the overall tone and theme of the story. She uses the “daring deployment of the incorrect word” in the first sentence of Joyce’s THE DEAD to show how it momentarily puts us in Lily’s point of view.


Yes, Ms. Prose uses lots of examples. Yes, some of them are very long. But as someone who wallows in wonderful writing, I sympathized with how hard it was for her to let go of that marvelous prose. And this was the way that great writers of the past, like Chekhov or Austen learned to write themselves. After all, they didn’t have the opportunity to study for an MFA in creative writing!

For anyone who wants to improve their writing, I highly recommend this book. Five stars.

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SARUM by Edward Rutherford

SarumEdward Rutherford’s SARUM is a remarkable book about the city of Salisbury and its surrounding environment that takes place over an amazing 10,000 years of time, from the end of the last Ice Age until the present day.


It took me a month to read it, a long time to read a book for me. But I found it to be quite the page-turner. It had a succession of strong characters and good plot twists that kept me reading.


The only caveat I have is that the whole premise of the novel is built on the old-fashioned view that blood runs true. So the Porteous family always has men who are stiff and socially awkward. The Shockleys include women who are strong-minded and beautiful with golden hair and blue eyes. The Forest-Wilson family consists of men who are secretive and manipulative.


This is an excellent literary technique for keeping the characters of each generation straight in the reader’s mind, BUT it is absolutely NOT true of the way things really are. What actually happens is that the genetic pool randomly selects traits for each person, randomly generating personalities, strengths and weaknesses for each generation. Of course, socio-economic status plays its rule, and sets these traits in a certain pattern. But the coming-to-be of a person is initially a random process. Which is why geniuses often seem to come from nowhere.


I wish that the author had addressed this in an Author’s Note, as the view that blood runs true has had pernicious consequences, especially in the 20th century. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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Winter_Of_The_WorldI am a fan of Ken Follett and I’ve enjoyed reading several of his novels, including FALL OF THE GIANTS. So I was looking forward to reading WINTER OF THE WORLD, but it didn’t seem up to his usual standard.

What struck me first was how Mr. Follett’s prose is riddled with tells. Now, I have written a lot about this subject before, and readers of my previous posts know that I’m not against tells providing that they don’t annoy the reader. There are two things to remember about them if you want to use them. First, it helps if they have a voice, a personality or a particular point of view. Neutral reportage doesn’t do in a novel. Secondly, if you can’t do that, you MUST use them SPARINGLY.

Unfortunately, Mr. Follett’s tells were of the neutral reportage variety, so the effect was to dampen down the emotion of the story, which makes the reader LESS emotionally engaged. Not what you want if you are a writer.

But the problem with the tells masked an even deeper problem with this novel, which was the lack of characterization of the main characters. As others have remarked, the vivid personalities from the last novel take a back seat as their children take center stage. What a pity, therefore, that the children are so not interesting! Let us hope that their children, who will feature in the next novel, are as interesting as their grandparents were. Three stars.

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The trouble for the writer, of writing yet another book about Anne Boleyn, is that it is yet another book about Anne Boleyn and consequently the bar is set formidably high for success. I am sure Ms. Byrd believed she had hit upon the winning formula when she plucked Meg Wyatt from obscurity to become the narrator of her novel TO DIE FOR: A NOVEL OF ANNE BOLEYN.  However, I don’t think she succeeded. In what follows, I am going to articulate what I think the problems were.

The main problem for me is that the narrator Meg Wyatt is not an interesting person. Unlike Mary Boleyn, the narrator of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, Meg Wyatt hasn’t been the mistress of both the King of France and the King of England. Not only doesn’t she have any knowledge of Anne’s life at the courts of Burgundy and France, she has no way of knowing much about Henry VIII, the man, behind the glittering facade. Philippa Gregory’s choice of Mary Boleyn as the narrator for her novel was brilliant, precisely because she is the perfect foil for Anne, leading such a similar life, but being such a different person.

The consequence of all this is that the beginning of the novel, which portrays the friendship between Meg and Anne, is far too slow. The engine of the novel didn’t start for me until page 67, when Anne embarks on her relationship with Henry VIII.

Another big problem is that Ms. Byrd has nothing fresh to say about Anne Boleyn. What made Robin Maxwell’s MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN so compelling, is that she unearthed some new evidence that suggested that Anne Boleyn was much younger than had previously been thought (born in 1507, as opposed to 1501), and that she was a very young child (six years old) when she was sent to the court of Duchess Margaret of Burgundy in 1513. Subsequently she went to the court of the King of France around the time that he married Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor in 1514, and then she stayed on in France until 1522, not coming back to England to be presented at the court of Henry VIII until she was 15 years old.

Now, I am not an expert on Anne Boleyn, so I don’t know if she was born in 1501 and spent her youth in England as Sandra Byrd would have it, or was born in 1507 and spent her youth on the continent as Robin Maxwell says. However, I have to say that I found Ms. Maxwell’s novel far more interesting, because it provided a fresh new take on Anne Boleyn’s life that explained so many things.

Take the question of age. It is not known when Anne Boleyn was born, but I think it more likely that she was born in 1507 rather than in 1501. After all, why would a King of England, desperate for a son and heir, move heaven and earth for a woman of 24 or 25, when she would be considered on the shelf by the standards of the day? Doesn’t it seem more likely that he’d turn the world upside down for an 18 or 19-year-old, who would have her best child-bearing years in front of her?

Then there is the question of where Anne Boleyn actually was before she caught King Henry’s eye. Again, I have to say that I find it much more plausible that she’d been brought up on the continent, and blew into Henry’s court as an exotic breath of fresh air from France, rather than a young woman who’d been reared in England, and would be just another English beauty.

The last problem I’m going to talk about is the most puzzling one. This is not the first time I’ve wondered why Simon & Schuster doesn’t provide better editorial help for its authors. Why does it allow such obvious anachronisms to stand? Why does it allow Ms. Byrd to get away with stating that Anne’s father was visiting Belgium, when in Anne’s day, Belgium didn’t exist and was referred to either as Flanders or Burgundy (depending on exactly where you were)?  Why does Simon & Schuster allow this novel to open with a minor character stitching muslin? Surely muslin wasn’t known until the 17th century at the earliest, when the British started connecting with people from the Indian subcontinent. Why on earth do we have Meg Wyatt remarking that Anne habitually wore cotton stockings, when cotton wasn’t common until North America became established as a British colony in the 17th century?

Am I missing something? If so, I wish that Ms. Byrd had addressed the new research she’d unearthed that would prove me wrong, when she wrote her Author’s Note.

I see, from glancing at other Amazon reviews, that many readers enjoyed this novel, and I’m glad they did. I’m sorry that it didn’t work for me. Two stars.

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U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton

U_Is_For_UndertowI don’t know when I first started reading the Kinsey Millhone series, but I was hooked by A IS FOR ALIBI, and have enjoyed the subsequent series enormously. It take a lot of work and talent to write one successful book. But to have produced twenty-six really good reads is amazing.


I hadn’t read Sue Grafton for a long time, but I happened to be in a doctor’s office recently when I noticed U IS FOR UNDERTOW sitting on the floor under a chair. I picked it up and was immediately hooked. For those of you reading this now who want to be writers, pick up this book and read the beginning, then study it. It is a prefect example of how to hook a reader.


Now I am not really a reader of mysteries, but I left my doctor’s appointment dying to know what happened next, so I immediately bought it on Amazon and read it in about a day. This novel is about a character who may be suffering from an implanted memory. Or he might be telling the truth. At the beginning, it’s really not clear which, but Kinsey Millhone is determined to find out, and there is a very dramatic scene at the end in which she saves someone’s life. Which I won’t say more about so as not to spoil the story.


In any event, because the protagonist of this story is so unreliable, Ms. Grafton has to layer in other people’s points of view, so that the reader can make sense of what is going on. Again, if you want to write yourself, study these passage carefully as they are a good example of how to use this technique successfully. (Many new writers find this hard to do right).


If you love mysteries, read this book! Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.

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The summer traveling season approaches…


My husband and I usually leave town at this time of year to avoid the very hot summers of Washington DC, which we find increasingly difficult to tolerate in our old age. This year, I will be going to the Black Forest area to do research on Grimm’s Fairy Tales for a forthcoming novel, while my husband gives papers in Germany, Sweden and Norway.

During this time, both the Monday Craft Tips and Friday’s Internet Goodies series will be in abeyance. However, I always read plenty of books when I travel, so expect to see lots of book reviews until I return home in August. (My husband has to prepare for his fall teaching schedule).

Have a wonderful summer!



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THE WARBURGS by Ron Chernow

The_WarburgsRon Chernow’s THE WARBURGS is a long, 722-page book, about a family of bankers, who originated in Venice with the name of del Banco. They fled Italy in the 16th century when Venetian Jews were herded into the ghetto, and went to Warburg, Germany. Taking the name of that town, they moved to Altona near Hamburg in the seventeenth century before moving to Hamburg itself in the eighteenth century, opening the still-privately-owned bank there in 1798.


As you would expect, this is a rich, sprawling history with many interesting characters. But Mr. Chernow does a fine job of delineating the various family members with their quirks, oddities, charms and selfishnesses, not to mention all the innumerable family feuds. There are a great many characters to take in, and I would have been lost without the excellent family trees placed at the beginning of the book.


This book also traces the tragic fall of the Warburgs during the Nazi regime, as well as their astonishing comeback in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, the family bank M. M. Warburg that was started in 1798 is still there, in its historic location on Ferdinandstrasse in Hamburg. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.

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Monday Craft Tips #16: Something that will amuse a writer when traveling this summer

I thought I would end my series of craft tips by telling you about a great way to while away the time when traveling. This will appeal to you if you love the wonderful English language. Especially if you are a writer.

I recently had to do a trip up to New Jersey and back (5 hours each way), and so my husband popped something in the CD drive to amuse me. It was a series on lectures from the Teaching Company called Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage, taught by Prof. John McWhorter of Stanford University.

Although the title doesn’t convey this, it is really a history of the English language. For us writers, this is a gold-mine of information.

Did you know, for example, that English doesn’t have a present tense? People don’t say “I build” unless they are foreign-born. Instead they say “I am building”, a tense that Prof. McWhorter refers to as the “obsessive progressive”. Where in the world does that come from?

In a word, Welsh.

That’s right, before most everyone was speaking English in England, they were actually speaking Old Welsh, and the grammar has left some marks on the English language.

I highly recommend these lectures. If interested, please go to:


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Help me celebrate Lady Cecylee’s Birthday!

One day, two great ladies.

CecilyResizedThreeOn May 3, 1415, Lady Cecylee Neville was born at Raby Castle to Ralph, First Earl of Westmorland and his second wife, Lady Joan de Beaufort.


On May 3, 1446, on her 31st birthday, Lady Cecylee, now Duchess of York, gave birth to Lady Margaret Plantagenet, later the Duchess of Burgundy. Mother and daughter were close and I always like to imagine them enjoying their shared birthday together.

If you would like to help celebrate Lady Cecylee’s 598th birthday, or Lady Margaret’s 567th birthdayMargaret, Duchess of Burgundy, please stop by Lady C’s Chateau on Facebook, and hit the “Like” button!

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Friday’s Internet Goodies: From Australia comes Book’d Out

InternetGoodiesShelley Rae is a voracious reader. In 2010, she read 233 books in 239 days! So she loves books. Here is what she says about herself:

I love my local library – it’s small but the books are free and the librarians are great at sourcing books for me from the bigger city library’s. In all the places I have lived the librarians quickly learnt my name because I visited so often but I’ve not always been able to find what I want. I’ve never had the budget to feed my book habit – book prices in Australia are extortionate – and in the country town I now live in there are no second hand booksellers within a 2 hour drive. I have my iPod  (a generous birthday gift from my grandfather) and I can find ebooks at a reasonable price (and hubby doesn’t always need to know). Its loaded with Stanza, and every other book app I can find – Kindle App, Borders, Kobo, iBook etc. I have the BookCollectorz app for keeping my collection organised, and the Goodreads App to update my bookshelf and check in with my groups. It’s the best gift I have ever gotten and now instead of a paperback, I am most likely wandering around with my iPod in hand engrossed in my latest read.

For a book addict Goodreads is fabulous, finally I have found people who share my obsession and totally understand just why I stayed up til 4am finishing a book even knowing I had to be up in 2 hours to get the kids off to school. I use Goodreads to track my reading wish list, share my opinions, take challenges, read reviews and find new books to read. I’ve won a couple of books through their Book Giveaway program and even had a chance to chat with some of my favourite authors. If you love books you will love Goodreads. You can see my Goodreads profile -send me a friend request.

BookdOutShelley Rae prefers to read:

General Fiction, Womens Fiction /Chick Lit, Cosy Mystery, Psychological Thriller/Suspense, Murder & Mystery,  Crime, Police procedural, Humor, Supernatural /Urban Fantasy

She may also consider Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Contemporary Romance, Science Fiction , Horror, Non Fiction and Young Adult (suitable for 16+ years), but accept very few.

She specifically welcomes Australian author submissions.

* I  will NOT consider books in the following genres or with the following dominant  themes: Christian, Religion, Historical, Political, Celebrity, Fashion, Poetry, Sports, Erotica and Travel. If your book falls into a category that I am not interested in then please do not submit it.

Lastly, Shelley Rae shares a list of resources  to search for book blog reviewers.

Indie Book Reviewer Yellow Pages

The Indie Book Review

Indie Book Reviewer

Book Blogger Directory

Australian Book Blogger Directory

To find her site, point your browser to:

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