Independent book review: Still Life with Memories series



By Uvi Poznansky

I have recently discovered the books of Uvi Poznansky, and she has written a remarkable series of books. Together, they tell one unified story, but from multiple points of view. The author does a remarkable job of capturing each individual voice

Still Life with Memories is about Lenny and Natasha Kaminsky, and about the way Natasha’s illness affects the whole family over a long time.

Natasha is a concert pianist and composer, hailed as a genius, and Lenny a soldier and intelligence operative.

They meet and fall in love, and Lenny says he cannot believe his luck when Natasha accepts his proposal of marriage. After the war, they return to the States and settle in Santa Monica, California. Natasha tries to re-start her music career, but shelves it when she becomes pregnant.

She becomes a piano teacher while Lenny pursues his own career, and Natasha’s enormous white piano fills up most of the living room in their small apartment.

But before many years pass, Lenny starts to notice something is wrong with Natasha. She has increasing memory lapses, which also affect her playing. Gradually, she loses the ability to play the piano. Lenny becomes despondent over the gaps Natasha’s memory and the damage it inflicts on their relationship. Lenny begins recording interviews with Natasha, then transcribing them in an effort to write a book about their life together.

Then he meets Anita, a teenaged girl who looks astonishingly like a young Natasha. Anita sets her sights on him as her best chance for a better life than her mother could give, and Lenny falls for her. Natasha, as fragile as she is, leaves Lenny, but seems to come back more than once.

 

But when Lenny makes Anita pregnant, the marriage is over. Not only does Natasha leave Lenny for good, so does their son, Ben, who is one year older than Anita.

The most remarkable thing about Poznansky’s series is that she tells it from different points of view.

Anita, who first appears in Lenny’s life as a teacher, is the narrator of book 1, My Own Voice. In Book 2, The White Piano, Ben, Lenny’s son is the PoV character. Lenny then takes over the narrating for the rest of the series, and we get to put the pieces together of Natasha’s real story.

Natasha is the most interesting character in the series. She’s a highly talented artist and, it turns out, was resourceful and effective during the war. The way that the author slowly reveals her story is sometimes anguishing, sometimes teasing, but always fascinating.

And the author perfectly captures each PoV character’s voice as she does this: the calculating other woman, the angry son, the guilt-ridden husband.

Still Life with Memories also reveals the ephemera quality of memory, through the differences in details that each character remembers about their interactions.

Battered by fate

Poznansky shows how each of us tries to be master of our own fate, but we are at the same time victims of an often cruel universe, dealing with things that we could never have seen coming. In book 4, Marriage Before Death, Lenny wonders how it is that some of the soldiers on the battlefield die, while other survive, and whether his time is up. And in other volumes, he tries to make a new life for himself and his family, but suffers setback after setback. When Anita finds him, he seems powerless to turn  her away, even though he tries.

Anita is more skilled or talented at surfing the maelstrom of life. She rises from an impoverished single-parent household, without much education, and catches a successful man—one who can give her things she could only dream of as a girl.

Ben recoils when he learns of his father’s affair with a girl younger than himself, drops out of school and leaves for Rome. When he returns, he also finds attracted drawn against his will to Anita, the woman who replaced his mother in many ways.

A couple of flaws

I find myself equally unable to resist Poznansky’s storytelling style. While she perfectly captures each character’s individuality, at the same time she writes in a style that seems at once fresh and old-fashioned. She has, I think, also captured a prewar literary voice that is refreshingly distinct from the mass-produced style you can find in today’s commercial bestsellers.

But the books are not quite perfect. There are a couple of flaws.

First, Lenny seems to be an incompetent intelligence operative. In Marriage Before Death, he wanders behind enemy lines with ease with little purpose or mission, and gets caught almost immediately.

Also, the timing seems a little off. If Lenny is in his 20s during the war—and it seems he is—then I’m having trouble working out the timing for when he meets Anita in Santa Monica. She describes Lenny as being in his 40s, so that would take us to the mid-sixties or at best early 70s. However, Anita plays a song from “the sixties” as if it were really old. Somehow, the timing just seems a little off there.

Overall

This is a wonderful series, a richly colourful portrait of the intersecting, overlapping and mutually supportive and destructive lives. It portrays the intricate relationships of family, of the ways we intentionally and unintentionally hurt the people we love, and how what we do to each other ultimately creates the people they, and we are. It’s not quite perfect, but then neither are we.

Well done, Ms. Poznansky

4*

Find Uvi Poznansky’s work on

Visit her website.

Independent novel review: The Jossing Affair



By J.L. Oakley

This is an amazingly good book.

The Jossing Affair reminds me of Dr. Zhivago: it’s a story that helps us understand a world-changing, vicious conflict through a close focus on a few people caught in it. At its heart, it’s actually a realistic love story.

Janet Oakley is an author I admire. She has a clear, simple style that puts the reader right into the story and brings the Norwegian landscape and seas to life.

Like me, she writes historical fiction set in places and eras that most people would consider obscure. When most of us think of the Second World War, I don’t think the Norwegian occupation and resistance comes top-of-mind. We know something about it, like the word “quisling,” meaning a treacherous person who cooperates with the enemy, from the name of Norway’s collaborator Minister President Vikrun Quisling. But I think few in the U.S. or Canada are really familiar with the history, the resistance inside the country or the acts of the Norwegians who escaped the country to continue the fight from the U.K. and elsewhere.

Here’s the situation: in 1944, Norway has been suffering Nazi Germany’s brutal occupation for four years. Tore Haugland is a teacher who escaped to Scotland, then along with other Norwegians, trained in espionage under the British before coming back to Norway’s west coast. There, he assumes an identity as Jens Hansen, a deaf-mute fisherman. His false disability leads most people in the village of Fjellstad to assume he’s also slow-witted.

But Haugland/Jensen has another role: he sets up a secret radio transmitter to communicate with the Allies, and helps coordinate the “Shetland Bus”—secret transportation across the North Sea, smuggling out escapers and bringing in resistance fighters, weapons and supplies.

It’s the most dangerous kind of work, because jossing, or “patriot” Haugland is up against smart quislings, including Norway’s second-worst war criminal, Henry Oliver Rinnan, head of a Norwegian Gestapo unit.

As Haugland goes about spying, he meets Anna Fromme, known as “the German woman” or simply “the Woman” in the village. People assume she’s a quisling, because she is German, and shun her.

But Anna is the widow of another jossing, Einar Fromme, who was arrested, tortured and executed by Rinnan. Of course, Anna did not know anything about her husband’s resistance activities. Even though she moves to the tiny village of Fjellstad after his death, suspicion that she had something to do with it follows her.

Haugland knows who she is, and feels a deep attraction. But he feels he cannot act on this attraction because that would expose both of them to great danger.

A highly skilled author

The tension in this book starts high, and steadily gets higher. That’s something that requires skill on the part of an author. Oakley keeps raising the stakes as the resistance’s missions become more dangerous, the Gestapo gets closer, the Germans retreat in Russia, Poland and France, and Haugland and Anna fall deeper in love.

By the second half of the book, it’s clear the Germans are losing the war. But there’s not a lot of Allied action in Norway in 1944—in fact, Norway was the last country to be liberated from the Germans, days after V-E Day. And despite the fact they know there is no way they can win—or maybe because of it—the Germans and the quislings get more and more brutal.

I love the way that Oakley wove real historical elements into this story. Rinnan was a real person, and Oakley describes his physical appearance perfectly. Other historical characters appearing in the book include Rinnan’s right-hand man, Karl Dolmen, and Conrad Bonnevie-Svendsen, a priest, minister for the deaf and resistance leader.

Doing this is not easy—I know. I marvel at the historical research that must have gone into this book. When I met the author last year, she told me about her trip to Norway specifically to do research for this book.

Congratulations, Janet Oakley, on the accomplishment of The Jossing Affair. It’s historically accurate (as far as I can tell), interesting and exciting; a rich story with strong, fascinating and utterly believable characters.

5 *****

Find it on J.L. Oakley’s website, or buy it today from Amazon.

Independent author successfully juggles A Case of Sour Grapes



Independent book review

A Case of Sour Grapes by Gae-Lynn Woods

I know that I am SO not the target audience for this book, but I have to say I enjoyed every page, every sentence, every word—even words that I had never encountered before, like “Blahniks.” A Case of Sour Grapes made me laugh while it kept me flipping pages—or more accurately, swiping my iPad’s screen—right to the end.

A Case of Sour Grapes is a “companion novel” to Gae-Lynn Woods’ Cass Elliot Crime Series, which so far comprises The Devil of Light and Avengers of Blood.

Like the other two books, A Case of Sour Grapes is set in the fictional Forney County in East Texas—a setting fairly boiling over with tension, secret cults, hidden domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence and just about every dark vice there is.

Cass Elliot is a tough, smart detective on the Forney County police department whose intelligence, courage and very supportive family get her through dangerous situations—but cannot protect her against a sexist, close-minded and defensive boss, the County Sheriff, nor against getting raped and scarred at some point before the books’ opening. Author Gae-Lynn Woods is just as tough and honest as her character, daring to go into some of the darkest corners of the human soul.

And then there’s the protagonist and narrator of the book at hand, Maxine Leverman.

Maxine is brave. Or at least impulsive. And she’s smart enough to notice clues, find connections in databases and solve a mystery. But while she’s Cass Elliot’s best friend, she is definitely no Cass Elliot.

(Yes, the author does know about, and refers to, the sixties and seventies singer of the same name.)

Maxine is a thoroughly 21st century woman, who knows her shoe and dress designers, grape varieties and when it’s time for scotch. She makes no pretenses about sex or the men she’s attracted to, and is ready to proposition them when she wants to. She’s also learning the Texas criminal code, the regulations governing private investigators, and how to aim a handgun. Safely.

The story of A Case of Sour Grapes begins on Maxine’s first day working at the Lost and Found Detective Agency, owned by her aunts Kay and Babby. While Maxine is studying for her investigator’s license, she’s supposed to be doing administrative work at the office. Of course, when everyone else is out at lunch, Maxine answers a phone call from a new client, Blue Ivey, owner of the Cedar Bend Winery. Mrs. Ivey has lost her husband. She knows he’s not dead, because he keeps spending money on her credit cards, but she has not seen him in weeks.

The case gets progressively more strange, dark and funny at the same time. Maxine’s talents as a sleuth become apparent as she finds the missing husband’s multiple identities—and wives.

It’s not all fun and games, though. There are multiple murders, a long-lost child, and let’s not forget Poison Ivy and the Dismembered Bunnies. Okay, that part made me laugh out loud.

Author Gae-Lynn Woods

Woods is a skilled literary juggler to keep all these flaming torches aloft at the same time. She pulls off a story that is thoroughly engaging and satisfying on all levels: plot, characters, setting, humour, tension and action.

Bravo, Ms. Woods! Let’s get another title on the electronic shelves, shall we?

A story that twists like the Rio Grande



Review of Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III

One of the most satisfying literary discoveries is a truly unique story. This is particularly rare in the mystery-thriller genre. Many thrillers seem to be emulating another derivative book, trying to ride a bandwagon to market success. Far too many read as if the author were trying to write an episode of his or her favourite TV show.

So when I opened Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III, I was prepared for disappointment. But what I found were realistic characters, solid writing and a satisfying, completely original story.

The plot twists and turns, but holds the road.

Place of Skulls is the fourth in Pirtle’s Ambrose Lincoln series, a spy-thriller set during the Second World War. A lot of authors give their main characters a huge character flaw—alcoholism, a history of abuse, a physical disability—and Lincoln has what seems to me to be the most debilitating for a spy: amnesia. Ambrose Lincoln has no memory of his past, and cannot remember why he knows the things he does and cannot account for certain skills he has, such as the ability to pick a lock with a hair pin.

But he does have ghosts—at least one. He’s followed by a dead man only he can see, and only at night, the ghost of a man he killed in a military engagement that he cannot remember.

A rich Dallas oilman named Eliot Bergner hires Lincoln to find whoever killed his brother, Danny. “Danny B.” is a DEA officer who was investigating the smuggling of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., carried by poor, desperate migrant workers. One night, his mutilated body arrives in Texas in an empty boxcar. But not before he sends a message to his brother, Eliot—an observant Jew—that he has found incontrovertible proof of Christ’s appearance in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest in 1492.

Drugs and religion: that would seem to be enough for one book, but then the author adds the idea that Nazi Germany is lacing the cocaine and heroine the migrants are smuggling with Thallium, a potent and undetectable poison. Their idea is to addict as many Americans as possible, and then kill them.

As if that’s not complex enough, shady U.S. government operatives are about to launch an invasion of Mexico to stop the influx of addictive poison, but because Mexico is a sovereign nation that, at the time the story is set, has not yet declared which side of the war it’s on (which would have to make it between December 7, 1941 and May 22, 1942, when Mexico declared war on Germany), they have to keep it secret, even from the President.

No, it’s not impossible to make this story plausible.

If any author had come to a publisher with an idea for a novel about a detective finding incontestable proof that Jesus Christ came to Mexico before 1492, and getting caught up in a US government plot to invade Mexico to throttle the drug trade, mixing in Nazi spies, he probably would have been advised to pick an easier mystery to pen. But Pirtle handles the challenge well, giving the readers just enough information as the plot builds to keep us readers turning pages.

There were a few places where I was afraid the novel would become excessively Christian, where a plot point could only be explained by a miracle or an answer to true faith, but thankfully, Pirtle avoided that. Everything made sense, and while there is a definite religious motif to this book, it makes sense.

The characters ring true.

Author Caleb Pirtle III

Pirtle gives us a wide range of believable characters, all with strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I loved some of them, and detested others, but I reacted to each one. All their actions and reactions logically proceeded from their situations and personalities, with no unbelievable transformations. Eliot Bergner’s agonized family relationships add some surprising depth to the story. I suspected the femme fatale at first, but Pirtle’s iron-tight plot made her completely believable.

The author  gives us a satisfying closing.

Pirtle also avoids a facile story arc. Lincoln struggles against drug cartels, traitors, cowards and ghosts, all of whom leave scars. At no point do we know for sure who’s going to survive the next battle, and it’s never certain who’s going to win.

Pirtle doesn’t cut corners. The book has been produced professionally, meeting or exceeding the standards of commercial fiction. In fact, this book was much better than the commercially published stuff I have read lately.

5*

Visit Caleb Pirtle III’s website for links to buy this and other books.

Independent book review: Smoke Road



Scorch Series Romance Thriller Book 3

By Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman

Luca Luciano is a jerk.

The books of the Scorch Road series are gripping, fast-paced page turners that will thrill, scare, arouse and thoroughly entertain you.

Smoke Road is the third volume in the new Scorch Road, six-book series being launched at a rate of a book a month by co-authors Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman. Both best-selling authors in their own right, teamed to write a six-volume series, releasing them at about three-week intervals.

The books I have read so far in the series follow a pattern. Each one has two main characters: one of the six Luciano brothers from South Philly, and a strong woman he meets. Together, they have to fight their way through the chaos unleashed by the Scorch Flu, a pandemic that kills 90 percent of those infected. Along the way, they gather clues about the source of the virus and a deep conspiracy that caused it.

Smoke Road’s male protagonist is Luca, the eldest Luciano brother. He’s the “alpha male,” a former Special Forces member built like a superhero.
The female lead is Dr. Haunani Kegawa, a medical researcher and advisor to the U.S. national security establishment who has found intelligence about the source of the Scorch Flu: a neo-Nazi skinhead group in Texas who has stolen a virus developed by the government and dispersed it across the country.

The plot of the whole series follows the well-established apocalypse scenario. As most of the country falls sick and dies, society and government fall apart. Gangs loot towns. Communities are reduced to scavengers, pirates, raiders or slaves. Think The Walking Dead, without zombies.

Dr. Kagawa is charged with finding the skinhead neo-Nazis responsible for the calamity, and given a unit of National Guardsmen to help her—the only military force close to the enemy that has not succumbed to the flu—which includes Luca Luciano.

As soon as he meets Dr. Kagawa, they’re irresistibly attracted to each other. This is where Luca becomes a jerk

Luca has deep-seated issues. He doesn’t trust any women. He uses them for his own pleasure—and to be fair, many use him for theirs. He’s a hunk’s hunk. But he believes all women are devious.

Dr. Kagawa is anything but. She’s clearly drawn on Toby Neal’s main character, Lei Texeira: she’s part Hawaiian, part Japanese; she has baggage stemming from a bad, nearly abusive past relationship; and she carries a piece of beach glass in her pocket at all times, which she holds and rubs to allay anxiety. This is a direct carry-over from Lei Texeira.

The story is basically a love story, with the pandemic apocalypse a setting. Luca and Nani are drawn together by circumstance and biology, and their personalities are just similar enough that they clash repeatedly. They drive each other crazy in many ways.

Like reality, it’s the man who’s wrong.

Toby Neal

Toby Neal

Emily-author-photo

Emily Kimelman

It’s frightening to me just how well women can read men’s minds.

This book is compelling and exciting, full of action, suspense and hot sex scenes. It’s a true mark of a writer’s skill to be able to write hot sex scenes without coming off as either pornographic or silly.

Well done, Toby and Emily. You’ve done what every writer strives to do: make a nightmare fantasy completely believable.

5*

A gripping thriller and a stunning writing feat



Independent review of Sugar for Sugar by Seb Kirby

SebKirbyLargerWith the first few pages of his latest novel, Seb Kirby seemed to have challenged his abilities as a writer by choosing two elements that many writers find difficult to pull off: the unreliable first-person narrator, and present-tense action.

It seems challenging at first, but within the first three chapters, you can see how clever Kirby is.

Sugar for Sugar begins with a prologue about a hit-and-run accident. But the story really begins with “I’m lost in a dark, dark place and, try as hard as I can, nothing helps me to understand.

“When I seek answers, I see only broken shards of my past, flashes lighting this darkest of places for an instant, shining bright then fading as soon as they appear.”

Gradually, we learn that Isobel Cunningham has no memory. A friend, Marianne French, has brought her to a hospital, concerned about Issy’s disorientation and confusion.

Issy doesn’t even remember being brutally raped. This fact is discovered by Dr. Jane Wilson, the physician who first examines Issy.

Amnesia: a clever device

The opening is simultaneously frustrating and compelling. Issy asks the same questions over and over because her short-term memory is less than a minute long. On the other hand, she can remember older facts about herself, like her name, age, address and employer. But she cannot remember the previous several days, nor her childhood. The repetition this characterization requires would seem frustrating, but at the same time, we readers are compelled to turn the page to find out more, especially what would induce this state of mind.

This device is a perfect way for the author to describe the first-person narrator, as she goes through the photos and messages on her smart phone to try to learn about herself. “Wavy blonde hair … grey green eyes.” It’s a book for the social media age, as Issy not only begins to reclaim her past through her online identity, but also uses the phone to keep notes as a workaround her faulty memory. They’re messages to herself:

Why did Colin need my help?

Mary is a good friend.

Thankfully, Kirby does not rely solely on Issy, the unreliable narrator. Subsequent chapters have the POV of two police officers, DI Steven Ives and DS June Lesley; Marianne French, the woman who brought Issy to the hospital, and occasionally gangster Justin Hardman.

The mystery

sugarforsugarDetectives Ives and Lesley are investigating the suspicious, sudden death of Mike Aspinal, the Senior Executive at Ardensis, where Issy works. Early in the plot, it turns out that Aspinal has been murdered by poison injected into his back. Medical evidence also shows it was Ardensis who raped Issy, giving her a motive to kill him.

Like the skilled mystery writer that he is, Seb Kirby logically links all these elements. While there are some red herrings, there’s not a wasted word. The pace is fast, the action tense, the details spare, just enough to keep you flipping pages—or swiping my iPad.

The ending is satisfying, sensible and logical, tying everything together.

Recommended

The publisher describes the book as “a gripping psychological thriller,” and every single word of that is true. Do yourself a favour and buy it now.

I highly recommend this book. 5 stars *****

Get it on Amazon

Visit Seb Kirby’s website

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever: Independent book review



fndlfcoverCaleb Pirtle III has proven that he’s an original writer. His books do not follow the usual tropes and stereotypical genre tales, whether he’s writing mysteries, sports stories or anything else. He’s not a genre writer — he’s writing modern American literature disguised as genre books.

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, his latest release, is an excellent tale, told in the author’s trademark  staccato, declarative and lucid style that brings the reader not just into the scene, but behind the character’s eyes.

An original plot

Set in the mid-1980s, the story of Friday Nights starts where the typical high school sports story ends: at the state championship game.

The high school in the small town of Avalon, Alabama, has had an underdog football team for decades. But this year, the team has been blessed with the golden arm of Casey Clinton, and the almost magical abilities of wide receiver Lucas Calhoun. In game after game, play after play, Casey has managed to find Lucas, who has caught every pass.

The state championship game attracts scouts from college football programs who want to see whether Casey is for real. But the night of the big game, it rains. In the final minute, with Avalon needing just one more touchdown to win, as Casey winds up for the forward pass, his foot slips in the wet mud. He falls, his pass goes wide, Lucas cannot reach it and Avalon loses.

It’s all over. There will be no more Friday night glory for Avalon, for Casey, Lucas, coach “Balls” Baldwin, nor anyone else in Avalon.

But it’s not over. It’s only early December, and the school year stretches ahead. The story continues through December by juxtaposing the experiences of Casey and Lucas.

For Casey, December is a season of continual phone calls from scouts from high-profile college football scouts, including the legendary Frank Hatchett, longtime head of the football program at the University of Alabama.

Casey feels the pressure of not just competing coaches who tempt him with scholarships, cars and sex, but also from his family, who want him to bring glory to them as well as the town; town leaders with competing interests; his wide receiver but never friend, Lucas Calhoun; and of course his teasing, virginal girlfriend, the cheerleader Chelsea Sinclair.

Lucas, meanwhile, the other half of the magical team that brought so many touchdowns and so much glory to the Avalon high school, is completely ignored. No scouts call him. The coach doesn’t talk to him, the rest of the football team shuns him. Chelsea, the “Virginal Queen” of Avalon, actively scorns and bullies him because he’s “trash.”

The contrast becomes starkest when the Alabama football program invites Casey to come see the Cotton Bowl in Texas, where they’re playing for the holy grail of college football. Lucas, in the meantime, begs Casey, whom he despises, for a scholarship, too, if he accepts a scholarship from a competing college.

Characters

calebpirtle

Caleb Pirtle III, author of Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle’s lean style drives the reader through the story, where we meet many three-dimensional supporting characters like Brother Bailey Proctor, the sex-hating Baptist preacher; his frustrated, sexy wife, Karen; “Crazy Legs” Epperson, who was once a football star but whose scholarship hopes were destroyed by an injury; “Balls” Baldwin, the football coach, who allowed himself to hope for a state championship before he retired, but sank back into defeat; and Lucas’ alcoholic, father, Charlie. Readers quickly come to hate Charlie, for good reason.

A drunk who abandoned the family when Lucas was small, Charlie began to pay attention to Lucas during the final football season to try to get some reflected glory on himself. But after the team loses the championship game, Charlie is mostly out of the picture again until a murder in the second half of the book. The author’s skill allows him to achieve not redemption, but a little sympathy by the end.

Of course, as quarterback and captain of the football team, Casey’s girlfriend is the head cheerleader, Chelsea Sinclair. But Pirtle does not let stereotypes lie quiet. Chelsea is a clever little bitch with an agenda, simultaneously promising and withholding sex to keep her boyfriend on a short leash.

Bottom line

I read an advance copy in return for an honest review. As such, I found a number of minor typographical errors in the version that I read. But the story and the writing style rise far above those issues. This is an excellent read by a polished, professional author who knows his subject and his characters intimately.

Buy and read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

5*

Find it on Amazon.