Monthly Archives: June 2014

Story Arcs, Horses, and Broken Hearts: Georgia Rose’s A SINGLE STEP

I was of two minds about this book. It’s worth five stars. No doubt about it. The main character and her world are expertly evoked. The emotion brought me to tears at least THREE times.

And, yet, I had some issues with the execution.

A Single Step (Book 1 of The Grayson Trilogy)

A Single Step

The genre is hard to pin down. It’s all well and good to say, “just go with the story.” That’s not how brains work. It’s normal, as one reads, to make rapid-fire comparisons to everything else we’ve ever read. Part of us is with the story, another part is using cues from the text to surge ahead and make predictions about where the narrative is heading. This is especially the case if we think we’re reading suspense or mystery. After all, catching the clues becomes critical to understanding the resolution.

Emma Grayson is a fascinating character. She’s suffered significant losses and they’ve made her wary of people and their motives. We see this in the solitary way she lives her life. The author delves so deeply into Emma’s back story (and so early) that it at first appeared this was straight literary fiction. The suspense elements are hinted at–her new employer’s interest in her kickboxing skills, the way he and Emma’s eventual love interest take off on mysterious business trips, etc–but never strongly enough for us to say “Okay, this is suspense.” Not until someone causes Emma to be thrown from her horse are we sure something odd is going on. Same goes with the romance element. The hints are bigger, but the romantic elements don’t really come into serious play in the first half of the book.

It might have been better for the author to seed the facts of Emma’s past throughout the first half of the story, so that the pace could have been picked up a bit. As it is, we know everything about Emma right from the start but far too little (too late) about her new love’s past. Because of this, the climactic situation seems to come out of left field. We don’t have enough information to fully process what’s happening or believe the motivations behind the final blitz attack on Emma. I have to tread carefully here to avoid telling too much, but the author falls into a common confusion about the nature of two distinctly separate mental illnesses. Also, these illnesses (as character traits) aren’t developed in way that feels as genuine as the character building in the rest of the book. As a result, the rationale for the “villain’s” actions are rushed and confused and TOLD to us in a chunky summation.

In conclusion, A SINGLE STEP is an excellent novel with a problematic story arc. Some of this may have to do with it being the first of a trilogy. There’s a lot of attention paid to setting up the situation. On the other hand, by staying so close to her character, Georgia Rose makes us feel Emma’s sorrows and hopes. Rose also has a great romantic touch. She knows how to build passion slowly, so that the reader is itching for the couple to finally come together. There are also plenty of great details of life on the estate and the care/activities surrounding horses. Rose’s created world is so real, I felt part of it and it’s Gothic, slightly JANE EYRE atmosphere. It’s for these reasons that a book with some technical flaws still rates FIVE stars, and that the next Emma Grayson story is on my must-read list.

It’s a Delicate Balance–Plot Points and Pacing (Tracey Jane Jackson’s BOUND BY DREAMS)

Being a huge fan of Tracey Jane Jackson’s Cauld Ane series, I bit my nails waiting for the release of BOUND BY DREAMS. Niall and Max MacMillan have become two of my favorite Caulde Ane characters. Max found his Grace back in BOUND BY SONG (an incredibly well done book, by the way) and I hoped for an equally passionate match for sensitive Niall. Well, I got that and much more.

Bound by Dreams

Bound by Dreams

Charlotte Whitmore is an aspiring actress who’s returned home to Portland, Oregon after finding nothing but disappointment in Hollywood. Her personal life is in as rough shape as her career. After dating a famous actor who turned out to be an abuser, she’s trying her luck with online dating, though her heart isn’t in it. Her strange and troubling dreams don’t help. She’s been plagued by them since childhood, but lately they’ve begun to feature Niall MacMillan, drummer for Fallen Crown. He’s been Charlotte’s secret crush for a long time.

Okay. We know where this is going–Charlotte unwilling to believe that Niall is her fated mate, and Niall tripping over himself to overcome her doubts and defenses. Further complications arise when Charlotte’s sister gets into serious difficulties related to a much older boyfriend, and Charlotte discovers a whopper of a secret about her own paternity. The implications of the latter will impact not only Charlotte but the whole race of Cauld Ane as well.

As usual, Jackson does a wonderful job building believable characters. Niall is much more cerebral than the other Caulde Ane men we’ve met. He’s got the alpha qualities, sure, but he’s a thinker also. He’s not as raw and impulsive as his brother. He considers possible outcomes before he acts, which makes him a good match for Charlotte, who, despite her profession, is as level headed as they come. The relationship is a long, slow simmer rather than the boiling over we’ve seen in the other books. This requires a little more patience on the part of the reader, but it also allows time for the sub-plots to fully develop. This is a positive on two fronts. First, the situation concerning Charlotte’s sister needs a slow build to reach the emotional height that it deserves without overwhelming the main story. Second, the subject of Charlotte’s origins raises complicated questions that lead the entire series in a new direction.

The risk that come with packing so much into one book is that it makes heavy demands on the pacing. That’s especially true in BOUND BY DREAMS, because it takes a while before Niall and Charlotte meet. Not long after they do, the sister story line blows up big time. That settled, Niall and Charlotte barely make it to Scotland before the implications of her paternity become something bigger. What ends up happening is that the conclusion of BOUND BY DREAMS becomes less of a smooth “wrapping up” centered around Niall and Charlotte’s relationship and more of a lead-in to what comes next.

Despite the bumpy pacing, BOUND BY DREAMS is entertaining and full of tension. One things for sure, there are exciting times ahead for us Caulde Ane groupies.

A Humorous Look at a Troubling Disability: THE SILENCE OF JULIET MANN by Joanne Phillips

Juliet Mann is a stammerer. Situations that may be uncomfortable or even frightening for many–reading aloud in class, making a public presentation–are torture for Juliet, who cannot even pronounce her own name without difficulty. In spite of her disability, Juliet has managed to carve out a comfy, if circumscribed, life for herself. She’s even getting married. And that’s where things go haywire.

The Silence of Juliet Mann

The Silence of Juliet Mann

Juliet tries to speak her vows and things do not go well. Horrified, humiliated, she runs off. Her family, though caring, is at their wits end with her. Her intended, a great guy, is desperate to try again. But Juliet is paralyzed, caught between her yearning to be “normal” and her fear of trying and failing to correct her speech problem.

Joanne Phillips does a wonderful job with Juliet. She’s sympathetic but not pathetic. We feel for her, but we clearly see her shortcomings and how she makes her situation harder than it has to be through stubbornness. It’s true that, upon hearing her speak, people make assumptions about her intellect and general value. But she also makes assumptions. So sure everyone will judge her harshly, she doesn’t give them chance to know her better and discover how fine a person she is.

For such a short work, THE SILENCE OF JULIET MANN is perfectly paced. Its tight narrative arc packs a lot of emotional punch without teetering into melodrama. The physical settings have a clarity and weight that many full-length novels struggle to achieve. The underlying message, that stammering is not merely an awkward stage of development for certain unlucky children, that it needs to be attended to early and seriously, comes across in a natural non-dogmatic way.

Joanne Phillips has a warm, funny voice and style. I’m definitely planning to read more of her work.

A Sensitive Exploration of Friendship, Family and Faith: Maria Troia’s NEAT LITTLE PACKAGES

NEAT LITTLE PACKAGES centers on Meg, a nurse in Arizona. Finding herself pregnant after years of struggling with infertility, she barely has time to tell her husband the good news before a tragedy forces them to travel to Colorado where she comes face to face with her semi-estranged brother and some of the friends they grew up with. The meeting leaves Meg reeling and triggers a series of events which challenge everything she believes about herself, her marriage, and her family.

Neat Little Packages

Neat Little Packages

Religion–or religious reconciliation–is one of the central themes of the novel. Meg and other main characters struggle to find that place where faith and real life can co-exist. Between this, Meg’s struggles to become a mother, and the complicated relationships among the characters, Troia takes on a lot. There are places where the book becomes a bit weighty. At the same time, the finely drawn emotional landscape is compelling and keeps the reader invested.

The author has a keen eye for detail–both in the small actions of her characters as they negotiate their angst-filled days and in the particulars of the stunning environments that provide the novel’s backdrop. Colorado and Arizona are both beautifully rendered. Ireland–where Meg’s brother seeks to resolve his most pressing personal issues–is somewhat less convincing. There’s an overabundance of stock Irish charm, and it comes off a wee bit thin when compared to the stark realism of the rest of the book.

Taken as a whole, I found this novel rich and satisfying. Kind of like enjoying a heavy meal on a cold winter’s night. Highly recommended.

Fresh Re-Imagining of a Classic: A Review of Val McDermid’s NORTHANGER ABBEY

I was a little nervous when I began Val McDermid’s version of this Jane Austen classic. It’s the second release from the Jane Austen Project, which pairs six well-known contemporary authors with a Jane Austen novel. I thought the first–Joanna Trollope’s version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY–a disaster and didn’t hold out much hope for this one. It probably doesn’t help that NORTHANGER ABBEY is my least favorite of Austen’s works.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey

Surprise. I loved it. It’s fun and flirty and silly. But it works. Let’s face it, Austen didn’t write the book as a serious novel. It was her pointed (and sarcastic) reply to the highbrows of her time, who denigrated the novel and even questioned its position as a true literary form.

In some ways, I prefer McDermid’s version to the original. It might be the setting. Cat Morland travels to Edinburgh instead of Bath. The draw is a month-long arts festival. The events of the book come alive as we tag along with the characters to concerts, plays, dances, book signings and poetry readings.

In general, the characters are well-drawn and convincing. At times, Cat is more sophisticated than McDermid originally describes her. Any immaturity she shows has more to do with a lack of experience–especially social experience–than intellectual dullness or provincialism. Her vicarage upbringing has certainly not prepared her for the devious personalities she finds surrounding her in Scotland. Cat’s vampire fixation, especially as it pertains to the Tilney family, is a bit ridiculous, but it’s also perfectly realistic in light of current pop culture, where even morning television spots cover the relative merits of vampires versus werewolves for boyfriends and how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Henry Tilney is probably McDermid’s least successful character. His stiffness and general lack of humor is more pronounced here than in the original. Austen’s Henry needled and provoked her heroine. McDermid’s version lectures and criticizes. Also, the reason behind General Tilney’s exile of Cat from Northanger doesn’t quite convince. Yet, even here there’s a logic, a sad parallel, between Cat’s suspicions of vampires and the general’s fear of lesbians. Each is discomfited by what is, for them, dangerous and alien.

So, three cheers (and at least as many re-readings) for Val McDermid’s NORTHANGER ABBEY. What a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Putting YOUR First Thing First: A Review of ESSENTIALISM by Greg McKeown

Corporate cog, small business owner, artist, or harried stay-at-home parent–we all have big goals we’d like to pursue if we could just find enough time in the day. The number one piece of advice offered by teachers, mentors, life coaches and time management gurus? Prioritize. Sounds great. But how does one do that when faced with a never-ending list of must-dos?

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

According to author Greg McKeown, the first thing to dump is the list.

A “priority,” he says, is ONE thing. The First thing. Discovering what your First thing is–and how to structure life so that you’re able to focus on it–is what ESSENTIALISM: THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS is about.

The concept is simple enough: Do less but do it better. Yet, as we know, simple doesn’t mean easy. There’s nothing easy about admitting to your boss that you cannot possibly do justice to project he’s set on your desk when there are three other ones demanding your attention. It isn’t easy to give up your bowling league, your online gaming group, and your book club to finally finish that novel you’ve been writing since college. And it’s downright excruciating to say to your kids: will it be karate, soccer OR drama? Because mom and dad need their time, too.

What McKeown proposes is a radical re-think of how we design our days and focus our attention. ESSENTIALISM is directed to the corporate world, but the ideas and suggestions are easily adaptable for those in public service, the self-employed, students or those looking to make the most of a hobby they’re passionate about. It really is up to each of us how far we want to take this philosophy–from solving a particular problem (How do I plan a wedding for 500 AND sleep AND not lose my job?) to a total life makeover that strips our days down to the barest and most meaningful essentials. The book provides a framework for individual readers to explore, adapt and build upon.

I do wish Essentialism was a bit longer and included more case studies of people in varying life/work situations. I guess that would undermine the premise–that our lives are OUR lives and only we know what our priority (in the singular!) should be. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful for McKeown to delve a bit more into the problem of competing demands–as a father of small children, he must have plenty of experience with the challenge of balancing family and work. Also, some might say that his view of how bosses will take take an employee’s decision to skip time-wasting meetings or reject new projects is overly optimistic, especially in our still-recovering job market.

I borrowed my copy of ESSENTIALISM from the library, but I’m going to buy my own. It looks to be one of those books that become more and more useful as you put its ideas to work. It’ll be something to turn to when, invariably, I find myself allowing the trivial to hijack my “one wild and precious life.”

A Paranormal Anti-Romance: A Review of Laura Del’s GRAVEYARD SHIFTS

I normally take my vampires and werewolves two ways–either glittery and gorgeous or vicious and bloodthirsty. Kiss them or Kill them. That’s my philosophy. Freelance journalist Pat Wyatt, a protagonist of the no-nonsense variety, would love if the paranormal hotties who invade her life in GRAVEYARD SHIFTS proved so simple to classify.

Graveyard Shifts: A Pat Wyatt Novel

Graveyard Shifts: A Pat Wyatt Novel

In a single mind-twisting evening, Pat goes from visiting diners for a story on pie to married to a mysterious billionaire who makes himself scarce during daylight hours. After her wedding night, during a long day alone in her new husband’s palatial Hamptons mansion, Pat meets his lawyer, Mike Wolf. Before the day is out, Pat finds herself torn by her attraction to both men. Yes, this is all happening at light speed and is standard paranormal love-triangle fare, but what’s unusual about this trio is how unlikable they can be. Samuel the vampire is a self-satisfied bully. Mike Wolf’s sensitivity is bundled with a degree of ambivalence, a general lack of gumption, unbecoming in a child of the moon. In short, neither of these men is classic romantic hero material. Yet Pat’s no real bargain, either. She’s not especially beautiful or clever. She’s sharp, cynical and critical.

What makes it all work is Pat’s awareness of her own flaws and the negatives of the men she’s become involved with. She knows she’s in a situation that is unlikely to end well, and it isn’t as if she can’t walk out. Sure, towards the end of the book we get Samuel’s magnetic power over her will and his “I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth” declaration. But, before that, before she’s even sure what Samuel is, she has the urge to flee and plenty of chances to do so. Instead, she stays. Is it the passionate sex? Journalistic curiosity? The credit cards with no limit?

We’re not sure. Neither is Pat.

The relatively confined setting and limited cast of characters may offer some answer. A few strong personalities confined to the close quarters of a mansion and the surrounding town…the effect is claustrophobic. Experiencing events through Pat’s eyes, you get a clear sense of the air being sucked from her lungs, muddying her mind and undermining her judgement. When she finally does make a definitive move–can’t say more about this or I’ll spoil it for others–what she gains is breathing room rather than any lasting resolution.

GRAVEYARD SHIFTS left me not quite satisfied and curious about the characters’ futures, which is exactly what you want if you’re planning a series. It’ll be interesting to see what Del has in store for Pat Wyatt.

Unique Take on Domestic Terrorism: BEYOND THE BARS by Brooke Williams

I began BEYOND the BARS with low expectations and plenty of preconceptions. Terrorism isn’t a topic I look for in my personal reading. I read either to be educated or to escape. Most of us who’ve lived through the past twenty-plus years have been forced to learn more than we ever cared to know about terrorism of both the home grown and international variety. So, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

Beyond the Bars

Beyond the Bars

It begins in a familiar vein…a radicalized someone-or-other (the group is never specifically identified and, in the end, unimportant) leaves his home with a backpack loaded with explosives. Then the scene switches in rapid succession to three separate points of view, each a witness to a bus explosion. The cities–San Francisco, Washington D.C., Des Moines, Iowa–are so widely spaced, we figure it’s got to be a coordinated effort by a terrorist group. And it is. But behind that terrorist group is one person who has no political statement to make at all–only a personal grudge that he manages to carry out from behind bars.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot in more depth without spoiling it for readers. Suffice it to say that this short novel is a complicated exploration of family–how it shapes us, how it betrays us, and how it can ultimately save us. There’s also a strong undercurrent of a bigger battle, that of good and evil. But in the universe of this story, these forces aren’t straight-forward or easily understood. Further, they transcend any single act and even any single lifetime.

Author Brooke Williams does a great job building layered characters, whose moral strengths make them vulnerable to the uglier forces of the universe. The villain himself became so twisted through bearing up under unspeakable abuse. In trying to protect his siblings, he lost his own soul. The only person who could reach him, his former wife, is now the object of his intense hatred. Her willingness to get to know a shy but interesting young man–her openness and lack of snobbery–has years later put her and her daughter in extreme danger. This theme of good qualities–protectiveness, tolerance–turning around and biting someone in the backside is one of the most compelling and disturbing aspects of the book.

I guess what I like about BEYOND THE BARS is that it explores what happens when “doing the right thing” doesn’t necessarily result in a happy ending. Does the disappointment ruin the good in us? Or do we go on being (attempting) good in spite of it? Is goodness really its own reward?

If you like fast-paced thrillers with a healthy dose of moral philosophy, BEYOND THE BARS doesn’t disappoint.

Two Little Books With Lots of Heart: AN SEANCHAI by Ross Murphy and ALPHABET SUCCESS by Tim Fargo

Who out there doesn’t want to get real value for their money? Well, I have a two-scoop treat for you today. One is fiction. The other is non-fiction. One delivers laugh after laugh. The other will show you how to succeed in business while keep hold of your soul. Two first-rate books that not only deliver all they promise but also help those in need. That’s right. 100% of the proceeds go to charity.

Product Details

Author Ross Murphy created this delightful slip of a book to fulfill a promise he made to himself after the death of his friend Billy Burke–an irascible old fellow Murphy met while living in Newbridge, County Kildare twenty-plus years ago. That promise was to preserve Billy’s stories. Billy was a story teller of rare talent and reading about his early encounters with “Yank” Murphy at an old-school pub called O’Malley’s sets a wonderfully atmospheric stage for the reader. I felt as if I were huddled into a worn booth, the din of conversation and the clink of pint glasses falling away as Billy launched into “The Undertaker” or “The Priest and the Frog” or the hilarious “The Best Pub Ever.”

Some of these stories are wee bit silly, others a wee bit shocking, but they are all funny, pitch-perfect, and move one into the other seamlessly.

I also love that all of the proceeds from AN SEANCHAI go to benefit the Independence Fund, an organization that works to help severely wounded veterans.

Alphabet Success - Keeping it Simple. The Secret to Success.

Alphabet Success – Keeping it Simple. The Secret to Success.

Author Tim Fargo created a successful insurance fraud investigation company and sold it for big bucks. But this happy ending didn’t happen without some failure along the way. Fargo mines the good and the bad and presents (via a riff on the alphabet) an uncomplicated outline for building a business that works. A lot of his advice is also applicable to people outside the business world.

I like that Fargo acknowledges from the beginning that he’s always wanted to be rich. It made me say to myself “Well, whatever I may think of his book, at least he’s honest.” What sets Fargo apart from other “How to Succeed in Business” coaches is that he clearly differentiates fancy toys (say a Ferrari) as a motivator or symbol that spurs one towards a goal and the goal itself. The distinction is subtle, but it makes the difference between a life filled with money and cool stuff and one built on accomplishment that (as a by-product) allows one to enjoy money and stuff.

I like the way Fargo balances up-to-the-minute technology (e.g. computer programs that track the handling of customer complaints) and old-fashioned good customer service (sending a client a real birthday card rather than an email or e-card). He’s a man who knows that tracking and quantifying the value of a given account is important, but so is maintaining meaningful contact with the individuals behind the account.

In the end, I think that’s what sets ALPHABET SUCCESS apart from so many books in its category–it never forgets that a business is at its foundation a human interacting with other humans. So, there’s room for mistakes as well as growth. Mistakes MAKE for growth.

And if this isn’t enough to get you to give this book a try, all of the proceeds of the book generated in 2014 will go to support children in Africa via Save The Children. How’s that for putting a human face on success?