Tag Archives: Reading

Book Review – A Midsummer Night’s Scream by Jill Churchill

A Midsummer Night’s Scream is book 15 in what is now, and hopefully remains, a 16-book series featuring Jane Jeffry, a crime-solving stay-at-home mother. The title of each book in the series is a play on a famous book title, cleverly tying the mysteries to Jane’s love of reading and what is probably the author’s love of books.

As this title implies, Jane and her best friend and neighbor, Shelley, are loosely involved with a local college-run theater. I say loosely because Jane and Shelley’s only involvement is catering snacks during the play’s rehearsals so that Shelley can test new catering companies for her husband. During this time, two people associated with the theater, one of the actors and a janitor, are murdered. Jane’s long-time boyfriend, Detective Mel VanDyne, is assigned the two cases.

Despite the series name, A Jane Jeffry Mystery, Jane had almost nothing to do with solving these murders. Most of this book revolved around tasting testing caterers and attending a needlepoint class.

Previous mysteries make use of Jane’s intimate knowledge of all things domestic. In fact, it was her thorough grounding in her domestic life and children that was usually the key to solving the mystery.

Testing the caterers during the theater rehearsals was a feeble way to involve Jane and Shelley in the theater. Having them attend a needlepoint class as a way of befriending two of the characters in the story was equally feeble. Although the catering companies and needlepoint class would fit the description of “domestic,” they were poorly used devices. Neither the caterers nor the needlepoint class had anything to do with the murders, except as a distraction, and served no purpose in advancing the story or the mystery. I was waiting for the tie-in and was baffled when nothing happened.

There was also a slip in characterization, with Shelley feeling “hurt” that she and Jane weren’t working on their needlepoint together. Shelley wouldn’t feel hurt by something so silly, however briefly it was mentioned. The author also slipped in Bell, Book, and Scandal with Shelley’s character. At one point, Jane was worried that her preoccupation with the mystery would annoy Shelley to the point of damaging their friendship. The first reaction after reading these two sections of the novels was, “huh?” Shelley would never overreact like that. She should also know by now, after years of friendship with Jane, that Jane usually does solve the mystery and her instincts for the solution are usually correct.

A Midsummer’s Night Scream is clearly a continuation of the slow downward slide in quality that began with Bell, Book, and Scandal, and ends with the horrible The Accidental Florist.

Bell, Book, and Scandal had, I believe, only one change in viewpoint: we jarringly switch from Jane’s viewpoint to that of one of the victims. A Midsummer’s Night Scream had several changes in viewpoint, mostly to Mel’s view, which is unusual in this series. In the previous books, Mel was never a well-developed character and we never saw the mystery from his point of view, only Jane’s.

Unlike previous mysteries in this series, Jane does very little thinking about this mystery and had almost no input into the solution.

The oddest part of this book: the epilogue. No previous book in this series has ever done a “where are they now” ending to the story. It was out of place, not remotely entertaining, and again, not from Jane’s point of view. None of the “where are they now” statements would be anything Jane could possibly know.

Jill Churchill, if you are tired of writing this series, just stop. Don’t try to wrap everything up neatly for Jane as you did in The Accidental Florist. Just stop writing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, most of the Jane Jeffry Mysteries would get a 3 or 4. The previous book to this one, Bell, Book, and Scandal, would receive a 2, as would A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The final book in the series, The Accidental Florist, would receive a negative number if possible.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Scream
Author: Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-050100-6

Mysteries that are not Mysteries

I’ve been complaining lately that I don’t have enough to read. That isn’t true. It is more that I can’t find any GOOD books to read.

What has happened to the publishing industry? Are they no longer hiring editors to reject the books that do not have a plot?

Take the last Jill Churchill book I read: The Accidental Florist, book 16 in Churchill’s Jane Jeffry series. First, the fact that it is book 16 in a series should have told me not to expect much, except that I already own the first eight or nine books in this series and I did enjoy reading them. The Accidental Florist, however, was little more than a recitation of Jane’s daily routine as she gets ready to marry her long-time boyfriend. The author describes what Jane was doing for much of the book instead of letting us “see” the events. The dead body in this story had nothing to do with a florist and Jane had nothing to do with solving the murder. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the author even remembered to tell us why the victim died!

Previous Jane Jeffry mysteries had Jane integrally involved in solving the murder, even if the reason she was involved was as transparent as how Murder She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher gets involved in each murder. Churchill’s previous books revolved around the murder, with Jane’s life occurring around the murder. This particular story was the opposite.

My first thought was that the original author had died and the publishing company had someone else trying to continue the series. If Jill Churchill/Janice Brooks is still alive, she must have just written a quick outline of a possible plot and passed it along to some flunky to turn the outline into complete sentences, because that’s all this book was: a bare outline of a possible story idea.

Luckily, this was a library book, not something I had purchased. After reading book 16, I went to Amazon.com and read reviews for this book and the three previous books in the series. Everyone agrees: these books are no longer worth purchasing. Unfortunately, I had come to the same conclusion. As curious as I am about how her children turned out, I’m not willing to pay much more than half the cover price to find out, and I would probably never re-read these last few books.

I’ve also been disappointed in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve read books 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 (not necessarily in that order) and they are all equally boring. There is at least a mystery in these books, and they are not badly written, but it is hard to really like the main character. She not a bad person, but she’s boring, invisible, and almost impossible to care about. I’ve also tried to Harris’ Harper Connelly series, but haven’t really been able to relate to that main character either.

One similarity between the two characters, Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly, is that they spend much of their time alone, not interacting with anyone else. I think that makes for a boring story. It is much more interesting to see the story and the characters interacting with the mystery than it is to read about them thinking about the mystery. It is more interesting to learn about characters from the way they react to events than to read their thoughts about the events.

The disappointment in these some of books cannot be related to the continuation of the series for more than three or four books. The Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series of books is well into the 30s now and book 34 is just as engaging as book one. Why? Is this the difference between a good writer (Harris) and a great writer (Roberts)? Is it is something more?

I can definitely say that Eve Dallas has changed and grown as a character. Her life has followed a progression, her relationships with her life, husband, and friends are more complicated, and she’s changed over the time of the series. But there is always a mystery that dominates the story. The mystery IS the book, not tossed in as an afterthought for an excuse to pick up a royalty check.

And don’t get me started on what has become of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books. I don’t even consider purchasing them anymore. They used to have a plot and mystery and now they are little more than erotica loosely tied with a bit of a story.

Disappointing Books

I’ve been disappointed in most of the books I’ve read lately and I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping I’ve just run into a bad batch of books because the alternative is that I’ve lost interest in reading. And that isn’t possible.

In the last few months I’ve read Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun and Ghouls Gone Wild, both by Victoria Laurie. And by that, I mean to say I finished Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun, but haven’t managed to finish Ghouls Gone Wild. I liked this series when the first book was published, but had a hard time finishing these last two. For some reason, the main character has become annoying, shallow, and stuck in place. I cannot see any character development. To be fair, I’ll probably try to re-read the first two books in the series, and I’m hoping I won’t suddenly hate them, also. Either way, I probably will not purchase any more books in this series.

I’ve had the same problem with Victoria Laurie’s other series, Psychic Eye Mysteries. The main character, Abby, is no longer interesting and Abby’s FBI agent boyfriend is downright irritating. I especially hate his nicknames for Abby. (What kind of nickname is “Sweet Hot?”) I have no interest in reading any additional books in this series.

I’ve also had a problem with the last Mary Janice Davidson book I read in the Undead series. I’ve grown to dislike the main character. Again, she’s shallow, which was originally part of her charm, but now it has just gone on too long. After reading the first six books in this series, I have no interest in purchasing any more books with these characters. I think this may be an excellent example of milking a series that should have stopped when it was a trilogy.

Reading the GeekMom blogs led me to try the Arcane Society series by Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle. I liked the first book, Second Sight, enough to try additional books in the series, but I was also a little disappointed in the book. Maybe Nora Roberts and Linda Howard are spoiling me for great stories, but I expected better from Quick/Krentz/Castle. I did like Second Sight enough that I’m going to try more books in this series, but I’m going to purchase them from a used bookstore.

I’ve actually started reading non-fiction books after this series of disappointments. I purchased a couple of basic physics books to refresh my memory and I recently purchased some nature books that I am looking forward to reading.

I know it cannot be all me because I still love J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series and there are more than 30 books in the series. The mysteries are still interesting and the character development is consistent and believable. I also have read the Shirley Damsgaard “Witch” series and am still enjoying the stories.

Type and Reading

I read many books on typography. Currently, I’m finishing a collection of essays and journal articles on typography. The articles date back to the late nineteenth century, with a particular concentration on two time periods: the 1920s and 1980s. The collection is:

Heller, Steven, and Philip B. Meggs. Texts on Type: Critical Writings on Typography. New York: Allworth Press, 2001. 1581150822 (pbk.)

Though some of the authors, especially the major typographers of the 1920s, called for radical changes to type and letterforms, most of the essays emphasize the need for text to be readable. Type should not interfere in any way with reading, though sometimes it is appropriate for type to convey some meaning visually.

What brings the issue of type “into focus” for me is the rise of eBooks. The display fonts of various devices significantly affects the reading experience.

When the earliest computer screens appeared, they were monochrome displays with either 40 or 80 columns and 20 to 25 rows. Each letter was composed on a 7-by-8 or 8-by-8 pixel grid. The popular systems from Apple, Atari, and Commodore featured the 40-column displays because the screens were often televisions, which had mediocre resolution at best. IBM and other “business” computer companies sold expensive displays with 80-column screens.

A 40-character width with “chunky” or “blocky” letters was difficult to read. Much narrower than the familiar page of paper, reading required a lot of scrolling or “page flipping” and was tedious. Even the 80-column displays weren’t ideal, but they were a lot better.

Today, many of us read on phones and PDAs that are not much better for reading than the television-monitors of the 1970s and 80s. High-resolution devices are appearing, with better contrast and far better font technology. Reading will become easier.

Historically, type has always been limited by technology. Wood blocks were fragile, so letters had to be large and “blocky” just as a low-resolution screen limited the shapes and sizes of letters. Metal type was much better, though there were still wear issues and matters of ink “spread” on paper. Today, displays are getting so much better that fine lines are no longer an issue. Even diagonal lines, an impossible task on old computer displays, are now smooth and easy to see.

In the early days of computing, fonts with slight serifs were used to create letters that closely mimicked the printers of the time. Dot-matrix printers were 80-column devices using the same 8-by-8 grids as screens. However, output and display never matched — only the basic positions of letters could be approximated.

The slight serifs helped differentiate a lowercase “I/i” from “L/l” or “1.” As technology improved, designers found that sans-serif fonts, especially at larger sizes, were better suited to the straight horizontal/vertical lines of a medium-resolution video display. Even today, most television networks use sans-serif fonts onscreen because they are “smoother” on mid-range screens.

I happen to find serif faces easier to read. Finally, eReaders are reaching the point at which a nice serif face is sharp, clear, and readable. I can read serif type faster because the letterforms are more unique than the letters of many sans serif fonts. I am, by nature, a slow reader, so the visual cues of word and letterforms help me decode with less effort.

If you are preparing an eBook with “default fonts” I ask that you use a serif font for the text and sans for the headings. This is similar to the old defaults in Microsoft Word: Times for text, Arial for headings. Some ePubs do not set the fonts, but I would appreciate it if they did. I do set the default fonts of my iPod Touch to these combinations. Of course, I also think a reader should always be free to alter the fonts as long as the design doesn’t alter the author’s or designer’s intentions.

Typographers and designers are involved in eReader development. I hope we someday have screens that are as good as the printed page. It would be nice to see pages that look like familiar magazine layouts, which currently isn’t possible on most devices. The screens simply aren’t up to the task of displaying detailed, elegant, fonts.

- Scott

Reading Habits

Susan and I share a habit, one I find common among “readers” of all sort. I am reading three or four books, each in a different location. Currently, the books I am reading include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Texts on Type, God is Not One, and two Che biographies (Che and Exposing the Real Che). Because these books are really collections of short essays or stories, it is easy to read a chapter or story in a single sitting. I don’t know that I would read a novel in quite the same way. I tend to read novels in much larger chunks; it is hard for me to keep long stories sorted in my mind.

I have been told I should read one book at a time, but that seems nearly impossible. Does anyone insist on reading one book at time?