Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Saturday Morning Post (No. 37)

 


We have a modern classic to talk about today. With its own old, and now new, TV miniseries. So without further ado...

My reviewer criteria. I like light, entertaining novels. I like smaller scale stories rather than epics. I like character focused novels featuring pleasant characters, with a minimum number of unpleasant ones. I greatly value clever and witty writing. I like first person, or close third person narratives. I dislike a lot of "head jumping" between POVs and flashbacks. I want a story, not a puzzle. While I am not opposed to violence, I dislike gore for the sake of gore. I find long and elaborate fight, action, and battle sequences tedious. Plot holes and things that happen for the convenience of the author annoy me. And I fear I'm a born critic in that I don't mind pointing out what I don't like in a story. However, I lay no claim to be the final arbitrator of style and taste, you need to decide for yourself what you like or dislike in a book.

Your opinions are always welcome. Comment below.


Shogun by James Clavell  C+

I never watched the old miniseries, but the impression I had about the book was that it was about a western seaman shipwrecked in Japan and becoming enmeshed in Japanese culture of the 16th century. Which is an element of it, and while it may've been the focus of the original miniseries, it is not really the focus of the book. Blackthorne, the English pilot of a Dutch ship is merely the hook to draw in western readers of this novel, and the window into 17th century Japanese culture that Clavell illuminates in the story; its culture, philosophies, and politics. The main character of the book is a historical Japanese noble, Lord Toranaga, who at this point in history has designs on becoming the ruler of all of Japan, the Shogun of the title, though he denies it. Being an almost 1,200 page novel, with an intricately plotted semi-fictional story grafted into known history, it is impossible to do the plot any justice by attempting to summarizing it. So I won't. I will say that it is a very impressive work of research and storytelling which earns it the "+" I gave for it. Ultimately however, it only earned a C grade from me for three main reasons.

First, and one I can't blame the author for, is that the story desperately needs a map of 17th century Japan to give the reader some idea of what was going on politically. I read a library copy of the mass market paperback (with tiny 6pt. type) so other editions have one. But if they don't, it's a glaring fault. Much of the meanings of the political actions that take up most of the story is lost without such a map. And while you could probably find that backstory, perhaps with maps on the internet these days, those sources would also spoil the story, since this is a historical novel, not a novel of alternate or counterfactual history. At least that is what I feared. And if you do look up sources to supply things like maps, and perhaps character background, you'll discover how the main story ends (though off screen in the book). 

By the same token, since Clavell had to fit his story within known history, without altering it, if you know anything about Japanese history, you will have a clue as to the fate of Blackthorne, who I gather is based on a real historical person, as well as Lord  Toranaga. Strangely enough, if you even know a little about Japan, Clavell spoils the ending himself simply because he can't keep himself from educating the reader on Japanese culture by introducing the invention of the role of the geisha girl in Japanese society.

The second, and more significant reason for my C grade is it's length and complexity. I found it simply too long, and too politically intricate, for me with little knowledge of Japan going into this book. That said, I generally like long books, and love learning history from a fictional book, George MacDonald Frazer's Flashman books are a perfect example of a mix of real history and fiction. And I certainly enjoyed learning about Japanese culture from this book and how it compared to the European society of the period. So much so that by the time I reached the last 200-300 pages of the story, I was quite Japanese. But more on that in a bit. However, after a week of reading it, I was feeling the fatigue of all the intricacies of Japan and period history that Cavell was spoon feeding me. It delved too deeply into the weeds with too many point of view characters, some of whom seemed to be brought in merely to introduce us to one or another aspects of either European or Japanese society or history. I also grew weary of all the endless schemes and ploys of both Blackthorn and Lord Toranaga, many of which come to naught, over and over again. In short, for me, there was too much information for the plot to carry.

And thirdly, as I said above, I had become very Japanese by the time I reached the last third of the book. How so? Well, in this period in Japan, life was cheap. The samurai class could chop up anyone, other than a samurai, on a whim. They solved a lot of problems that way; killing people, including their parents, wives, children, and when honor or a casual order from their superiors demanded it, themselves. In this story many of the characters were simply waiting for the opportunity and excuse to kill a rival in order to advance, or to kill themselves in order to escape this vale of tears. Death was an escape. And many characters escaped, like it or not, that way. But, you see, that's just karma. So by the time I was reaching the last third of this book, I no longer cared what happened to any of the characters, including Blackthorne, Whatever happens, happens, it's just karma, eh? Whatever... And well, Japanese mind-frame or not, when I'm that indifferent to the fate of the main characters in a story, an average grade is about all the story can expect to get from me.

All that said, give it a try. Don't let my objections keep you from giving this book a try if you are one of the few who haven't read it already and are interested in Japan and undaunted by its length. You may well like it, and like it a lot. Millions have. You will certainly find yourself immersed in a very strange and fascinating world, engaged in an interesting, if by the end wearisome narrative, and learn a great deal in the process. Who needs dragons and magic to live in a strange and magical world, when you have history?

There is a new miniseries just starting on I believe Hulu in the states, Disney + outside of it. I only watched the trailer and thought it looked far too dark and gloomy. I guess that's how they film things now days. I would've filmed the story in rich colors; the greens of the land, the blues of the sea, the rich colors and intricacies of the clothing and housing -- in short, a very pleasing landscape to emphasize the fact that only its characters are vile.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Passage to Jarpara Update

 


I've finished the second and the final third draft of Passage to Jarpara. The third draft is where I read it on an ebook reader, and hopefully just find things to tweak in the text. That was the case this time, so now the story is what it is. With those drafts behind me, I've shifted to the proofreading process. The first step is uploading the LibreOffice document to Google Drive and then opening it in Google Docs. While I write it in LibreOffice, that program does not have a very robust grammar checking function. Google Docs does, so opening it in Google Docs and making most of the corrections it suggests saves a lot of work for my wife and other beta readers. And trust me, it is discouraging to see all the little words that I seemed to have read in the three to six times I've read parts of the story that aren't really there. I guess I read what I expect to read, even if the words aren't actually there.

This year, for the first time ever, I'm also going to run the book through the Grammarly. I did one chapter last night, and Grammarly did find things to change as well. It likes hyphenated words, like white-painted, instead of white painted, and has its opinion on comas. Seeing that these are things that I have no strong opinion on, I'm going along with these changes. There are a few things that I like and will keep, despite neither Google Docs or Grammarly liking it, chief among them is the use of "to" instead of "at" as in  "I looked to Lessie" instead of the AI proofreaders' "I looked at Lessie." 

After all this automated proofreading is done, I usually turn it over to my wife to proofread, and then, after she has found more mistakes, it is off to my volunteer beta readers. However, I'm thinking that with the addition of Grammarly's proofreading skills, I might be able to send the story off to my beta readers in good conscious before my wife has completed her read through. That will depend how clean of a copy she finds after reading a chapter or two. If she finds no errors, off it goes.

In any event, I'm looking to release the book on either 21 March or 28 March 2024, unless something unexpected crops up. I should be able to give you a definite date next week. Stay tuned.



Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Saturday Morning Post (No.36)

 


This week we have a book that my sister-in-law gave to my wife. Since she wasn't going to get around to reading it just yet, I decided to give it a try.

My reviewer criteria. I like light, entertaining novels. I like smaller scale stories rather than epics. I like character focused novels featuring pleasant characters, with a minimum number of unpleasant ones. I greatly value clever and witty writing. I like first person, or close third person narratives. I dislike a lot of "head jumping" between POVs and flashbacks. I want a story, not a puzzle. While I am not opposed to violence, I dislike gore for the sake of gore. I find long and elaborate fight, action, and battle sequences tedious. Plot holes and things that happen for the convenience of the author annoy me. And I fear I'm a born critic in that I don't mind pointing out what I don't like in a story. However, I lay no claim to be the final arbitrator of style and taste, you need to decide for yourself what you like or dislike in a book.

Your opinions are always welcome. Comment below.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt   DNF 12%

This is almost certainly the case where I'm not the author nor the publisher's target audience, so that when I say that I utterly failed to connect with the story, it should come as no surprise. I thought that after enjoying Lessons in Chemistry, I might find another rather female reader orientated book enjoyable. But this one, well... 45 pages into it she was still introducing her cast of characters, one of which is an octopus, without a discernable plot. I decided to bail. 

The beginning of this novel reads very much like some of those cozy mysteries I tried last year; a recital of everyday events and lots of people. The main point of view character - but not the only one - is Tova, a widow whose 18 year old son mysteriously disappeared 30 years before. The blurb on the cover flap says that Marcellus, an octopus, becomes a friend of Tova and helps her solve the mystery of her son's disappearance. So it's a cozy mystery? Reads like one. But...

Now I'm a fan of leisurely paced books. I actively dislike slam-bang openings, so I shouldn't be complaining about the opening. But, there is slow, and then there is slow and cluttered, and this opening is so very cluttered. Not only did almost all of characters we're introduced to seem to be minor ones, but all the everyday incidents that are intermingled with a collection of seemingly unimportant background stories buried the narrative line of the story, at least for me, with trivia. Except for one random scene with a seemingly minor character who is apparently unconnected to Tova. This character is a guy who doesn't know who is father was/is. Given the blub on the cover... it struck me as suspicious; for once there seemed to be rather obvious reason for his inclusion, but of course I could be wrong, not having read the book. Just say'n;)

The most significant character after Tova is the octopus, Marcellus, who has his own first person narration chapters. After a dog as a character in Lessons in Chemistry, I thought this might be interesting. I was wrong. I found the octopus to be far too human to be even remotely believable as an octopus. Somehow I was supposed to believe that this octopus had learned to read and understand spoken English, while living underwater in an aquarium tank. Not only did I find that I could not suspend my disbelief that this was even remotely impossible, but it seems to me that if you're going to have a first person octopus in your story, you should come up with a clever way to make the octopus seem more than just a human in a fish tank. The octopus needs to be at least a little bit alien in its thought process. Not so here. Other than describing its actions as an octopus in an tank, it just think and sounds like a human.

Add to this the fact that since I read to escape the everyday life of the world around me, I really don't care for stories set in contemporary times. This book only reinforced my disinclination to read anything set in our time and/or place.

This is, however, a best selling debut novel, so obviously, once again, it's me, not the book. Next up, two very long books from the library. We'll see how they fare.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Apple Audiobook Saga

 


You know, I didn't believe them when Draft2Digital said that it could take up to two months to produce an audiobook for Apple, since Google could deliver an editable version of one in two hours. But I was wrong. It looks like it can, and will, take two months, or more, to spit out the audiobook versions of all my novels. I signed on to Apple Audio books via Draft2Digital on the first of January 2024. The Secret of the Tzaritsa Moon appeared on the 18th of January, two more appeared on the 8th of February, two more 16th of February, and here we are, on the 21st of February and they are still not all out. So, yeah, they weren't just under promising.

Beggars can't be choosers, so I'm not exactly complaining. I'm just noting the glaring differences between the two companies, in terms of products delivered.

There are many other differences as well. Let's start with Google. 

First, you have to upload your own homemade ePub file to Google. And once they have your ebook, you can then select the audiobook option. Within a couple of hours you have the text, or more correctly, the audiobook script, available to you prior to release which you can edit before releasing it.

Google offers about a dozen different English narrators in both male and female voices to choose from; two each with different English accents, including American, British, Australian, and Indian. You can also alter the narrators speed to further customize the voices.

You can review the text, and highlight words to hear how the AI pronounces them, which is very handy in the case of invented words; names, places, etc., and you can alter the spelling in the audiobook script to get these words to sound the way that you envisioned them. You can also insert pauses where you think they're needed, but not inserted automatically.

You can also choose to assign different voices to different characters, though you would have to go through the script highlighting each instance of that character's dialog, perhaps a hour or two's worth of work. If the character's voice is distinctive enough, you might also be able to eliminate dialog tags ("he/she said.") as you go. You get distinctive voices rather than one narrator "doing voices," which honestly, I find sort of annoying, though I've not heard the popular voice actors doing it, so it might be better than the small sample I've listened to. I haven't taken advantage of this feature because I picture the story being told by a single narrator. However, from some of the samples of my stories I've listened to, I can see the advantage of this feature, since without the visual clues of the text, it can be unclear who's doing the talking. But if you do one character, would you need to do all the major ones as well? A slippery slope...

When you're happy with how things sound, you just select a price, and hit "publish." It will take a few hours for it to be live. You can go back and edit it, whenever you like.

Turning to Apple, you do Apple's auto-generated audiobooks through Draft2Digital's page for the book you want to offer as an audiobook. Click on the audiobook option, and then on the Apple option.

After that, the audiobook is produced from the ebook version published by D2D. All you have to do is select the genre you want to offer the book in and its price. Apple offers only two male and two female voice, and they select which one will be used based on your book's genre. Click publish and wait. You can not modify the audiobook text for free after that, and have to keep it up for at least six months. It's very simple, but you have very limited options.

Both services require a square cover; Google a 1Kx1K pixel one, Apple a2Kx2K one, though D2D will create one for you from your ebook cover. I used my own.

So what do they sound like? The first link is to the sample page for The Mysteries of Valsummer House on Apple Books. Hit Listen. The second is that book's audiobook page on Google, once again just hit play, though it starts at the beginning instead of a minute or two into the text like the Apple sample.

Apple

I'm not sure what voice Apple used.

Google  

The Google voice is "Archie," a British English voice.

Whose AI do you think does a better job at creating a human narrator? And if you're a regular audiobook reader, how far from human narration are these books?




Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Saturday Morning Post (No..35)

 





I suspect that this will be the first of many reviews coming in 2024 of Ellis Peters' Cadfael mysteries. As I mentioned previously, I picked up all seven 3 book omnibus versions of these stories - 16 novels and a number of short stories, that I will hopefully be reading at a nice sedate pace. The problem will be finding something better to read.

In any event, two more novels, this time from the Second Cadfael Omnibus.

My reviewer criteria. I like light, entertaining novels. I like smaller scale stories rather than epics. I like character focused novels featuring pleasant characters, with a minimum number of unpleasant ones. I greatly value clever and witty writing. I like first person, or close third person narratives. I dislike a lot of "head jumping" between POVs and flashbacks. I want a story, not a puzzle. While I am not opposed to violence, I dislike gore for the sake of gore. I find long and elaborate fight, action, and battle sequences tedious. Plot holes and things that happen for the convenience of the author annoy me. And I fear I'm a born critic in that I don't mind pointing out what I don't like in a story. However, I lay no claim to be the final arbitrator of style and taste, you need to decide for yourself what you like or dislike in a book.

Your opinions are always welcome. Comment below.


The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters   A

In this story we have a young lady of 18, an heir to a large English estate, being forced to marry a 60 year old nobleman, as a business deal arranged by the young women's guardians. The wedding is to take place at the Abbey of St Peter and Paul. The young lady is in love with a squire of her future husband, and he is in love with her. When this is suspected, the squire is framed for theft, and when the bridegroom doesn't show up for the wedding, for murder. Along the way we have a mysterious Leper currently residing in the leper house of St Giles, as well as the usual crew of unlikely suspects... As always, an entertaining mix of murder mystery with a monastery and medieval backdrop.

In all these stories, Cadfael is the monk who is out and about because he has a far wider experience in the world, having spent his first 40 as a soldier and a sailor during the Crusades and is trusted to look into the worldly matters. Thus h's the one to examine the bodies, and investigate the circumstances surround them. And he's always to determine truth of the events, based on his wide experiences. That said, a lot of the story goes on around him as well, so it isn't all Cadfael all the time. This usually makes the stories more interesting, as each one features new, and often young, people in trouble. Still, as you will find in the review below, it doesn't always work.



The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters  B-

My least favorite entry in the series, so far. I think because it was rather unfocused and too sprawling. Plus there seemed a lot of coincidences needed to tie everything together in a pretty bow.

The basic premise is that the sacking of Worchester during the ongoing civil war in England, resulted in a lot of refugees. These refugees including two orphans; an 18 year old girl and her 13 year old brother, along with a nun, who were bound for the monastery of St Peter & St Paul, but never arrived. A search is made for them. In the meanwhile Cadfael is called to a neighboring monastery to doctor a monk found naked in the snow. This mook seems to have some contact with the missing children and nun, which leads Cadfael out into the winter woods where he finds a woman frozen in a creek - the murder to be solved in this murder mystery. But there are the children to be found and lost again as well, plus, a band of bandit raiders to be located and dealt,  plus there's the square of the King's enemy, Empress Maud, who has been sent by the children's uncle  to find his niece and nephew who Cadfael must be consider a as well. As I said, sprawling and somewhat disjointed, more of a mediaeval adventure story than a mystery. 

Worth reading as it gives Cadfael a little more background, but not quite up to Ellis' high standards for this series. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Introducing Passage to Jarpara


The first draft of Passage to Jarpara, my 2024 novel is completed, and I'm hard at work on the second draft. I'll announce a solid release date when I'm confident I can make it, but I can pretty much promise that it will be released before the end of May 2024.

From a business point of view writing, Passage to Jarpara was a terrible choice. It's a well known fact that every book in a series sells fewer copies than the book that proceeded it. And with only some 3,400 copies of the previous book in the series, The Prisoner of Cimlye sold, I'll be lucky to sell 500 copies of the book in 2024. Now, compare that likely sales number to that of my 2023 stand alone novel The Girl on the Kerb with sales of almost 6,000 copies in its first year, you can see the clear advantage of stand alone books. Of course I need to point out that I was very lucky to have Amazon somehow promoting The Girl on the Kerb, out of the gate. It was an exception to the rule for my books. Still, nearly a thousand copies of a new release in its first year used to be a more typical result. Seeing that it gets ever harder to sell books out of the mainstream, 500 books may be optimistic. Nevertheless those 6,000 copies serve to illustrate the potential up side of a stand alone book, one that is not tied to the sales figures of the previous books in a series - unless, of course, that series is a bestseller.

In view of all this, why in the heck is this my 2024 novel, you ask? Simply because it's a story I wanted to write. I wanted to wrap up the series with Taef Lang landing his dream a job, and that's what this story is all about.

There was, however, one other important factor going for it, namely that I had actually started writing this story back in the fall of 2022, and with a few weeks' work put in on it in January of 2023, I started in on it again in earnest, beginning on the first of October 2023, with 45,000 words already written. Which is to say, potentially more than half of the book written. I'd stopped writing it because I needed to come up with some 30,000 to 40,000 words worth of scenes, incidents, and stuff to do to fill out the middle of the story, for which I had no clue. Still, 45K words was too large of a story fragment to leave undone, so this fall I decided to push ahead and trust that push come to shove, I'd come up with something to fill it out and get the darn thing done. And, lo and behold, I came up with enough scenes, incidents, and stuff to do to end up with a 106,000 word story. The million dollar question, however is; are all those scenes, incidents, and stuff entertaining? Iffy, as always.

I'll talk more about the substance of the story in the coming weeks. I'll just say that it's not an ambitious story. Rather it reflects my taste for small, slice of life stories. Which has been true of all my stories, but I've doubled down on that vibe since reading the stories from Molly Clavering and D E Stevenson. This story is simply an episodic travelogue, an account that takes Taef and Lessie, along with Sella and Carz, on a sea voyage across the Tropic Sea to the Jarpara Islands, in hopes of landing a job as a professor of Island archeology and/or history. That's the entire story arc; finding a job.

The one challenge that I wanted to tackle was to write Taef and Lessie as a married couple, to see what I could do with that situation. Usually I fade to black when my couples get close to that point. Spoiler alert: I don't think I nailed it.

I also wanted the opportunity to bring back some old side characters for a final bow. as well as introducing one new character that I thought it would be fun do. In short, this story offered me one last chance to revisit some of my favorite characters and setting. How successful I was at this, will be up to you to decide, dear reader.



Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Saturday Morning Post (No. 34)

 

Today's book is another book mentioned in that blog post of James Harris' in which he describes several books as "science fiction".  Not as the type of book we think of when we hear "science fiction", but as a book of fiction that concerns itself with science. And like the first book from that post I read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, it is a story about about science, the times, the role of women in the world, and the world's expectations for them. And once again it is about a woman who defies those expectations. 

My reviewer criteria. I like light, entertaining novels. I like smaller scale stories rather than epics. I like character focused novels featuring pleasant characters, with a minimum number of unpleasant ones. I greatly value clever and witty writing. I like first person, or close third person narratives. I dislike a lot of "head jumping" between POVs and flashbacks. I want a story, not a puzzle. While I am not opposed to violence, I dislike gore for the sake of gore. I find long and elaborate fight, action, and battle sequences tedious. Plot holes and things that happen for the convenience of the author annoy me. And I fear I'm a born critic in that I don't mind pointing out what I don't like in a story. However, I lay no claim to be the final arbitrator of style and taste, you need to decide for yourself what you like or dislike in a book.

Your opinions are always welcome. Comment below.

My Last 2023 Read




Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus   A

This is a very popular book. When I placed a hold on The Signature of All Things at the library, I also intended to place a hold on this book. However, I found that between my place in the line and the number of copies the library owned, I'd be waiting like a year for it, so I didn't bother. However, unknown to me, my wife had placed a hold on it as well some time earlier, and it became available in December. When she mentioned how much she liked the book she was reading I was delighted to discover that it was Lessons in Chemistry and that the library loan was long enough for me to read it as well. So on to the book.

This story is largely set in the early to mid 1950's. The hero of the story is one Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant scientist, and, as it turns out, a brilliant teacher. She was very unfairly denied the opportunity to earn her PhD in chemistry, and as a result, was forced to settle for a much more menial position in a scientific research company; not, however, comfortably so. She knew that she was more brilliant than all but one of the company's employees, but that fact would never be acknowledged simply because she was a woman - a woman who doesn't fit the accepted pattern of womanhood in the society of the era. This was not fair and she fought against that attitude. That is the theme of this book, and it doesn't shy away from saying so, just like its main character, Elizabeth Zott.

As usual, I don't really want to go into the details of the plot, on the off chance that you haven't read this book yet. Suffice to say that the story concerns her finding an oddball, but perfect mate, a failed-at-bomb-detecting, but brilliant dog, and the unconventional raising her extremely brilliant daughter. She finds a way to use her knowledge of chemistry to make a difference in the world in a very different way with her all her chemistry knowledge, along with an attitude. Not in the way she envisioned it, perhaps, but in a wider and more impactful way than just making discoveries in a lab. While the story has many touches of humor, the message is serious and clear; women have the same rights as men to live the life they want to live, and pursue the career they find most rewarding.