A Few Reviews

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 9.09.18 AMIt’s been far too long since I talked about what I’ve been reading, and I hope to get back to doing this on a regular basis. Here are a few stories I’ve particularly enjoyed lately.

Rainbow’s Edge by Leland and Angelo Dirks

If you’ve read any of the TwoMinutesGo flash fiction either here or on JD Mader’s blog, then you might know Leland Dirks. I’ve been a fan of his writing since I read Jimmy Mender and His Miracle Dog, and I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Rainbow’s Edge. And I could not stop reading it. In fact, I read it twice. I was completely pulled into the world of this story, a journey of a father and son unspooling the truth of a troubled past as the son lays comatose in his hospital bed. It would have been so easy to push a story like this into melodrama and sentimentality, but in the hands of this skilled author, it is neither of those things. If you enjoy magic realism and tales of redemption and forgiveness, I highly recommend this moving and beautifully written story. (Available for preorder here until April 30.)

FScreen shot 2016-04-25 at 9.02.23 AMinding Travis by Melissa Bowersock (No Time for Travis, Book One)

As of this writing, Finding Travis is up for nomination on Kindle Scout. I am a fan of Melissa Bowersock’s smooth, agile writing style. And I think this story is one of my favorites of hers. Travis is adrift, his marriage all but over, spending his free time as a historical re-enactor for tourists visiting Arizona’s Fort Verde. Then a celestial anomaly—we think—pulls him back in time to the frontier days at the same location, where he is assigned to medical duties in a world before the existence of penicillin and modern surgical hygiene practices. The historical details are seamlessly woven with the plot and the character development (I have a book-crush on Travis’s assistant, Riley), making for a lovely, engaging read. I hear there’s a sequel coming, and I can’t wait to read it.

Wife Material: A Novel of Misbehavior and Freedom by Deborah Cox

I like getting out of my comfort zone once in a while, so I chose this title. Wife Material tells a story of religious abuse and sexual repression in the modern Church of Christ. This was one powerful, fascinating, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching story. I was so deep into the reading that at one point, my husband popped into my room and I actually got angry at the disruption. I couldn’t even talk for a while, after reading some parts. The scenes bounce around in time, which as a reader intrigues me, especially when it’s done well.

What have you been reading lately?

 

Shadow Days and Making Amends by Melinda Clayton: Reviews

MakingAmendsI’ve been catching up on a little reading over the last few weeks, and I wanted to share my thoughts on two excellent stories by Melinda Clayton. Full disclosure: Melinda is a fellow IU minion, but I began reading and enjoying her books before she signed on.

Making Amends

Making Amends is a standalone story, just released. I’m a sucker for a good, broken character seeking redemption, or at least trying to do damage control and move on. And Melinda Clayton brings it, with heart and compassion and the depth of understanding she undoubtedly brings from her background as a psychotherapist.

I stayed up way too late for several nights in a row reading Making Amends because I needed to know what happened next. The characters are full and heartbreakingly real, heartbreakingly broken and doing the best they can to pull it all together. I fell hard for Ben, a man on the edges of Alzheimer’s, lucid enough at times to understand and plan for what he’ll be losing, including his tender, funny, loving relationship with his wife, Von. I felt their conflict, their sorrow, their hope, their stolen moments. To tell too much would spoil this well-crafted, well-paced story, but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a deep, thoughtful story about attempting to build a meaningful life out of the broken pieces.

Shadow Days

This is the fourth book in the Cedar Hollow Series. After three stories that focused on several residents of the town at various points in history, what I found really interesting was looking at Cedar Hollow from an outsider’s point of view—not a child returning, but a complete stranger. On the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Emily Holt flees the Florida home where she sees Greg everywhere she looks and ends up broken down, literally and figuratively, just outside of Cedar Hollow. I like the back and forth of what Emily makes of the town…and what they make of her.

But like that saying, “Wherever you go, there you are,” she can’t run too far from her memories, or the secrets she’s been keeping from her children.

Appalachian Justice, the first book in the series, is still by far my favorite, but this was an interesting spin, a visit with old friends, and a psychological plot line about mental illness that hit very close to home for me. A definite yes for Cedar Hollow and Melinda Clayton fans.

Entangled Thorns by Melinda Clayton: Book Review

Entangled-Thorns-Melinda-Clayton-207x300By accident I started reading Melinda Clayton’s Cedar Hollow series out of order, but it didn’t reduce the experience for me in the slightest. After the well-defined characters, what I like most about this series is how the sense of place becomes a character as well. It feels especially powerful in Entangled Thorns. I can almost smell Rugged Creek and feel the shock of the cold water and hear the whine of the mosquitoes. The vegetation, the land, the very humidity in the air…I can practically taste it. And yet it doesn’t become overwhelming or feel like too much detail. I know when I start highlighting passages on my Kindle about the quality of the sunsets or the texture of the night skies, it’s something I’ll be hard pressed to put down.  Continue reading

Appalachian Justice by Melinda Clayton: a review

ImageLet me tell you about this book. First I need to tell you that Melinda Clayton is a fellow minion at Indies Unlimited. But I’m certain I would have picked up this book regardless, because the subject and the description intrigued me, and I’d heard about her writing talent. I also read a discussion about Appalachian Justice before I read it, mostly concerning the dialect used. Dialect is dicey in fiction. There’s a fine tightrope act between “not enough” and “Jar Jar Binks.” (No offense meant to Star Wars fans.) But dialect can come off a little strong and alienate a reader, sometimes because it can be difficult to understand, sometimes because it can touch a stereotypical nerve. And, I admit that when I started reading Appalachian Justice, it took me a bit to get into the West Virginia dialect used in first person by the main character, Billy May Platte. But after a while, I grew comfortable with her manner of speaking and grew to love her for her quiet strength and authenticity.

The events of the story are not always pretty, but neither is real life, and the author does a fine job portraying these “broken” characters, laying out who they are through their dialogue and actions and allowing the reader to have empathy. I felt so strongly for these characters, the ones who were trying to get on with their lives after some horrifying experiences, the ones just trying do good and right old wrongs, some only going by the limited information they were able to glean from each other. I loved how Ms. Clayton handled Billy May’s sexuality: it was just a fact of the character’s life, although very realistically for the time period and the community, other characters saw it as a threat.

Appalachian Justice is a great example of how a skilled writer can bend writing “rules” and make it work. Ms. Clayton mixes first and third person, employs multiple points of view even for minor characters, goes back and forth in time, and it all works, in my opinion, to give the reader a full context for the core drama that runs through the story. I love how the story builds in tension and how the author metes it out, pulling me in deeper and deeper until I had to stay up far past my bedtime to see how it all came together. Once I got hooked I had a hard time putting this down. Now I’m on the hunt for Melinda Clayton’s other books.

Five-Star Reviews Make My Day

I’d been having a bad day. I was trying to get too much done at once, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches escaped from their pen, and I’d allowed various disappointments to take up too much real estate in my head. Then I saw this five-star review in my Google Alerts. (Writers, do you use Google Alerts? Excellent tool. I’ll write more about it one day soon.) Anyway, even though a few hours after kvelling over the review I fell and hurt my back, reading this somehow makes the painkillers work better.

“Crisply written and filled with irony, The Joke’s on Me is fun and witty with snappy dialogue sure to please those who like their romance with quirk and spirit. This is a great first novel and I hope to see more from Ms. Boris in future. I will certainly put Ms. Boris on my authors to follow list.” – Karen at The Parents’ Little Black Book of Books

Read the whole review here.

Joe Café by JD Mader: a review

A bloody massacre at a beloved diner in a small town sets Joe Café in motion, and, boy, does it move! A little Elmore Leonard, a little Pulp Fiction, JD Mader’s crime thriller sparks and crackles with tension, laying out a grisly tale of hit men, strippers, mob bosses, serial killers, and trout.

Yes, trout.

The story is dark and violent, but even the most sociopathic of Mader’s characters have the capacity for tenderness and loyalty, making us question the nature of evil: are those who do terrible things inherently evil, or have they been misshapen by life’s hard breaks?

Cutting between “good” characters sliding downhill and “bad” characters seeking redemption, Mader crafts the rhythm and contrast that make this fairly short book fly by while leaving a deeper, haunting impression behind. I would absolutely recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read more of Mader’s work.

Charmed Life: a review

Charmed Life, the second book in the Brass Monkey Series by Susan Wells Bennett, is a charming, highly readable delight. The Brass Monkey, a Sun City, Arizona bar, is the fulcrum for the series, published in paperback and e-book format by Inknbeans Press. Charmed Life swings around to focus mainly on the lives of two characters: Sax, the bar’s owner (an ex-cop from New Jersey), and his friend and patron, Sondra Lane, former soap opera diva and master of turning lemons into lemonade. Sondra, busted down to struggling for good roles in community theater, worries that the best of her days are behind her until what she’d considered an embarrassment from her past leads to a new fan base and a particularly interesting new fan.

As with the first book in the series, Wild Life, there’s also a mystery to be solved, and while doing so, Bennett draws us deep into Sondra’s and Sax’s histories: their triumphs, disappointments, the turning points that landed them where they’d never intended, and going forward, the deepening of their friendship. (Don’t despair, fans of Claire and Milo: they’re also part of the story.)

I read most of the book while traveling, had a wicked hard time putting it down, and even had to be reminded by a flight attendant to turn off my Kindle so the plane could land. What I admired most about Charmed Life, like Wild Life, is the compelling way Susan Wells Bennett draws a character. Each, even her minor players, are human, deeply flawed at times but in the end, endearing. I wanted all of them to find the love and happiness they deserved. Keep writing, Susan…I MUST know how this plays out!

The Keep: A Review

Because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad, I went straight to my library to find Jennifer Egan’s earlier works. The Keep, published in 2006, is another example of how brilliant she is with flawed and sometimes unlikable characters. As I wrote in my review of Goon Squad, we can still love and root for unlikable characters if the author treats them with compassion and makes us empathize with them. This is a tricky tightrope. Jonathan Franzen, in my opinion, failed at that in Freedom. He built a universe of flawed characters, but his judgment of them was palpable. Not so with The Keep, where Egan’s compassion shines through.

The story begins when Danny, the “cool” kid whose adulthood has left him wanting, is reunited with his socially backward, nebbishy cousin, Howie, after twenty years. The last time Danny saw Howie was at a family picnic, where Danny and some other kids had abandoned Howie in a deep, frightening cave. Now cool, tanned, blond, and a millionaire, Howie has purchased a castle in Germany and invites Danny to help him renovate it.

To give away any more of the plot would spoil a tale with some well-done twists and turns. The Keep is a fascinatingly circular story, tantalizingly creepy, and plays out like a snake, winding around to bite its own tail. The point of view characters are definitely flawed, absolutely well drawn, and I had complete empathy for them.

This is another example of Egan’s gleeful rule breaking and terrific writing. For aspiring authors, it’s a great teaching tool, as is Goon Squad.

I’m looking forward to finding the rest of her work.

Get Your Hands on This Book

Apologies that I’m late with this one (with a book coming out, I’ve been a little distracted), but I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

It’s fabulous. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. And well worth its Pulitzer.

Ignore the media flap. Ignore what might or might not have been said, ignore who or who did not get her panties in a bunch, and get your hands on this book, especially if you are a writer. This is a master class on structure, the use of fictional time, character development, dialogue, and point of view selection.

For me it combined the three best qualities of a “literary” novel: I couldn’t stop reading it, I didn’t want it to end, and I’m still thinking about it.

The novel is laid out as a series of linked short stories circling around a rock promoter and his assistant. I don’t want to spoil too much, although this has been a topic of media consternation since its early reviews, but one of the stories is told as a PowerPoint presentation. And it was one of my favorites.

As a reader, I appreciated the compassion Egan had for her characters. Some of them are deeply flawed and make choices that could be considered unsavory, like Sasha, a young woman who can’t control her impulse to lift an unguarded wallet in the first story. But Egan doesn’t judge her, or her other characters. She helps us understand them and empathize with them.

As a reader, I also enjoyed trying to figure out where I was in time and space in each story, depending on the characters that showed up, and where they were chronologically. Rather than, say, employing an easy chapter subtitle like, New York City, 1983, Egan conveys the time and place as an integral part of the story, using the cultural events going on in the background or the stage of the recurring characters’ relationships with each other. Readers like to feel smart, like they’ve figured out the riddle without having it spoon-fed to them.

I’m looking forward to reading her earlier books.

Did you read “Goon Squad”? If so, what did you think?

Fighting for Reviewer’s Eyeballs

I’ve read enough and talked to enough other authors to know that once you sign your publication contract, everything doesn’t magically become wonderful, or easy. True, there have been wonderful moments: finalizing the manuscript, seeing the art for my cover, and having two giant boxes of review copies deposited at my front door.

Now the hard work begins. First, to identify appropriate reviewers, and convince these very busy professionals that my novel is worth 234 pages of their time. You think you’re busy? Some of these people receive thousands of inquiries each month for reviews, and have backlogs of hundreds of books waiting for them, for when a free moment or two pops up. Add the usual challenges of life, the day jobs some of these people have in addition to the websites they maintain.

It makes me understand why some are so quick with the thumbs up or down. I just have to figure out how to cut through the pile, with a pitch that’s pitch perfect but not too over-the-top. Ideally, all of this should fit on one page. It almost makes me miss those frustrating, hair-pulling days of writing draft upon draft of the original synopsis.

Through trial and error, though, I’m discovering what gets reviewers’ eyeballs and what is just noise. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing reviewer pitches:

1. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Then get someone else to proofread. As Writing 101 as this sounds, it still applies. It’s often the first thing a busy reviewer will see about you. Typos in the address block? Missing words? Eye-rolling grammatical errors? It all counts, and it could count against you. You don’t want to give the reviewer the impression that your book could also be full of typos–how ponderous would that be to read? Especially critical are errors in contact information, because you are accustomed to seeing that information in all of your correspondence and thereby stop seeing it. I almost sent out six valuable review copies along with a set of letters that did not contain the correct area code. D’oh! But this turned out to be a good thing. It gave me an opportunity, while I was correcting the phone number, to fine-tune a pitch that seemed a little flabby.

2. Do your homework. Think like a busy reviewer. It’s Saturday morning, your parents are watching the kids, you’ve got a pot of coffee on, and you’re shuffling through a mountain of review packages that have been piling up in your office. You only have a minute or two to decide up or down on each one. Do you want to review that 400-page zombie western? Or a 250-page romance novel? Oops…you don’t do romance. And the author would have known that if she had checked the reviewer’s submission guidelines. Just like when you were selling your novel to agents and publishers for the first time, submission guidelines still rule.

3. Make it easy for them. Put everything they need for a quick decision up front: title of the book, genre, release date, publisher, number of pages. This way, he or she will know if this work is in their wheelhouse, and if they will have enough time to read it and write a review in a timely enough way to meet both of your needs. After that, include a well-crafted blurb about the book. This might be the same kind of copy you put in an ad or on the book jacket (assuming your book has a book jacket.) Don’t forget to include, probably at the end, a bit about you, where the book will be sold, and relevant web pages (like your publisher’s online catalog and the page on your website where they can read an excerpt.)

4. Manage your rejection. You thought all that rejection ended when you got an agent or publisher to say yes? Not so fast. Remember that bit about the really busy reviewers? Yes, they might reject you, too, and it probably has nothing to do with the quality of your book. It could merely be that they have too many books to review that month. Or, they just posted two apocalyptic zombie novels in a row on their website and including yours would turn them into a niche reviewer. Cry if you need to (I pass no judgment) but don’t let the rejection stop you. Somewhere out there are reviewers who will love you, or at the very least, agreed to read you.

Most importantly, know that the author/reviewer relationship is symbiotic. No, the reviewer doesn’t stand to make immediate buckage taking on your book (unless you choose a reviewer who charges for reviews, a practice I’ll tackle in a future blog.) Some do it for the sheer love of reading and support for authors. They also do it to get good web content to attract more visitors and therefore make some money from their websites. So if you adjust your thinking and work with your potential reviewers instead of against them, it could turn a worrisome task into an adventure. Continue reading