Monthly Archives: March 2014

Master of the Game: Interview with Suspense Author Andrew French

Today we kick off a week-long celebration of the murky world of secrets, spies and double-crosses. I’ll be honest–I’ve never been a fan of spy/conspiracy fiction. Reading British author Andrew French’s face-paced, character-rich Michael Prentiss Stories changed all that. When you sit down with one of French’s books, you’d better have cleared the rest of your schedule and taken the phone off the hook, because these are read-in-one-sitting adventures. There are currently four novels out: ASSASSIN’S RUN, THE ARES FILE, PERSONAL RETRIBUTIONS and RULES OF THE GAME.  AT ALL COSTS, number five, is on the way.

ANDREW FRENCH was kind enough to answer some questions about his series and his writing process. I hope you find the interview below as interesting and informative as I did. So far I’ve read and reviewed books 1-3 of the Michael Prentiss Stories. Those reviews will appear here over the course of this week, so I hope you will all check back in.

 

Author Andrew French

Author Andrew French

The writing bug. How-when-where-why were you infected? Was it something you’ve always wanted to pursue? How did you make room for writing in your life?

I have always enjoyed writing in one form or another. As I boy I wrote funny poems and limericks to entertain my friends. From those, I progressed to submitting comedy sketches to the BBC without ever really taking it terribly seriously. It was only many years later that I returned to writing. In 2008, having given up work to care for my son five years earlier, I decided I would try to write a novel. I had had the embryo of an idea for Assassin’s Run for years and now with time on my hands I decided to give it a go.

Assassin's Run (The Michael Prentiss Stories)

Assassin’s Run

So how did a nice daddy and former funeral director such as yourself get mixed up in all this Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence business? What is it about Michael Prentiss and his gang that compels you to follow them book after book? Where did this sweet, sensitive, lethal young man come from?

I have always enjoyed spy stories, from the Man from Uncle and The Saint in the 1960’s to 24 and Daniel Craig’s James Bond today. Michael Prentiss is the hero we all wish we could be. He’s not superhuman, nor is he some highly trained ex-special forces superspy bristling with gadgets and black belts in a dozen martial arts. He is an ordinary young man thrust into far from ordinary situations. Colonel Mabbitt describes him as a man born out of time. He believes passionately in chivalry, not as we know the word today, but in its truest sense of courage, bravery, honour and defending the innocent whatever the cost.

Did you intend from the start (ASSASSIN’S RUN) to pen a series? The books—the main complications of each plot—seem to grow naturally from one another. There’s no hint of an author struggling to come up with his next installment. Do you have a sense, as you write each book, of which threads will stretch into the next story?

I only ever intended to write Assassin’s Run. But as I wrote it and I saw Michael Prentiss, Colonel Mabbitt and Richard Jordan grow and develop as characters, I grew to like them as people rather than just characters in a book. When Assassin’s Run finished I wanted to, no, needed to know what happened to them next. That’s why I wrote The Ares File set four years later to see what had become of them.

The Ares File (The Michael Prentiss Stories)

The Ares File

The Michael Prentiss Stories are complex and full of unexpected twists, and yet these raging plots don’t overwhelm the characters. They’re fully realized and constantly growing in reaction to the latest situation you’ve thrown at them. How do you balance these various elements of the novel? Is it a matter of getting the “story” down and going back to work on character? Do you jump back and forth between elements until the balance is right? How does a Michael Prentiss adventure come into being?

I always start each book with a two line premise, ‘what would happen if…?’ Although I have an initial idea, I have no clue as to how the story is going to end. In fact, if I plan out a chapter, the finished result invariably bares no resemblance to the plan. I seem to write almost instinctively, reacting to situations or conversations in sometimes quite unexpected ways. My books are totally character driven. In some ways the plot is almost secondary. I love getting inside the mind of the characters, both good and bad, and see things from their perspective. Very often I’m just as surprised as anyone as to how the story ends.

Writing can be an isolating activity. Do you belong to a writing group—virtual or in person? Who is your first and best reader, the person who you trust to tell you when something’s crap? If you go it alone, how do you keep forging ahead without direct support?

I always write alone and in silence, no music or background noise or I can’t hear the voices. (I know, I’m sounding a bit weird now.) Motivation isn’t really a problem for me. I just love the process of working out the plot twists. My wife reads everything first and tells me if something feels wrong. I trust her judgement, she hasn’t been wrong yet.

Personal Retributions (The Michael Prentiss Stories)

Personal Retributions

What do you do when you’re not writing? Any interesting hobbies? Is there an accordion or oboe hidden at the back of your coat closet? A dart board plastered with photographs of cold-war era military figures? You can feel free to share. This blog is a judgment-free space.

I spend most of my free time with my son, Matthew. He makes me laugh all the time, even when I don’t feel like it.

Do you ever find yourself acting out action scenes from your books? Maybe when you think no one’s looking? Hypothetically speaking, if you did role play, which of your characters would you be and why?

I always act out the scenes, except the sex scenes; I use a stunt man for those. I always read the conversations aloud so I can hear if they work. If I was to play a character, it would probably be Michael Prentiss as I’ve used so many of my own characteristics in him. Having said that, Colonel Mabbitt is the most fun to write. There are elements of me in all three of the main characters although I’m not saying what they are.

Rules of the Game (The Michael Prentiss Stories)

Rules of the Game

So how will the Michael Prentiss stories end? Can you envision the final curtain coming down? If so, what’s next for Andrew French?

I had pretty much decided that the 4th book, Rules of the Game, was going to be the last. Then Michael got a love interest and I wanted to see how that worked for him, so I’m currently ploughing through book 5 titled, At All Costs. I don’t know how the series will end. I can’t imagine life without my three musketeers now, so I suppose I’ll just keep on seeing what happens next.

Carrie’s Notebook: Sneak Peek at My Upcoming Novel KNIFE SKILLS

KNIFE SKILLS
By Carrie Ann Lahain

Chapter One

Fricassee, a stew of poultry or other white meat with a white sauce . . . Molly Price
repositioned herself under the shower so that the stinging hot water hit the tense spot
between her shoulder blades while she recited the five liquids chefs use in making white
sauces. She’d gotten through veal, chicken, and fish stock when there was a knock on the
bathroom door. Not now. “…Vegetable stock. Milk.”

Her Aunt Felice poked her head in. “Your cell phone is ringing.”

It was six in the morning. Who’d be calling her? “Just let it go to voicemail.”

Molly didn’t need the distraction. Closing her eyes, she let the shower spray course over
her back and down her legs. It was too bad that she’d had to drive out here to the vineyard
last night, the night before her big exam. But at least her aunt and uncle’s place had reliable
hot water. At her apartment in Huntington, taking a shower was like playing Beat the Clock.

After she finished, she wrapped herself in a towel and ran up to the attic bedroom, the
room she’d grown up in and where she stayed anytime she came home. She’d just closed
the door behind her when her phone rang again. Grabbing it off the nightstand, she read
the flashing blue screen. Antonio. What the hell did he want? Molly took a step back and
stumbled into her dresser, causing her collection of seashells to go flying.

The phone continued to screech. As usual there was no ignoring Antonio.

“What do you want?” Molly asked.

“Molly, hey. Where have you been? I must’ve called twenty times.”

“Two times. I’m busy. I have to get ready for school.”

“That’s right. You’re gonna be the next Julia Child.”

Oh, this was going to be bad. “Antonio, what to you want?”

“It’s not me, Mol-lita.” Pause. “It’s that hijo de puta at E-Z Storage. He’s out for our
blood.”

Our blood? She’d signed the divorce papers six months ago. “How much this time?”

* * *

Molly faced a seventy-mile drive from Mattituck back to Huntington. After dealing with
Antonio, she barely had time to throw on some clothes and run her fingers through her
damp red curls. Now they’d probably dry frizzy. Well, one Little Orphan Annie comment
from any of the cracked-voiced jerks in her class and she’d fillet him nose to nuts.
She was just in the mood for it.

Down in the kitchen Aunt Felice, still in her bathrobe, was scrambling eggs. “There’s
coffee in the pot, sweetie.”

“Thanks but I can’t.” Outside the kitchen window, the dark sky was already beginning to
brighten. Molly wrapped two bottles of Cabernet in newspaper and tucked them into her
backpack. Bedford Brothers 2007 Reserve, the reason she’d trekked all the way out to
Mattituck, after a last-minute inspiration that just might give her an edge in today’s
exam. “If I get stuck in traffic, I’m toast.”

Felice followed her to the back door. “Then make sure you grab something on the way.”

Clomping down the porch steps, Molly waved a hand behind her.

“I mean it, Molly. What sort of chef works on an empty stomach?”

The cold March air stung Molly’s nose. It was a strange time, early morning on the
vineyard at the tail end of winter. The heavy silence of night was pierced here and
there by a chirp or twitter. It had been four years since she’d lived here, twice
that if she counted going to college. Every time she visited she wondered why she’d
ever left. Long Island wine country. People wrote magazine articles about it. They
scrimped to pay for honeymoons here. But Molly couldn’t wait to get away, out on her
own to live a real life. Only the life she’d found hadn’t worked out that well.

Despite being behind schedule, she made good time on the Long Island Expressway.
That changed as soon as she left the highway for route 110. Cars seemed to appear
out of nowhere. The one in front of her slowed to turn into an office complex.
Just go already . . . Molly urged her aging Toyota forward, picking up speed
as the road descended toward downtown

Huntington. She registered a movement to her left but didn’t dwell on it. She had right
of way. Such technicalities didn’t matter much, however, to the driver of the battered
white pickup that turned in front of her. Molly’s brakes screamed as car and truck
collided. She flew forward in her seat, her shoulder harness digging into her chest and
ribs.

In the dense quiet that followed the accident, Molly sat bent over her steering wheel,
eyes squeezed shut. It took a moment before she noticed a man peering through her
driver’s side window. She watched his face flit between anger and concern. Anger?
He jumped in front of her. What did he have to be mad about?

He pounded on the window. “You okay in there?”

Molly reached down to unlatch her seatbelt when she noticed a sharp-sweet smell coming
from the backseat. Twisting around, she saw that her knife case and backpack had been
thrown onto the floor and now sat in a pool of dark red liquid. Molly blinked back
tears. Her Cabernet. There went her edge, seeping into the carpet. Now, Molly figured
she’d be lucky to make the exam at all.

A police car arrived. Her vehicle reeking of alcohol, she thought she might be in for a
rough time. Instead, the officer decided to believe her tale of culinary disaster. She
signed the accident report and traded insurance details with the other driver. Her car
still ran fine, a shock considering the state of the front end, and she made it to
school with not a minute to spare.

Molly burst through the front entrance and ran for the women’s changing room, where she
found her roommate Lynne discussing the difference between stewing and braising with
Kendra who, at fifty-eight, was their oldest classmate.

“What the hell happened to you? We were getting ready to call out the search dogs.” Lynn
flicked at a wisp of blond hair that had escaped from under her white chef’s hat, which
as usual sat perfectly centered and puffed over the crown of her head. Molly’s own hat
never puffed the way it was supposed to. By the end of the day it usually looked like a
squashed marshmallow decorated with greasy fingerprints.

“Search dogs?” Kendra took charge of Molly’s sopping backpack, setting it in the
sink. “Try a prayer to Saint Jude. He’s the one who looks out for the lost.”

“I know. . . . I know. . .” Molly wriggled into her uniform. The pants had definitely
gotten tighter since being issued to her nine months before. “Antonio called.” Molly
didn’t have to add that prick. By now both Lynne and Kendra knew it was implied. “As
usual the result was general catastrophe.” Glancing at her watch, she suddenly cried out.

They made it to class with Chef Roy hard on their backs. Late as it was, there were
three students still missing. Just then a trio of very young men—the puppies, Kendra
called them—blustered in, their noise and smart grins vanishing as soon as they crossed
the threshold and spotted the pile of exam papers stacked face down on Chef’s desk.

Molly took a deep breath and reminded herself that she’d spent the past two weeks
preparing for this morning. If she didn’t know her stuff by now . . . When she finally
received the thick sheaf of pages, she paused a moment before looking down at the first
question. Using relevant examples from your own experiences in the kitchen, describe
the difference between braising and stewing.

* * *

As usual, Molly was the first to proceed to the practical portion of the exam. They were
using the big kitchen that day, and she felt a surge of excitement as she surveyed the
cool stainless steel surfaces with pans in half a dozen sizes dangling from overhead racks.
Being there alone, she felt like an actress must standing on a stage in an empty theater on
the opening day of a play.

Molly was thankful for the few minutes of solitude and the opportunity they provided for her
to catch up with herself. The accident still bothered her. One thing she didn’t need was an
increase in her insurance rate. And then there were the continuing problems with Antonio.
Where was she supposed to get the money for her share of this latest bill? She needed help
just making her rent each month.

She forced herself to lock these thoughts away. There would be plenty of time for torturing
herself during the Easter vacation that followed the midterm. What she needed to do now
was prepare a Beef Bourguignon that would justify everything she’d put herself through in
the last nine months.

Molly didn’t like the station assigned to her for the day—half of the wood pastry bench. How
inconvenient, with the space below taken up by a mini fridge for cake and pie fillings, and
heavy electric mixers lined up like soldiers on the shelf overhead. Her knives and measuring
cups would steal a good chunk of her work space. This disappointment was nothing,
however, to the nasty surprise taped to her cutting board.

Molly stared down at a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, the full horror taking some time to sink
in. Beef Bourguignon had been the Spring midterm dish since Huntington Culinary Academy
opened its doors fifteen years ago. Molly had worked hard at refining her version. She took
a deep breath. Bourguignon. Stroganoff. Okay. She had no reason to panic. It still came
down to meat and mushrooms in a sauce.

Of course, the sauce presented the problem. After making the dish, Molly didn’t know how
long she’d have to wait for her turn in front of the grading panel. Every second that
passed increased the odds of the sour cream sauce–by nature unstable–breaking down
into clots of grease and curdled milk. Not to mention the added challenge of dressing
up a plate of food which, as savory as it might taste, had all the visual appeal of
lumpy wallpaper paste.

“Don’t look so glum, Miss Price.” Chef Roy came in, which meant that the rest of the class
wouldn’t be far behind. Indeed, they began to trickle in a few moments later, swinging their
knife cases and searching for their work stations. Chef Roy sighed. “Looks like it’s game time.”

Molly hurried to the pantry but, as she’d feared, there were no red or yellow bell peppers
to be had, the last few apparently having been used up by the evening students the night
before. What a shame. The bright contrast of scarlet and canary rings, blanched in boiling
water a few moments to heighten their color, would have helped relieve the bland
appearance of the stroganoff.

Molly sifted through heavy heads of cabbage and dark purple eggplants and pulled out a
handful of rough-edged kale. Sautéed with shallots and olive oil and accented with carrot
lozenges, it would make an attractive side to the entree. Almost as an afterthought, Molly
grabbed a bunch of tarragon and hurried back to her station, trying hard to block out the
sounds of clanging metal measuring cups.

She wished she didn’t have to work next to Erwan, known without affection by his classmates
as The Mad Turk. He muttered incessantly to his ingredients as he worked. “Oh, yes, leetle
green ‘sparagus . . . I got you now. Right where I want you . . . How you like this–” He
separated the stalks from their tough bottom thirds with a lusty chop of his knife.

Timing and order of operations meant everything in cooking. This particular stroganoff
recipe utilized a tender cut of thinly sliced beef which would take only a few minutes to
sauté with mushrooms. The sauce, though having questionable staying power, wasn’t
particularly complicated.

Feeling suddenly at ease, Molly weighed out the correct amount of flour and eggs for her
noodles. Before combining them, she added a quarter cup of chopped tarragon to the flour.
She used her fingertips rather than the heel of her hands on the delicate, yellow-tinted
dough—egg pastas didn’t react well to manhandling. The tarragon gave the final product
an interesting speckled appearance and savory fragrance which made her smile as she
rolled it out into a thin rectangular sheet.

* * *

The drama, so long planned for and dreaded, played itself out by one o’clock. Grades
wouldn’t be in until after vacation, but Molly’s sauce had held and the panel said that
her noodles were the best they’d tasted that day. Overall, Molly felt good about her work,
which she polished off for lunch before taking her turn as pot washer for the day.

“That’s it, Molly-Bird,” Lynne said as they changed back into their street clothes. “We’re
officially free for the next sixteen days.”

“I’m not sure free is the right word. You do understand my uncle is expecting us to
work, don’t you? Lynne?” They had a lot of work to do, actually, if her Uncle Tim’s
new restaurant was going to be ready for its grand opening over Memorial Day Weekend.
He wasn’t putting Molly through culinary school for nothing. Sure, he’d hired a
restaurant manager and an executive chef, but he expected her active involvement.
She’d have to meet with suppliers and help finalize the menu. Molly appreciated her
uncle’s confidence in her, but she already felt overwhelmed.

“Don’t you worry. I’m ready to do my fair share and then some in exchange for my first
vacation in years. By the way, you never said what Antonio wanted.” Lynne leaned against
her locker, arms crossed. “Let me guess . . . trying to make another date for coffee
and recriminations?”

Molly knew Lynne didn’t intend to be cruel. It hurt, though. The marriage had been bad
enough. Now she had to put up with post-mortem evaluations by friends and family.
Everyone, it seemed, had spotted Antonio del Castillo for what he was, though none
of them had seen fit to mention anything to her before the wedding. Almost none of them.
Ned, Molly’s best friend, had been more than generous with his warnings. But he’d never
liked any of her boyfriends, so she didn’t take as much notice as she should have.

“Well?” Lynne asked, still waiting for an answer to her question.

Molly sighed at the pale reflection staring back at her from the mirror and ran a brush
through her carroty lamb’s frizz. The past six hours seemed to have settled into a hard
knot at the base of her neck. Not good. If she broke this easily under pressure, how would
she survive working in a real kitchen?

Fresh, Funny Latter-Day Take on Two Austen Classics: Reveiws of Rebecca H. Jamison’s EMMA and PERSUASION

While I am not a member of the LDS church, I am an Austen fan and an omnivorous reader. So the religious slant of this book did not bother me in any way. I actually enjoyed getting an inside view of life in an LDS community and learning how Mormons really aren’t so different from other people.

Emma: A Latter-Day Tale

Emma: A Latter-Day Tale

As a re-telling of EMMA, this book stays true to the original in a very natural way. There’s no sense that the author is manipulating or forcing her plot in an effort to provide Austen lovers with a recognizable version of their favorite scenes. Unlike Austen’s haughty heroine, Jamison’s Emma is a bit of a lost soul in terms of her personal and professional life. She knows she doesn’t want to be a dental receptionist forever, but she isn’t quite sure how to get herself on track to her dream goal–to be a life coach. She tries to help her friends, but her efforts tend to make things worse until she learns that she needs to work on herself before she can guide other people. There are no real villains in the piece, but Emma and Justin are probably the most honest and genuinely selfless of the bunch. Their scenes together are the best ones in the book.

All of the characters are done well and made complex enough to carry a story that can’t make use of the kind of plot points that drive more mainstream fiction. There’s no sex or violence. Just a cast of real people trying to find happiness and tripping over their own good intentions.

Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale

Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale

This modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic is set in an LDS(Mormon)community in Northern Virginia. Anne is a successful stockbroker. Neil Wentworth, now a Baltimore police officer, is the man she let get away when she was young and insecure. Fate throws them together when Neil’s brother buys Anne’s childhood home. Is it too late for Anne and Neil to right past mistakes and find happiness together?

Though faithful to the overall plot of the beloved original, Rebecca H. Jamison manages to provide us with a thoroughly modern and likable cast of characters embroiled in fresh, creative situations. At the same time, she provides the non-LDS reader like myself a fascinating insight into the culture of this often misunderstood faith. Most of the novels I’ve read by LDS authors share the basic qualities reflecting the religion–the content is “clean” and the focus is on acting responsibly–but they don’t necessarily show characters “being” Mormons. Jamison takes us right into ward life. She also goes a step further in that Anne and her sisters converted to the faith, but their parents have not. So there’s an added layer of conflict and tension as Anne struggles to come to terms with a mother and father she loves deeply but cannot wholly connect with.

Jane Austen’s novels translate nicely to the LDS world, where family is important and there exist very close social ties with neighbors and the community. I enjoyed the book enough to seek out Jamison’s other Austen re-telling…EMMA. Her SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is due out this year, and I’m looking forward to it.

Of Grief and Disengagement: A Review of THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s latest novel is a family saga that opens in Calcutta in the years just after Partition, when India’s most heavily Muslim districts separated into what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. Partition led to widespread displacement–with Hindu residents of the now Muslim lands flooding cities like Calcutta. Brothers Subhash and Udayan live in the Calcutta neighborhood of Tollygunge. They are only only fifteen months apart in age but polar opposites in personality. Subdued, bookish, Subhash is the older brother. Fiery Udayan is a risk taker and their parents’ favorite. In University, Udayan is influenced by Maoist philosophy sweeping west from China and gets involved in the Naxalite (radical Communist)movement. Subhash leaves India to study coastal biology in Rhode Island. There’s a strong sense that he’s also fleeing Udayan, whose extremist views and radical activities have made him a virtual stranger to his family.

The Lowland

The Lowland

Subhash slowly builds a life for himself in the U.S., though it is isolated both culturally and personally. He hears from his brother intermittently, always destroying the letters for security. When Udayan notifies him that he’s gotten married–to a woman not chosen by their parents–Subhash is surprised and then intrigued. He saves the photograph of the bride, Gauri, sent with the letter. Soon after, word comes that Udayan is dead. Returning home, Subhash learns that his brother was executed by police during a crack down on dissidents. Also, Gauri, a deeply intelligent woman, is pregnant. Finding himself strangely drawn to her, and fearful of his parents intentions toward her and the child, he convinces her to marry him and move to the U.S.

In many ways, Subhash finds himself through fatherhood. He thrives on the connection, the routine. His biggest fear is that Gauri will one day tell daughter Bela the truth of her paternity. As it is, he feels his happiness with the child is joy stolen from the brother be both loved and resented. Subhash’s strained relationship with Gauri only underscores this anxiety. She is a cool, closed off person. Gauri throws herself into her own education, eventually forsaking husband and child to pursue her academic career. No one guesses the depth of grief and guilt that she carries. Udayan was the love of her life. He was also the ruin of it. We don’t find out until near the end how deeply she was drawn into violence of Udayan’s political activities. This knowledge of her own culpability has hardened into a shell that even the love of a mother for her child cannot penetrate. It takes nearly a lifetime of isolation before Gauri can begin to break free.

While Lahiri has created an engrossing plot peopled with fascinating characters, THE LOWLAND failed to engage me the way I’d hoped. Three factors contributed to my inability to connect with this work. First, the amount and the density of the socio-political information was daunting. I became lost several times, and I believe I only made it through the book because a few years back I happened to watch a PBS mini-series about India that followed the nation from Independence all the way to the present day. I knew the basics and so was able to hang on through long stretches of exposition. Second, Lahiri jumps back and forth both chronologically and in point-of-view. This made it difficult to follow the emotional thread of the book. Finally, dialogue is not set off in quotes, which led to confusion and many instances where I had to re-read whole sections to figure out what had happened and to whom.

For the committed reader, THE LOWLAND can be a rich, deeply affecting experience. But it is also hard work.

Life is Complicated…Even in Paradise: A Review of STRANDED IN THE SEYCHELLES by Bev Spicer

Now that I’ve read all three of Bev Spicer’s humorous memoirs about her adventures with her best friend Carol, I think I like this latest one the best. STRANDED IN THE SEYCHELLES has all the irreverence and joie de vivre of ONE SUMMER IN FRANCE and BUNNY ON A BIKE, but there’s a maturity in this one that adds poignancy and richness. The lovely-but-a bit-silly students and don’t-call-ME-an-adult career girls are pushing thirty when they take jobs teaching English as a second language in a lush tropical nation that is newly independent and not at all sure about the form that independence should take.

stranded in the seychelles

stranded in the seychelles

Spicer does a wonderful job evoking the spectacular natural beauty of the Seychelles, but she doesn’t skimp on the grimmer side of life–huge spiders, fatally curious lizards, and waters as shark-infested as they are beautiful. The humans she and Carol meet are treated with the same objectivity. And there are plenty of colorful characters: a gorgeous and pathologically unfaithful Swede who Bev can’t help but find attractive, an English couple whose marriage re-defines the term passive-aggressive, a Bed and Breakfast owner with an interesting take on food recycling, and a maniac bus driver who nearly brings our heroines’ lark to an abrupt…and permanent…end.

Funny as the book is, it also touches upon the harsh reality of life in a poor, politically unstable country. This reality hits Bev and Carol hard at times, such as when they find their movements curtailed and their lesson plans censored. Unlike in their previous adventures, they can’t just decide that they’ve had enough and go home. Not with a one-year contract and a disordered government that does very little and that “little” at a snail’s pace.

It was amusing that, as I reached the end of the book, I found myself lamenting the same thing as the author–that this might be the last Bev and Carol romp. There was a hint (tiny but enough to hang a hope on) that there’s at least one more to come. One with an Asian flavor. Fingers crossed!

Of Designer Totes and Goddesses: A Review of THE EVOLUTION OF REPTILIAN HANDBAGS AND OTHER STORIES by Melanie Lamanga

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair and honest review.

People underestimate the difficulty of crafting a superior short story. It takes a lot of work–and a unique sensibility– to take a reader on a satisfying imaginative journey in only a few thousand words. Author Melanie Lamaga succeeds ten times in a row. Her stories take the reality we know and bend it in odd and exciting ways. In doing so, she shows the folly of the human compulsion to rationalize a universe that refuses to be pinned down and labeled. A working class girl from Maryland reaches her majority and gains the power of life and death in her very breath. Nature versus Nurture steps out of theory to compete on a battlefield that stretches from rural Pennsylvania to Korea to a television studio in southern California. The myth of Demeter and Persephone replays in the frozen wastelands of post-apocalyptic corn country.

The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories

The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories

Lamaga’s stories are like those dreams we have that almost make sense. We recognize our neighborhood and our mother and our dog. Yet something is off. We run through it again and again, but each re-imagining blurs the image more, until it’s no longer salvageable.

There is a recurring theme of the wastefulness of consumer society and the soullessness associated with blind acquisition. I get the point and agree, but Lamaga is a little heavy handed about it at points, most notably in her longest story, “The Seduction of Forgotten Things.” But the author’s careful attention to characterization and the interplay of character and setting counteract a slightly leaden quality imparted by the sociology and philosophy lesson.

“What the Dalai Lama Said” is my favorite story in the collection. It pokes fun at “enlightenment” seekers in a way that nevertheless honors their intentions and their humanity.

THE EVOLUTION OF REPTILIAN HANDBAGS AND OTHER STORIES is a winner. Highly recommended.

A Well-Conceived and Useful Tool for Writers–A Review of Jane Riddell’s WORDS’WORTH: A FICTION WRITER’S GUIDE TO SERIOUS EDITING

Whether you look at editing as a chore or a challenge, it is a necessary part of the writing process. Taking a novel from rough draft through umpteen revisions to arrive at a largely completed version is hard enough. Then comes the fine-tuning. The sentence-by-sentence spit and polish that results in a tight, fully realized creative work. Jane Riddell’s compact guide to this final-stage editing brings order and method to a process that can overwhelm even experienced writers.

Words'Worth: a fiction writer's guide to serious editing

Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing

There are plenty of comprehensive “How to Write” and “How to Edit” books out there focused on broad concepts. Riddell even points out a few that she finds useful. Her little book is about action. The PRACTICE of editing. This not a book to be read and put on a shelf. It’s the one at your elbow as you power through what you believe is IT–the final run-through before your novel steps out of the wings and onto stage.

WORD’SWORTH: A FICTION WRITER’S GUIDE TO SERIOUS EDITING takes you through your manuscript item by item. Initial hook. Pacing. Scene action and relevance. Clarity. Am I showing rather than telling? Overwriting? Did I overlook a cliche? Miss an opportunity to provide subtext? On and on. And, if it turns out the book isn’t quite ready for its debut, that will become apparent, too.

I highly recommend this book to fiction writers seeking a way to organize and manage final edits.

Two Hot To Handle: Reviews of Eliza March’s WERECAT FEVER and HOT HIGHLAND FLING

My latest reading binge included a pair of erotic romances by Eliza March, an author whose sizzling prose has been responsible for many a blush around my house. And at least one Chihuahua piddle. That’s what happens when you’re so involved in what’s on the page that you don’t hear your little furry guy scratching and crying at the sliding glass door. Poor Jack. He tried to tell me. Anyway, it’s all Eliza’s fault.

WereCat Fever (Enchanted Mountain 3)

WereCat Fever

I was a little worried when I started this one, because I hadn’t read the first two books in Eliza March’s Enchanted Mountain series. Luckily, the author kept WERECAT FEVER largely self-contained. I had the sense, meeting the supporting characters, that there were some other stories worth exploring, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of this book.

Lacey Hampton is a wildlife biologist and rancher who is haunted by the disappearance of her fiance Bryan Cauldwell five years earlier. She hasn’t been able to move on. What’s worse, her father was brutally murdered and some in town, including the Cauldwell family, have hinted that Bryan is responsible. Lacey doesn’t want to believe this. And she’s certainly not ready for Bryan to pop back into town like the past half decade’s separation never happened. That’s just what he does. With him is Hunter Harris. I don’t want to spoil the book for readers by giving away too much about the relationship of the two men. What’s important is that, whether she likes it or not, Lacey’s future is tied to both these hotties.

This is a menage-type erotic novel–Lacey gets to enjoy both men in a series of well-written, emotionally believable scenes. It’s one of those books that evoke what I call “naughty giggle syndrome”–you don’t want to stop reading, but you have to if only to make sure no one’s around to catch you with this piping hot story. You giggle at yourself for feeling like twelve-year-old sneaking a peek at the “good parts” of your mom’s latest bodice ripper. WERECAT FEVER is almost all good parts.

The only point where I was left a little wanting was in the resolution of the death of Lacey’s father. We get closure, sure, but it’s kept off stage. I would have preferred a real confrontation with teeth, claws, and retribution. Also, the dangers to Lacey hinted at in the beginning–from possible rogue shape shifters and Bryan’s awful father and step-brother–never actually materialize. I think this might have been a good opportunity to up the drama even more.

Still, what we do get, the steamy coming together of well-drawn characters, is plenty satisfying. I liked it so much that I plan to go back and read the first two books.

Hot Highland Fling

Hot Highland Fling

In this short, saucy erotic novella, romance-weary reporter Aisla Jackson travels to a castle in the Scottish Highlands to interview the local Laird. Aisla is tired of the usual corporate executive types she’s been seeing. She wants a little excitement. To her that means hot sensual encounters–relationship not required.

Enter Colin Fitzgerald–or Lord Brantham–as he’s also known. It’s his castle. He’s also not a stranger to Aisla, though he doesn’t want her to know that. I can’t give too much away. The point is that Colin/Lord Brantham has had a soft spot (and a hard one) for Aisla for a long time, and now he plans to do something about it.

Things come to a boil quickly between these two, but not before March treats us to some nice descriptions of the castle itself. I like a strong sense of place in my fiction, so I enjoyed this. There’s also enough early character building to sustain the sensual stuff that takes over the balance of the story. Aisla is a little tarty and forward for my taste, but March makes this understandable by first creating a believable back story for her. We understand that Aisla is going for what she THINKS she wants–no strings sex. In reality she doesn’t think what she really wants–a sensual connection matched by an equally intense emotional intimacy–exists. Luckily there’s a kilt-wearing Laird ready to prove her wrong.

My only critique of the story concerns the jarring time jump from the intense first night (most of the novella) to (at the end) weeks later, when Aisla has some important decisions to make. After watching the couple go from zero to a hundred so quickly, I needed more time for them to slow back down and shift into “resolution of relationship” gear. There are two ways to adjust–either throw in a complication or two to string things out, or have Aisla’s project be only a couple of days rather than weeks. Considering the brief length, the latter would likely have been the easiest and most natural fix.

Time jump aside, HOT HIGHLAND FLING was a fun read and well worth reading. Hopefully the author will take us on another erotic journey. Hmmmmm….I wonder what the chances are that Aisla has a sister who gets stranded in somewhere in Ireland….

Not Your Average Category Romance: A Review of VENGEFUL IN LOVE by Nadia Lee

Though I enjoy category romances, there is a tendency for authors of these books to fall back on tired formulas and stock characters. Read a couple of them in a row, and you start mixing up the alpha-male heroes and exotic locals. Nadia Lee’s VENGEFUL IN LOVE stands out by taking some risks with plotting and offering a non-mainstream protagonist.

Vengeful in Love (Hearts on the Line, #1)

Vengeful in Love

Natalie Hall is beautiful, bright and accomplished–standard romantic heroine–only she’s also the Asian adopted daughter of a United States senator. She’s a study in contrasts. Natalie is successful, but she’s not overly ambitious. She comes from money, and yet she’s unpretentious. Most tellingly, she’s the shining star of her family AND the black sheep who was never truly accepted by her adoptive mother and sister.

Alex Damon isn’t quite as unique a character as Natalie, but his back story has a nice kink. His father built a lucrative company and then lost it all thanks to a conniving mistress and a greedy wife. Alex has since grown up and created his own high-tech empire, but his childhood loss consumes him. He wants revenge. Natalie, the god-daughter of the mistress, is to be his weapon.

Of course, it all goes sideways when Alex falls for Natalie. Further complications arise when she’s implicated in a case of corporate espionage. Alex doesn’t want to believe she’d betray him, but he can’t quiet trust her either. Meanwhile, Natalie is in the throws of her own conflict–how to break free from the only family she knows, even though being around them makes her feel worthless.

Nadia Lee adds some wonderful twists to her plot. It’s difficult to predict from which direction the next blow will fall on our couple. And the identity of the real corporate spy came as a surprise. None of Nadia’s characters is straight forward. They are flawed in fabulously genuine ways. Even the minor ones are given weight in the narrative.

My problem with this book, and the reason I didn’t give it five stars, is that the intricate plotting collapses right before the finish line. After building great conflict and tearing our couple apart, the resolution comes too quickly and the loose ends are tied up too neatly. Alex should have had to work harder to earn Natalie’s forgiveness. And the epilogue made the resolution seem even more rushed and artificial.

I enjoyed the book, but the ending let me down.

Promising New Paranormal Series: A Review of DYING FOR A LIVING by Kory M. Shrum

Jesse Sullivan dies a lot. She’s what’s known as a Necronite–someone who can die and come back to life over and over. This ability, the result of some genetic quirk, seems relatively new and is not fully accepted by society. The Church (a massive institution formed when all world religions amalgamated into a “we are many and we are one” sort of arrangement) is especially critical of Necronites and the death replacement industry that has grown up around them. Jesse’s participation in this profession isn’t by choice. She has something unsavory in her past, at the start of the book she only vaguely remembers what it is, but it’s bad enough that she’s agreed to work as a death replacement agent for seven years in order to avoid prosecution. Jesse is good at what she does, though she isn’t all that pleasant of a person to deal with. She’s snarky, impatient, judgmental and, well, basically annoying to her clients and her co-workers.

Dying for a Living

Dying for a Living

In this initial installment of the series, Jesse’s comfortable-if-tedious life is blown to bits when a routine replacement turns into an attempt on her life. It’s soon revealed that there’s a serial killer targeting death replacement agents. It isn’t long before Jesse (thanks to that shadowy past of hers) is implicated. In the course of exonerating herself and unveiling the true culprit, she and her friends uncover a shocking conspiracy that has its roots in Jesse’s own origins.

There is a lot to like about this book. Jesse is a strong and unique character. There’s nothing wispy or wimpy about her. She’s not a damsel in distress waiting to be saved by a gorgeous hunk. She has a sort-of boyfriend named Lane. There’s also a could-be girlfriend–her co-worker/best friend Ally. This sexual ambiguity is another unusual twist on the usual YA/NA paranormal. It adds richness to the characters and interesting subtext to the narrative.

Being the start of a planned series, there is a certain degree of world-building that goes on. In general, Shrum does a good job telling a satisfying tale, while also weaving the complex back story that will provide ongoing conflict. There are times, though, where it is hard to keep up with the various plot strands. Jesse, her friends and their immediate challenges are rock solid for readers. The further the author strays from this core towards the larger conspiracy, especially concerning Jesse’s parentage, the more confusion creeps in and undermines suspension of disbelief. I enjoyed the book, but, as the series goes on, Shrum needs to take care not to plot herself (and her readers) into a Gordian Knot.

Overall, though, DYING FOR A LIVING was a great read. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.