Reading

Last Chance for Free

The four stories I’ve called Supplements to the Herbert West Series are free on Smashwords for one more week, until July 31st.

After that date, they will vanish. I will be unpublishing them as separate titles. Re-edited and reformatted, they will reappear later this year as part of a collection called Tales from the Annexe.

In addition to the four Supplements, the collection will include three newly-written spin-off stories from the HW Series and seven other tales. More about that later.

But wait — there’s more! All four ebooks of the Herbert West Series and its sequel, She Who Comes Forth, are at half price for the duration of Smashwords’ Summer/Winter Sale.

My copy of Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and my glasses

Rule-Quibbling and the Science of Reading

Any writer who follows blogs has seen advice that certain words “stop” your reader: adverbs, “weak” words, “filter words.” Dialogue tags other than “said.” The word “that.” The word “was.” Writers carry out search and delete missions in their documents, hunting down these toxic words. No one wants to take a chance of alienating a reader.

As some of you know, I am a self-declared rule quibbler. Not that I’m a fan of bad writing, but when I read these sermons from the blog, I wonder what evidence supports their declarations. Has anyone carried out a scientific study of reading and how readers actually process written fiction?

Book sales may be taken as an indicator of effective writing, but as most of us know, buying a book does not necessarily equal reading it or enjoying it. Maybe sales are more an indicator of effective marketing than of brilliant writing.

There are peer-reviewed academic journals on the subject: Reading Research Quarterly, for example, and the Journal of Research in Reading. From my admittedly cursory look at the sorts of articles that appear in them, the main focus of the research they publish is how people learn to read and comprehend written language, and not so much what constitutes compelling fiction.

Is there a way to quantify good writing? Do certain words bore or otherwise alienate readers? How might such a study look?

My copy of Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and my glasses

Here’s my idea and thought process: test subjects are given two different texts of a piece of writing long enough to require a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. A couple of thousand words, perhaps Chapter 1 of a novel. One version follows all the rules about words not to use. The other breaks them. Both texts have the same storyline, but different vocabularies.

After reading, test subjects would be asked which version of each piece would incline them to read further. But wait — would a single test subject see both samples or only one? By the time they read the second, they will have an idea of the plot, so there would be a spoiler effect. So maybe we have two stories, i.e., four different texts. Each subject gets a text from each story, one that follows the rules and one that does not. Because the stories are different, the “I’ve seen this already” effect is avoided.

But surely it would be necessary to minimize differences in reader preference? The test subjects would have to be matched with their preferred types of fiction. If a subject reacts unfavourably to the genre of the text rather than the words used, the test wouldn’t be valid. Okay, the researcher would have to interview potential subjects so the members of the subject pool would be similar to one another, in how much time they devote to reading, types of fiction preferred, etc.

Carefully devised follow-up questions would be needed to elicit and quantify the effect of specific words on individual reading experiences. Formulating questions for studies is a field of study in itself.

My conclusion: devising, carrying out, and writing up credible experiments is not a simple matter.

The closest I got to an actual study of the kind I’ve envisioned is a paper published in 1988, entitled The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. It describes five different studies on different aspects of the reading experience. The two that seemed most relevant to my question examined reading speed and readers’ rankings of texts for preference, merit and difficulty. There was even a study of readers’ physiological reactions to reading different texts. Even a cursory look at this paper shows how complex and elaborate a scientific study of reading can be.

The works from which texts were obtained for testing are varied, including fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, classics, and genre fiction. Authors include Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Essie Summers, Arthur Hailey, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, and W. Somerset Maugham. The most recent publication date is 1975.

One thing I found interesting was that some of the books are labelled “trash” by the study’s author. The test subjects showed a preference for this “trash” as pleasure reading material, but at the same time they assigned higher ranks for merit to “elite” works that were harder to read. The final page of the paper shows extracts from three of the works, along with the ratings they were assigned.

Despite labelling certain books as “trash,” the study does not analyze the writing, only the test subjects’ responses to it. While the studies documented in this paper don’t answer my question, they are examples of the kind of effort needed to obtain solid data on reading, and by extension, on writing.

The paper does contain some great academic terms. One that jumped out at me is ludic reading, which means “reading for pleasure.” Books can be called “ludic vehicles.” So, fellow writers, that’s what we’re trying to do: turn our books into ludic vehicles to transport readers into realms of the imagination.

My final thought (for now): Read this blog post, which contains a short piece of fiction that deliberately breaks all kinds of writing rules. I couldn’t stop reading, which suggests the words an author uses aren’t as important as the way she or he arranges them (and a few other factors too, of course).

Is anyone aware of any scientific studies on the effectiveness of specific words on recreational reading? Is there any objective science to back up the “rules” for writers? Or is it just a matter of, “Well, everyone knows…”?

Plants along front walk: orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in bloom; blue Ceanothus blooming in background

In My Garden

I recently rediscovered a book I have no memory of buying. As you can see from the price stickers in the photo, it was a bargain. Especially considering what a fun read it’s been.

My copy of In My Garden by Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd was an eminent British gardener (“horticulturist, ” as he called himself) and writer on gardening. This book is a collection of his essays first published in Country Life between 1964 and 1993. They are arranged by month, a practice that makes sense considering that gardening is an activity governed by the seasons.

Reading the thoughts of this longtime expert gardener who was also a good writer was an informative delight. I must have read this book whenever it was I bought it, but I somehow forgot doing so. That made this re-reading a fresh experience.

Gardening was both passion and profession for Lloyd. He was opinionated, but spoke from knowledge and experience. His garden at Great Dixter was open to the public, which led to opinions about the habits of garden visitors. And on the habits of plants, from trees to tiny alpines. Dogs in the garden. Thefts of plants and cuttings, including confessions of long-ago heists perpetrated by Mr. Lloyd and his mother and fellow gardeners. His thoughts on the sound of certain words — “cultivar” (ugly) or “inflorescence” (delightful). The virtues of rough grass, which made me think I’m on to something with my Boulevard Project. The death of a plant as an opportunity for something new to be added. The essays cover a dizzying variety of garden-related topics, from plant propagation to cooking.

Great Dixter Garden is now managed by a charitable trust as a biodiversity and educational centre and is open to visitors. Its official website may be found here.

As well as enjoying Mr. Lloyd’s thoughts on gardening, I’ve been bustling about in my own patch, so thought it was okay to borrow his book’s title for this post. Deadheading continues, as well as staking, snipping, weeding, lugging watering cans, and fretting about when to activate the soaker hoses and sprinklers.

I can’t really complain about the weather so far this season. We haven’t had unseasonable cold or heat, and there was adequate rainfall from April through June. Today (June 27th), as I write this, however, we have dull clouds and a blustery wind, but without rain. My least favourite kind of weather, since the wind batters plants and tugs on them and dries out the soil. And it’s unpleasant to be in the garden with flying debris whizzing by as branches clash and clank overhead. (Okay, I’m complaining after all, but whining about the weather is a gardener’s prerogative.)

Update: today (June 28th) has been a complete contrast — sunny and clear with a little breeze. And we had a few millimetres of rain overnight; not enough to make much difference, but it was nice to hear its patter on the leaves. Summer rain here is a blessing.

Since this is a Garden post, a few photos are obligatory. About the middle of June I ran around trying to get decent close-ups of flowers. Being a lazy photographer, I didn’t work too hard at it, and my camera isn’t intended for macro work. These are the best of a dubious lot.

Ladybug on rue flower
Ladybug beetle on rue flower
Single flower of Geranium "Ann Folkard" with grey foliage in background
Flower of Geranium “Ann Folkard” with grey foliage of Rose Campion (Silene coronaria, formerly Lychnis coronaria) in the background.
Single flower of orange California poppy Eschscholzia californica
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), one of the best North American native plants for dry, sunny gardens. This is its normal colour.
Pink and cream California poppies Eschscholzia californica
Cream and pink California poppies, results of a packet of seeds of a type called “Thai Silks” I scattered around years ago.
Close-up of white mullein (Verbascum chaixii 'Album' with Hosta "Stained Glass" in background
Close-up of a white form of mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’). Hosta “Stained Glass” in the fuzzy background.

My patch of garden is not comparable to the size, sophistication, and magnificence of the one at Great Dixter, but all gardens and gardeners have something in common.

open books, grass

My Best Reads of 2020, Part 2: More Book Reviews

Here are my thoughts on four more books I read and greatly enjoyed in the first six months of 2020.

First, books by writers from Australia, which seems to be a beehive of creativity in the 21st century.

Book cover image for The Old Woman and the Mad Horse by Cage Dunn & Rose Brimson

The Old Woman & the Mad Horse – Case File for: The Big Three Mining Investigation by Cage Dunn and Rose Brimson
The tension starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until nearly the end. Hella Solaris is an investigator for a shadowy organization opposing a mega-corporation’s efforts to gain technological domination of the earth’s population. Her intent to step back from active service in a small rural community is thwarted, first by the presence of an angry horse, and then by a criminal element who wants to drive her away, and finally, by discoveries and developments that entangle the personal with the professional.

This is a thriller of sorts, but much of the action is internal. Hella gathers information, processes information, formulates theories, has “aha” moments and “oh shit” moments, weighs priorities and calculates risks. The point of view is close third person. Very close; for most of the book the reader is inside Hella’s head, seeing what she sees—often on the screens of various electronic devices—following her thoughts, experiencing her emotions. The pace is dizzying and there are opportunities to lose the thread, especially when tech-related acronyms and initialisms abound. I ended up reading the book twice, to make sure I picked up on all the crucial details.

Hella is an interesting character, for a number of reasons. I can’t say she’s entirely likable, mainly because of her conscious and deliberate use of manipulative techniques in relating to others. She does have good reasons for this, and the two characters she ends up working with—Cam the cop and his daughter Cella—are totally relatable. There are lengthy scenes in which the three test one another’s capabilities and work on trust issues.
The climax scenes involve a showdown of sorts, full of revelations and twists. I have to say, a few points seemed a bit implausible to me, but on the whole, the book comes to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion.

Two other books by Cage Dunn worth checking out are: Diaballein and Herja, Devastation (co-authored with poet Frank Prem).

Cage Dunn’s blog may be found here


Book cover image for Vokhtah by acflory

A.C. Flory is another talented Australian writer whose books I have enjoyed greatly.

Vokhtah (The Suns of Vokhtah #1) is remarkable for the imagined world on which it’s set. Vokhtah has two suns. Its dominant life forms are the Vokh, creatures I visualized as similar to pterodactyls, and their smaller cousins and supporters, the iVokh. Most of the story is about the latter. These creatures are not human. Humans do not exist on this world, but human readers can relate to the thoughts, dilemmas, and emotions of the iVokh who are the primary actors.

The Vokh reign like feudal lords over their eyries, which are managed and maintained by the iVokh, who are divided into a variety of physical types with different abilities, including (in the case of a few) telepathy and mind control. Traders are a clan who distribute goods among the eyries, and Healers are a guild with skills and knowledge to maintain life, and end it when necessary. The interactions of the groups are governed by iron-bound protocols and traditions, complicated by secrets and enmities. Sex, especially for the Vokh, is a brutal, violent business, but outside of mating occurrences, there is no gender. The only personal pronoun is “it.”

This is not a quick, easy read. I re-read the first half of the book before writing this review to make sure I understood some of the details. The characters, even the sympathetic ones, don’t actually have names. They are designated by ranks and titles, some of which change over the course of the story. The reader is plunged into this alien world on the first page and has to figure out how things work while following the action. Some might give up in confusion, but the dilemma of the Drudge who is the first character encountered is eminently relatable. By the time that’s resolved, I was thoroughly engaged in the world and the story, keen to find out more about the strangely fascinating creatures with two hearts and inflatable wings.

The book features a constructed language (conlang), but it does not appear frequently enough to be daunting. There is a helpful glossary at the end, which also explains how the creatures vocalize. Otherwise, the prose is clear and straightforward, with description kept direct and businesslike. There is no hyperbole. Dialogue is minimal, even though the iVokh have a characteristic (and curiously attractive) way of expressing themselves.

Setting aside the alien aspects, the theme of this book is change and difference. Individual characters, and the groups to which they belong, must come up with ways to cope with situations they find unacceptable or challenging. Both the physical environment and the social structure are harsh and unforgiving. Transgressions come with a high price.
It appears this is the first book in a series, and indeed much remains unresolved at the end. I was delighted to read in the author’s blog that a second volume is forthcoming.

Flory’s Innerscape trilogy offers another fascinating reading experience. It’s set in a 22nd century world where artificial intelligence and virtual reality tech are used to create a kind of paradise. But it’s not without trouble.


Next, a book set in British Columbia.

Book cover image for Slow Curve on the Coquihalla by R.E. Donald

Slow Curve on the Coquihalla (A Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery #1) by R.E. Donald.

I like a mystery with more to it than just the whodunit. This one delivers. The main characters are fully developed and memorable, each one with quirks and distinctive characteristics, especially tough El Watson and biker dude Dan “Sorry” Sorenson. A variety of shifty, shady types add a bit of grit. There’s a lot (but not too much) info about the trucking business. And it’s set in a place I happen to know well — British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and southern interior. The changing scenery and weather are sketched in to give the reader a picture of this scenic region.

Hunter Rayne is no longer in the RCMP so must conduct his investigation into a fellow trucker’s death unofficially, calling on former colleagues for help. Sometimes his efforts take a back seat to his regrets and worries about his relationship with his daughters, who have grown up without much of his presence in their lives. Many miles are logged while he figures things out, and many encounters in bars and roadside eateries. Something I found a bit excessive was descriptions of characters’ clothing in almost every scene. On the other hand, typos and errors were not an issue, and the ebook formatting was excellent. All in all, I enjoyed riding along with Hunter.

R.E. Donald’s Goodreads page here.


For the final book this time around, we head down the west coast…

Book cover image for Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan

Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan.

From the book description: When the thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco doctor meets her new patient, a handsome British expat with the unlikely name of Dylan Cakebread (and an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law), she’s convinced it’s the start of her own relationship novel.

My review: The most striking thing about this book is that its author is a guy. Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men. I appreciated the development of Sarah’s relationship with Dylan, anticipating some aspects and being surprised by others. I really liked the presentation of San Francisco and environs as a setting — scenery, streetscape, restaurants, food, wine. Lots of food and wine. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was Sarah stepping out of the story to present it as a “relationship novel.” It didn’t spoil the story for me, but didn’t really add anything useful either. In fact, seeing that term in the first sentence sort of told me how the book would end. Not the actual ending, of course, just the nature of it. But it was still an engaging, entertaining, and ultimately compelling read.

Kevin Brennan’s blog is called WHAT THE HELL

That’s it — eight of the 30 or so books I’ve read so far in 2020. All my Goodreads reviews may be found here.

My Best Reads of 2020: Book Reviews, Part 1

It’s hard to believe 2020 is almost half done. Given how it’s gone so far, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Let’s hope it gets better. In the meantime, a good book is always helpful. I’ve read nearly 30 books this year. Here are some of the best.

Book cover image for You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas.
This novel of contemporary India is a clever interweaving of setting, characters, plot, and issues. The plot revolves around a series of shocking crimes against women. New Delhi in winter was a surprise to me — foggy, smoggy, and cold. The intricate plot zigs and zags from wealthy enclaves to slums, from shopping malls to back alleys. The characters are real people with flaws and fears, trying to do what is expedient and figure out what is right. Family relationships play important roles, churning up emotions and stretching endurance to the breaking point. As investigations proceed, the realities of policing and politics force choices with serious consequences. I read quickly to find out what and who, but I think a reread is needed in order to appreciate subtleties and nuances I probably missed. There are quite a few sentences and phrases in Hindi, but the meaning or at least the gist is conveyed sufficiently that I did not find this a problem; on the contrary, it was interesting to see the interplay of languages among the characters.

Damyanti’s website here.


Book cover image for The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part 7

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part Seven: Fifth Island in the River: a biographical fiction by Lorinda J. Taylor
This is the seventh book in a very long story. It continues the excellent writing of the previous books, with the additional thrill provided by the fact that the long-planned and much-deferred mission from Earth to the stars finally takes place.
It wouldn’t make sense to start reading with Part 7 of the series, so here is my review of Part 1: Eagle Ascendant

Book cover image for The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part 1 by Lorinda J. Taylor Part 1

Combining hard science fiction with a heartfelt coming-of-age story, this is an engrossing read. Much of its appeal for me was the methodically constructed society in which it is set. By the 28th century, human beings have learned some hard lessons and mended their ways. With a democratic world government, no military forces or organized religions, and an economic system that looks like a benign form of socialism, space travel within the solar system is highly developed, carried out by an organization whose structure and culture is reminiscent of present-day navies. The main character, Robbin Nikalishin, grows up in this world, experiencing family problems, school days, friendships, and love affairs. He is drawn to a cutting-edge space exploration program based on temporal quantum theory. This fictional science sounded plausible to me, but then, my understanding of actual quantum physics is practically nil. Step by step, the story builds to a gripping climax, ending with an irresistible situation that compels one to read Part Two. I am not a real fan of the SF genre, but I can heartily recommend this book.

In fact, I heartily recommend the entire series. The terrible event that ends the first book devastates Robbin Nikalishin and the interstellar program. Parts 2 through 6 relate the many trials and tribulations endured by both before the phoenix rises again. What I love about this series is the balance between realistic human drama and plausible future technology. Readers who expect space combat in their science fiction need not look here, but those who dislike too much science with their fiction will be pleased.

An excellent review of Part 1 may be found on Berthold Gambrel’s blog.

Lorinda J. Taylor’s blog is called Ruminations of a Remembrancer.


Book cover image for The Huralon Incident by E.A. Wicklund

The Huralon Incident (Springbok Chronicles Book 1) by E.A. Wicklund
Readers who do enjoy space combat will be delighted and entertained by this book. I was surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did, given my dislike of long and detailed fight scenes of any kind.
Captain Evander McCray of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium is a distinct and memorable personality. He’s bold, intelligent, somewhat impulsive, and totally loyal to the principles of the Navy. He has a softer side, displayed by his interest in reconstructing Earth’s fragmented history (sometimes with amusing misinterpretations), and even learning how to bake! Intelligence officer and assassin Aja Coopersmith, McCray’s lover, is also memorable, notably for a certain ruthlessness combined with a “farm girl” background and a surprising desire for a peaceful life.
Supporting characters have enough distinctive traits to be distinguishable from one another. Technology is almost a character in itself. The Q-ship ESS Springbok is a technological wonder, and its crew are equipped with “nanites” that enhance their physical capabilities and enable them to communicate nonverbally. These abilities certainly come in handy at moments of crisis. Nanotechnology does everything from shipbuilding to laundry. Artificial intelligence systems also play a major role in getting things done. And there are killer robots called Reapers.
Some of the bad guys are almost comically evil, although aspects like media manipulation and political corruption appear quite plausible.

E.A. Wicklund’s Goodreads page here.


Book cover image for Underground by Will Hunt

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt
When I saw a mention of this book in someone’s blog, I had to read it, because I had recently read another book on the same subject and wanted to compare them. Both describe visits to the limestone quarries under Paris and other fascinating legal and quasi-legal adventures.
I thought Underground was a more straightforward approach to the topic of things subterranean than Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, also published in 2019. Like Macfarlane, Hunt writes about his own experiences, but uses them as starting points to look at human experiences of and attitudes toward being underground. From a theory that all life on earth originated underground, to the physiological and psychological effects of sensory deprivation, to the use of caves as sacred spaces, every chapter contains fascinating facts and intriguing observations. I’m left with the apparent paradox that to us creatures of earth’s surface, underground spaces are at the same time realms of terror and irresistible attractions.

Will Hunt’s Goodreads page here.

More reviews next week, in Part 2!

Five Free Days on the Kindle

I’ve read the first book, Miira, and enjoyed it. You can read my review on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2538922383

Meeka's Mind

Starting Monday the 20th of April, the Innerscape Omnibus will be free on Amazon. The free period ends on April the 24th, so expect to be annoyed with constant reminders until them. 🙂

Please share with anyone who’s stuck at home and likes sci-fi. And reading, of course! At almost 1000 pages, the Omnibus should keep all but the fastest readers occupied for quite a while.

At this point, I’m thinking of unpublishing the Omnibus once the 90 day KDP exclusive period is over, so please grab a free copy on Monday! Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday…

cheers
Meeks

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Two books by Richardson Wright

Two Old Gardening Books and Mr. Grahame’s Little Joke

Specifically, The Gardener’s Bed-Book and The Gardener’s Day Book, both by Richardson Wright (1887-1961), originally published in 1929 and 1938 respectively, the decade between the stock market crash and the start of World War II. Like many books about gardening, they are based on the calendar, with a short essay for every day of the year and a longer one at the end of each month. They reminded me of blog posts. I found myself wanting to press a “Like” button and write comments!

Most of the essays, as expected, are about gardening. Each one is followed by a timely tip, such as when to order seeds, plants, or bulbs, and dates by which various tasks should be done. The basics of gardening haven’t changed that much in centuries, so I could relate to Wright’s thoughts about different plants and musings on gardening as pastime and passion. Despite being written almost a century ago, many of the daily tips are surprisingly apt. I’ll have to pay more attention to some of them.

It’s a different story when it comes to pest control. The differences between then and now are substantial. Toxic chemicals were all the rage then, such as Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime), Semesan (organomercury compounds), and Black Leaf 40 (nicotine sulphate). Next to advice to apply arsenate of lead to cabbages was a pencilled note — “Good Lord!” — I must have made the first time I read the book.

Wright’s attitudes and phraseology are of their time, and a few of his remarks are offensive by today’s standards, but there aren’t enough of those to make the book a complete turn-off. Some of his observations on “modern society,” like outrageously fast speeds on highways, seem a bit quaint. One essay includes an observation that Americans drink standing up rather than sitting down, gulping rather than sipping. He associates this habit with early death and suggests sitting down and savouring wine or beer. This sounds a lot like the recent “slow food” trend. The pleasures of food and wine are mentioned regularly, and there are even a few recipes.

I was amused by instructions such as “Check up on the the gardener to see if he has sharpened all edge tools,” and references to a “lawn boy.” Clearly, Wright was among the privileged folks who lived well during the Depression, although he could not afford to install a swimming pool due to “the wind that blew down Wall Street.” Frequent references to hot beds and cold frames made me wonder if these have been replaced by greenhouses, polytunnels, and similar structures.

I haven’t been able to find out much more about Richardson Wright besides his role as editor of House and Garden magazine. He appears to have been a respected figure, both as a promoter of gardening and as a writer, but as yet lacks a Wikipedia entry. In the preface to the Bed-Book, Allen Lacy describes him as “…a congenial soul with a good sense of humor and a well-furnished mind and the manners of a gentleman…” Wright’s garden was in the Silvermine area of Connecticut, a place he called “Sun House.” It must have been quite large, with space for luxuries such as nursery beds and those desirable features of great gardens, stone walls.

Dipping into these books is rather like a visit to a past time. Not that far back, though. I was surprised to read that cars had radios in the 1930s, and it appears that a certain type of book was called a “murder mystery” even in that pre-World War II era. Altogether, Mr. Wright’s books provided a pleasant and interesting diversion, just as they were intended to do almost a century ago.

I can’t remember when or where I bought these books. They’re reprints, not originals, published in 1989. A price of $23.95 appears on the jackets, but I don’t think I would have paid that much, so they probably came from a used bookstore. I recently rediscovered them with considerable delight. They’re chunky little books, about seven inches tall by five wide and more than an inch thick, a comfortable size for the bedside table.

Spines of two books by Richardson Wright

A Light-Bulb Moment

In the Day Book, Mr. Wright’s advice for March 30th is “Roll and rake the lawn.” This got me wondering why anyone would do that (aside from preparing an area for seeding a new lawn). Surely it’s the opposite of aerating, which one is now advised to do, with machines that remove small cores of soil and presumably let in air. Might frost-heaved areas need rolling? Or maybe mole runs? Indeed, on April 13th, one is advised to oil the mole traps. I’ve never lived in a place with moles, so have no experience of their activities.

Then I remembered something from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a favourite book of mine in past years. In the chapter titled “Dulce Domum,” Mole remembers the old home from which he departed in the middle of spring cleaning to seek wider horizons. When he and Rat revisit the place months later, Rat has a job of it to convince Mole that it’s really a nice little house and not a shabby, decrepit dump. Anyway, it seems Mole owns a lawn roller, because he doesn’t care for “animals” kicking up his lawn into little mounds. It’s taken me almost 60 years to discover and appreciate that little joke on Mr. Grahame’s part.

The garden roller at Hoveton Hall gardens, Hoveton, Norfolk
“A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other, a roller; for the Mole … could not stand having his ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth-heaps.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Northmetpit dedicated to the public domain.)

Books: Supplies for the Brain

So maybe you’re quarantined, or in voluntary isolation, or just stretching your social distance to the walls of your own house. Everything is closed or closing, even your local library.

Sure, you have a tottering TBR pile, but it can’t hurt to add a few more books to it. You don’t want to run out of reading material in this time of uncertainty!

frog on toilet
Plenty of TP and something to read!

All my books are either free or half-price at the Smashwords store through Sunday, March 22nd. Use the Coupon Code LH52T when checking out.

More about the books here and here.

And of course, for us writers, it’s a great time to write!

The Relief of Reading a Printed Book

I’m reading a printed book after weeks of reading ebooks with the Kindle app on my tablet.

Switching to print has been such a relief! I don’t have to turn the tablet back on if I’ve happened to leave it for a few minutes, or dart back to flip the page back to prevent the device shutting off while I’m making that sandwich. I don’t have to check the battery level or remember to plug it in.

Ebooks are compact and convenient, no question about that, but print books provide a less demanding reading experience. Open or closed, they sit there obligingly, waiting to be read. Several times since I switched back to print, I’ve returned to the book after getting a cup of coffee and experienced a pleasant surprise when I realized I didn’t have to turn on the reading device and key in a password in order to continue reading. (Okay, I know you can set up your tablet not to require a password, but I chose not to do that.)

One problem with printed books is disposing of those you no longer need, often after a single reading. (I’m trying to reduce the amount of surplus stuff in my house, even books.) There are many good ways to dispose of unwanted books — give them to friends, donate to the local library, contribute to community book sales, etc. But each of those options requires more effort than pressing a “delete” button.

This is where borrowing books from libraries is a great choice. Read it and return it. If I’m reluctant to part with a library book after I’ve read it, that’s a sign I should buy myself a copy.

Am I going to restrict myself to reading only in print? No. Many indie-published books are never going to show up at the library. The best way to experience them is via the ebook format, especially when trying out books by authors new to me. As with books from the library, if I find one I really love, I can always order a printed copy — if one is available.

Which tells me that for indie authors, it’s important to make their books available in both print and e-format. It’s even worth the agonizing effort of formatting a Word document to create a professional quality printed book. If you want to do that, this free resource created by fellow WordPress blogger Meeka may be helpful.

What about you, fellow indies? Are your books available in both print and ebook form? Do you read in both formats or do you prefer one or the other?

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Reader Brain and Critic Brain

The writer’s brain has two parts — the Imaginer and the Editor. Similar to these are two different parts of the reading brain: the Listener and the Critic.

Both writing and reading are complex activities. There’s more to writing than following rules and more to reading than seeing words on a page or screen.

It may be that the only thing a piece of fiction needs to do in order to be a success is engage the Listener in the reader’s brain. Like a kid by the campfire, all it wants is a good story. Once the Listener is engaged, details that bother the Critic — lapses in grammar, spelling mistakes, or typos — don’t matter. Not even plodding prose, cardboard characters, or warmed-over plots. As long as the Listener part of the reading brain wants to know what happens next and how the story ends, the reader will keep on reading.

This may explain some of those five star rave reviews for what discerning, critical readers believe to be mediocre books.

Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members must perforce read in Critic mode. People who aren’t writers and are simply looking for entertainment, amusement, or diversion read in Listener mode.

This is why many (maybe most) writers are unable to read purely for fun. Poor things, they’re stuck in Critic mode. Typos, errors, and lazy writing habits irritate them and break the reading experience. Even when reading a stellar piece of work, they end up comparing what they’re reading to their own writing, rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the story.

This may also be why many readers don’t write reviews. If you’ve sailed through a book in Listener mode, it’s hard to marshal your thoughts about it to the point of expressing them in prose.

Most beta readers are also writers, and feel obligated to read critically. Perhaps another category (“alpha readers”) is needed — folks who read purely for entertainment but are willing to comment on their experience of a specific book.

Anything an alpha reader notes as problematic would need the writer’s urgent attention. Niggly details noted by the beta readers can be dealt with later. There’s no point in polishing your prose if no one cares where your story is going or what happens at the end.

Maybe all this applies mainly to genre fiction — stories with inciting incidents, arcs and climaxes, and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Literary fiction, with its emphasis on artful prose, symbolism, and underlying themes, is a different matter. Even so, literary writers may want to consider recruiting one or two alpha readers from among their acquaintances.

So, fellow writers, do any of you seek out alpha readers? Are you able to read uncritically, purely for enjoyment?