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.

Cover reveal: Wildfire



The first book in a brand-new mystery series

Launching March 22, 2018

That’s right, a brand new mystery series, about a young legal investigator named Tara Rezeck, will launch in less than a month. And here’s your first look at it—a striking cover by the one and only David C. Cassidy.

The book is now with my outstanding editor, Gary Henry, and after that it will go to the eagle-eyed Joy Lorton for proofreading.

In the meantime, I will soon set up pre-orders on Amazon and other e-tailers, and I’ll let you know when it’s available.

What’s it about?

Wildfires swept across California wine country in 2017, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, and killing dozens of people. Law school grad and single mother Tara Rezeck finds herself in the middle of the catastrophe. When she returns to her job after evacuating she finds her employer’s, body in the ashes.

The question that challenges her brains and her legal training is: was it an accident? Or was his body burned to hide evidence of murder?

Subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss your chance to pre-order it!

 

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

Characters, crime & roses—A chat with Toby Neal



toby-neal-profile-aboutHow can you get a copy of a Rough Road, a Sydney Rye Universe novella? Read this interview and find out.

Toby Neal hit the best-seller lists five years ago with Blood Orchids, her first novel and the opening of the mystery fan favorite Lei Crime series. Now with over 20 titles on Amazon’s virtual shelves, Toby Neal is not just prolific—she’s a force of literature and a true professional. I asked Toby about her approach to writing and how she crafted all those terrific books.

Where did you first get the idea for a series about a cop named Lei Texeira? Did you envision it as a series from the beginning, or did each book emerge from your imagination individually?

I’ve shared before that Blood Orchids began as a short story on my anonymous blog, sparked by real life events: the tragic, apparently homicidal drowning of two young girls (14, 15) at the high school where I worked. My role as school counselor felt unfulfilling; I wanted to INVESTIGATE and bring the perp down!

Lei was born out of that frustration, and the story got longer and longer as I added chapters, and finally became a novel. The drownings were later ruled accidental, but I had realized by then that Lei actualized a part of me that wanted to be more active than mopping up the tears of victims, my role as a therapist.Blood Orchids

Having it become a series was evolutionary. I discovered I’m a series writer as I got more experienced. I seldom have only one tale in me with a set of characters!

The books have followed Lei Texeira from her early days as a Hilo uniformed officer, to detective, to FBI Special Agent and back to detective, on Maui. We’ve read about Lei being pregnant, about her raising another woman’s child, and in Bitter Feast, she’s pregnant again. This is the 12th book about Lei. How much farther are you going to explore her life? Or do you know?

There have been two major times I thought I was done with the Lei Crime Series: after book 5, Twisted Vine, and after book 9, Rip Tides. I also feel “done” now, as I finish Bitter Feast, and you will see a lot of dangling ends tied up in this upcoming book. But I find, when I’m away from Lei, Stevens and their ohana for long, I MISS them, like they are real friends of mine. So I won’t say its over—but I would need a whole new subplot to get going again.

The series IS at a pause point after Bitter Feast.

Wired In by Toby NealI plan to write the next two Wired books, with Sophie Ang, and see where they go! I hope that will be my next major series.

You’ve also published “spin off” books that are focused on secondary characters from the Lei Crime novels, such as Dr. Caprice Wilson, FBI Special Agent Sophie Ang and Special Agent Marcella Scott. Do you, or will you, ever bring characters or plot elements that began in those books back to a Lei Crime book?

Sure! I love having this interconnected World. I thought of that long before the Kindle World came along—I was doing my own Kindle World! The spinoff books never sell as much as the main series books, though. People love Lei and Stevens most!

Is the Lei Texeira character based on you or someone else you know?

Not specifically. Her appearance is, though. She’s a composite of a woman I worked with at a mental health agency, and another woman, mother of a client. Both were mixed race, athletic, with abundant, curly hair and unique features. I loved their multi-ethnic blended looks and it’s unique to Hawaii.

Lei has some elements of me in her: a certain relentless drive (she is about her cases as I am about my writing) athleticism, passion with her love, risk-taking—but I’m not neurotic and damaged as she is, thank the good Lord! I’m more like Dr. Wilson, personality-wise—but not an alcoholic.

Most of your readers know that you had a dog, Nalu who was much smaller than Keiki, but upon whom you modelled the Keiki character. Tell us more about her.

My grief over losing Nalu in November is still fresh. We had her for sixteen wonderful years. I wrote a blog post about her.

Here’s a quote from it: “loyal, loving, intelligent, modest, tirelessly protective and fierce in her duty, Nalu never knew she only weighed thirteen pounds and was a Chihuahua terrier—and we never told her.”

Where do your characters come from? Do you base them on specific people you know? Or are they created fresh in your mind?

My characters are often sparked by real life people I know or meet here on Maui. But seldom any one person. I do notice EVERYTHING about someone I’m thinking would make a good character. For instance, Michael Stevens is (physically) my husband, as he was in his early thirties (he’s sixty now.) Pono is based on a wonderful, kind, funny Hawaiian man I worked with at an agency. Captain CJ Omura is modeled on several Japanese women I’ve worked with over the years too. Minor characters are sparked by people I know less well. I usually change details so people aren’t too recognizable—but once my husband (not a reader) heard the audiobooks, he pinned me with those amazing blue eyes and said, “That guy sounds awfully familiar.”

“Pure fiction,” I replied. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

When did you first get involved with Kindle Worlds?

Amazon approached me about having a Lei Crime Kindle World two years ago. A huge honor! I knew about the program from being familiar with Hugh Howey’s Kindle World and the popular Silo series.

The Lei Crime Kindle World, based on your series, launched last year and now has more than 33 titles. But you started by inviting about 12 authors to contribute to the first batch of stories. How did you select them?

TornRootsBadge
Snake-new-medium
 Warrior Dog by Emily Kimelman
I asked writers I knew, whose work was at a professional level that I respected. I knew anything they wrote would be good! Only eight were able to participate in the launch, but all the books have been high quality—in part, I think, because I give more input, feedback, editing and other support than many other KW main authors.

The different books span quite a range. Some incorporate elements of the paranormal and occult. How do you feel about that genre-crossing aspect and what it lends to the Lei stories?

Elysium Tombstones by R.S. GuthrieI LOVE all the variations and twists and turns that people have come up with. The stories are so wonderful, and so many things I’d never think of or have time to do. I couldn’t be happier with the quality and intrigue of the expanded World. Some things I was surprised by, like R.S. Guthrie has Lei fall for another guy—but I loved that too. The World is a place where anything goes and the imagination can take beloved characters and run wild with it. I can’t wait for a Lei Crime vampire romance!

Are there any characters, situations, settings or ideas from other authors’ Lei Crime stories that you would like to incorporate into a future Lei Crime novel?

That is already happening with Bitter Feast—but you’ll just have to read it to find out which ones!

Are there any stories or themes you would like a Kindle World contributor to write?

I’ve wanted to see a romance for Jared Stevens, Michael’s hot firefighter brother. Hopefully someone will do something with that, or I will have to! But they’ve been terrific, really, and the top ratings and reviews back up the good quality of the Lei Crime Kindle World. Truly proud of that.

You’ve also written for other authors’ Kindle Worlds, such as Russell Blake’s Jet. Most recently, you wrote for the new Sydney Rye Universe. One of the stated purposes of the Kindle World concept is to give more exposure to an author who is not as well-known, by presenting their work to an established author’s readership. You, obviously, do not need that with a consistent presence on the bestseller lists. Why did you decide to write for other Kindle Worlds?
In a nutshell, relationships. I am friends with Russell Blake, and he’s been an incredible inspiration to me with his relentless work ethic and span of talent. He asked me to write, so I did, and I was glad I did. My experience writing a spy novella, Nightbird, set in Paris and Israel, was just magical. I had so much fun with the genre, the locations, the characters… And then Emily, who is also a personal friend, asked me to write for her World, and of course I said yes, and Rough Road again surprised me with how fun and delightful a writing experience it was.I owed both of these writers in a personal way and wanted to support them in launching their Kindle Worlds.

Tell me about your decision to incorporate Lei into the world of Emily Kimelman’s Sydney Rye and Blue.

That was so much fun! As soon as I decided it would be a Blood Orchids prequel, and set early in Emily’s series, I saw these two reckless young women learning some life lessons together. I didn’t plot Rough Road, I “pantsed” it, and lo and behold! The prequel REALLY set the stage for who Lei is in Blood Orchids. I don’t feel done with exploring this theme, so I am thinking of doing a second one for Emily’s world with Lei and Sydney, tentatively called Cinder Road and set on the Big Island early in Lei’s police career.

Do you plan to write in other Kindle Worlds? What would attract you to a particular world?

I would enjoy doing a romance for one of the romance Worlds, or maybe something for another crime World. But I would want to be asked personally by someone I knew, and be supported in promoting the KindleWorld novella at the same level I support my authors…and I’m not sure either of those things will happen! I do more for my authors than most of the other main World authors.

Tell the readers two things about you that they don’t already know.

I have fifteen fussy rose bushes and enjoy taking writing breaks to go out and trim, weed, spray, and fiddle around with them in their pots. I also collect art, mostly Impressionistic Hawaii landscapes, but some modern and multi-media too. I love supporting fellow creatives and being surrounded by beauty!

Thank you very much, Toby!

Toby Neal’s official bio states:

Toby Neal grew up on the island of Kaua`i in Hawaii. After a few “stretches of exile” to pursue education, the islands have been home for the last fifteen years. Toby is a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her books. Outside of work and writing, Toby volunteers in a nonprofit for children and enjoys life in Hawaii through beach walking, body boarding, scuba diving, photography and hiking.

She has published 20 books so far, with 11 in the Lei Crime series, 2 more Lei Crime Companion novels that feature characters from the main series, the Somewhere series of contemporary romances, a Young Adult fantasy-adventure called Island Fire, entries in the Jet and Sydney Rye Kindle Worlds, and a non-fiction book, Building an Author Platform that can Launch Anything. She has also been featured in anthologies of mystery and independent authors.

And as this author can attest, Toby is a very supportive main author to contributors to her Kindle World, providing detailed character and plot summaries and lots of advice.

The 12th Lei Crime mystery, Bitter Feast, is due to be published on Amazon in May.

Win a free copy of Rough Road, Toby Neal’s Sydney Rye Kindle World novella.

Just make a comment below, explaining why you like mysteries. Toby will choose one commenter to win a free copy.

Limited time offer: Army of Worn Soles is Free



You may notice something new on the top of the right-hand column. That’s right—for a limited time, you can get a free Kindle-format copy of Army of Worn Soles just for subscribing to my newsletter, Forewords.

Army of Worn Soles is Book 1 in the Walking Out of War series, and the predecessor to Under the Nazi Heel. It tells the true story of how my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, a Canadian citizen, found himself conscripted into the Soviet Red Army in 1941 — just in time to be thrown against the Nazi juggernaut in the greatest land invasion in history: Operation Barbarossa.

It’s currently on sale until the end of March for just 99 cents (US) on Amazon. But you can get it free right now by subscribing to Forewords, my email newsletter.

With Forewords, I’ll tell you about my latest writing project, sneak peeks at coming books and stories, cover reveal and more. And you’ll get to read it before anyone else.

And because I appreciate how you get enough email as it is, I promise not to publish more than four editions per year.

There are a lot of steps, but that’s to protect you from spam.

I’m using MailChimp’s double verification process that makes you prove you’re not a robot, reducing the amount of spam circulating on the ‘net. God knows we get enough of that already.

  1. 1. Click the link at the top right now, or this one.
  2. 2. Enter your email address and name, and click Subscribe.
  3. 3. Go to your email and find the verification email from Scott Bury, The Written Word. In it, click “Yes, subscribe me to this list.” I know, that’s not grammatical.
  4. 4. That will open a browser window. Click or tap (if you’re using a tablet or smart phone) in the little Captcha box to prove you’re human. The click/tap Subscribe. That’s it — you’ll get the next edition of Forewords. You can unsubscribe at any time.
  5. 5. If you look in your Inbox again, you’ll see another email from me. That has a link for your free download.

So how can you lose? No email clutter, advance information, sneak peeks AND a book that’s earned 17 five-star reviews — all for free! Do it now, before I change my mind and close this free offer.

And if you do like the book, rate it on Amazon or write a review.

Thanks, and Happy Easter!

Free samples for Hallowe’en 1: Severed heads



Image from Wikimedia Commons

Trick or treat! My favourite holiday, Hallowe’en is coming up fast. In honour of the event, I’ll be posting the spookiest passages from The Bones of the Earth.

The Bones of the Earth is a historical fantasy set in the Eastern Roman Empire during the darkest of the Dark Ages. It begins when Avar raiders kidnap two girls from the village of the main character, Javor.

In Chapter 3, Javor and his best friend, Hrech, go to rescue the girls, and find them that night, just after the rising of the full moon.

It was hard to make out at first what he saw in the moonlight, but when his foot struck something that rolled, understanding hit him like a cold wave. It was a severed head; the Avar helmet rolled off it and continued a short distance before it fell over in the grass.e72b9-bonescoverfinalforweb

Javor was surrounded by the dismembered bodies of the whole troop. Ten heavily armoured men had been literally torn apart—maybe more. They may have had friends. Everywhere he looked there were legs, arms, torso, heads.

Want to read more? You can read the first chapter for free, or find the book on your choice of e-tailers.

Ocean of Fear: A geeky thriller that I could not put down



Author Helen Hanson describes her writing as “thrillers for geeks”
 
There’s a certain geek factor in all thrillers. Many thriller authors write loving descriptions of cars, guns, bullets, bombs, or bullets. I have read several descriptions by different authors about how a bullet bounces around inside a skull and precisely what it does to a human brain.
 
But I actually enjoyed the geek factor in Ocean of Fear. Hanson made the geeky-technical aspects integral not only to the plot, but also to one of the main characters. 
 

What makes a good thriller?

To make a thrill, an author needs to build tension. The readers have to care enough about the characters and believe the situation enough to say “Oh no, don’t do that! You shouldn’t have done that!”
 
When the tension snaps, the author has to surprise you. It’s not a thrill when you know what’s going to happen
 
There are a lot of those moments in Ocean of Fear.
 

Plot points

Like any good thriller, Ocean of Fear begins with a murder. Baxter Cruise (character names are not this author’s strong suit), a grad-school dropout turned email spammer, discovers UC Santa Cruz professor, Dr. Allesandra Bisch, dead in her office. Baxter’s employer, Professor Sydney Mantis, had given Baxter a flash drive and asked him to give it personally to Dr. Bisch, as well as to look after his, Mantis’s dog while he suddenly had to leave town for a few days.
 
The mystery is not who killed Dr. Bisch — the author introduces the assassin in Chapter 2. The mystery is why, and the tension rises as the main investigator, FBI Special Agent Claudia Seagal, puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and as Baxter gets pulled deeper and deeper into the trap laid for Dr. Mantis. 
 
Hanson knows how to ramp up a story by taking it in unexpected directions. It turns out that the professors, Bisch and Mantis, were developing robotic submarines for drug dealers to use to smuggle their product into the US. Special Agent Seagal. This is the geek factor: Hanson tells us enough about robotics and remote control to make the story work, so that we understand that this story just could not happen without this technical detail. However, she never gives too much, never bores us with technical factoids that we don’t need. Every word is a plot point.
 

Engaging and critical backstories

Despite their unfortunate names, the characters have interesting backstories. Hanson is also skilled at not drowning the reader in long information dumps, but revealing details about Claudia’s deceased husband, Baxter’s dead parents, Mantis’s habit of seducing students, even the bad guys’ back stories as they’re needed. Readers begin to feel for the characters, to hope that their plans work out. The sibling rivalry between the two main baddies really rang true.

Two weaknesses

There are only two weaknesses with this story. First, there are the character names. The author shows us in Chapter 1 that “Dr. Bisch” is an intentional joke, but then there are all the animal names: Dr. Mantis, Agent Seagall. I don’t know if this was an intentional gag, but while there are some humorous moments in the book, it’s not overall a comedy. It’s a thriller that takes engaging, believable characters on an exhilarating ride to an explosive and satisfying conclusion.
 
The other weakness was the cover. It’s professionally done, but maybe a little too clichéd. It gave away too much of the story, instead of making me want to open the book.
 
But those are minor flaws. In the end, Ocean of Fear is a good, satisfying read from a skilled author.
 
4 *.
 
Visit Helen Hanson’s website and blog and learn about her books.