Category : Reading

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

I remember a time when waiting for reviews of my book was a nail-biting experience. Not that I’m completely over it —  I’m still thrilled by a good one, cranky at a bad one.

But after 25+ novels and short stories, I don’t get quite so anxious. Without actually counting, I’d say the good ones outnumber the bad ones by at least a small margin!

Here a few favorites.

1. In one of my early books, a character refers to May 5 as Mexican Independence Day.

Oops – I’m from Boston, where our big holidays are Patriot’s Day (April 19) and Bunker Hill Day (June 17). How was I to know that Mexican Independence Day is September 16? I don’t remember any fuss being made on that day that matches the fuss in California on Cinco de Mayo.

I received an email from a professor at a college in Mexico City. “Gringos!” she wrote, and proceeded to lecture me on Mexican military history; a few nasty terms were included. Following my rule of never defending myself, I apologized, and in turn received an apology from her for being less than civil.

2. An amazon reviewer gave one of Margaret Grace’s Miniature Mysteries one star because she thought Maddie, 11, was a spoiled brat. I didn’t respond, but wondered what kind of grandmother she’d make. Another reviewer complained about the books because she doesn’t like miniatures. Hello?

Possibly my favorite is a reviewer who said one of Ada Madison’s books was “awful” and listed reasons. At the end, he said he bought the next one in the hope that it would be better. Well, thanks, sir, as long as you keep trying  . . . I can’t ask for more than that.

On the positive side, it’s a huge boost when anyone likes a book and, I must admit, when a reviewer claims to have “learned something,” whether about science, miniatures, academic life, or—most recently—interesting facts about the USPS.

Finally, one anecdote about my nonfiction “How to Live with an Engineer.”

It’s a short book, and a woman read just about the whole book while standing in front of me at a table at a fair. I was curious about whether she’d buy it after the long perusal. She did, asking me to sign it.

“How would you like me to address it?” I asked.

She thought a minute. “Just say, ‘To Ellen, good luck with Scott’.”

The best of . . .

Don’t you love all the year-end lists? Some of them?

I’m falling into the “BEST OF” trap and reprinting an answer to “Best book read in 2015.”

I heard a talk by Margaret Atwood a few years ago. During Q/A, someone in the audience asked her, If you could take just one book with you to a desert island  . . .

Atwood’s answer: I’d take the longest one, of course.

I could borrow her answer for this blog topic, but that would be cheating. Except that, in a way, my favorite was one of the longest ones, taken together: THE GLASGOW TRILOGY by Malcolm Mackay.

The books have everything I love in crime fiction: a hit man protagonist, writing that you want read over and over, and a story that grabs you and won’t let go until the end, when you sit back and say wow, or some other brilliant comment.

Calum MacLean, 29, is a lot like Dexter, except he’s a hit man instead of a serial killer. Each is engaging, lives by a code, and is smarter than everyone around him.

Here’s a sample that I gave my writing class. I could have chosen any two pages. The pages are full of emotional elements, subtext, and suspense. See if you don’t run out (or in) and grab these up.



Recently, Marshal Zeringue invited me to share my current reading. In case you missed it on his site, which is always interesting.

I always have several books going at the same time, some paper copies, some on my e-reader.

Here’s my current stack and the excuses to read them:

1. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, for a nonfiction book group that has been meeting monthly in my home for more than 20 years. Like all his narratives, Larson’s detailed presentation of the WWI disaster reads like the best fiction. Here the characters are a luxury ocean liner and a German U-boat. I’m always amazed when a writer can accomplish suspense, even when we all know the outcome.

2. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Kalili. Heavy! This one will take a while to finish. Biology is so much more complex than physics (five simple equations and you’re done).

3. Guilt by Degrees, by attorney Marcia Clark, for the December meeting of the Castro Valley Library Mystery Book Club, another longstanding group. The story, or “case”, is interesting, the author’s many years reading police reports obvious.

4. Fatal Voyage, by Karin Fossim, my new favorite thriller writer. For me, the darker the better when it comes to reading crime fiction.

5. Assorted magazines: The New Yorker (of course; makes feel like one); Science & Technology Review (to stay connected); Writers Digest and Publishers Weekly (to feel like a writer); Real Simple (makes me feel organized); the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (to enter a different world); and miniatures magazines (makes me feel crafty).

And, finally, just for fun

6. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by San Roberts. Probably my favorite place on earth, and probably because I grew up with the radio show long before I ever saw the terminal. What can be more exciting to listen to while ironing than the crossroads of a million private lives?

Reading a series

It’s officially released — the 8th book in the Miniature Mystery series. I’m often asked whether a reader should start with the first in the series.

Short answer: no!

Long answer: here it is.

Say you have a new friend. She’s well into middle age, and so are you (maybe). You go to lunch or to a meeting and by the way, you learn her backstory. She reveals it little by little, or a lot by a lot, depending on the circumstances. You bond over things you have in common now.

Do you feel deprived that you didn’t meet right out of the womb?

In case you don’t see where I’m going with this – and why would you?—I feel the same way about a series protagonist. In other words, I don’t have to start with A is for . . .  to enjoy my friend.

I can feel a shiver through the computer: I’m thinking of those who wouldn’t dream of launching into a series without starting at the beginning.

There has even been talk of publishers putting numbers on the spines of books for convenience. After all, who wants to start inadvertently reading a series at number 3?

But it’s no different from meeting a friend in the middle of her life. You can always go back and find out what she’s been doing before she met you. You can “track her growth” through stories, even when they’re told out of order.

Here’s why I always go for the last book of a series first.

1. Any author worth reading gets better with each book. It stands to reason that the latest book will be the best. It’s better to get hooked on the protagonist through the best book, and then go back to earlier ones. I’m more likely to forgive a few flaws in the early books if I’m already committed to the characters.

2. It’s better for the author! The publishing industry is all about “what have you done for me today?” Sales of that new book are what count. In fact, print runs are determined largely by PRE-orders. So, if book 4 is out now and I decide to go back and read book 1 first, it’s likely all over for that author/series.

3. I like to stay current. I want to read what everyone is talking about. Fellow writers, readers, reviewers will be discussing the newest book, not book 1.

4. Sometimes early books go out of print. Why deprive myself of a good book just because the series may not be complete on my shelves?

5. I’m a fan of the Fibonacci series. You can start anywhere in the series and generate other numbers in either direction.

{Fibonacci Refresher: Starting with 0 and 1, each new number in the series is simply the sum of the two before it.


If it’s good enough for Fibonacci . . .